Billy Ray & Marisa
Today I walked alongside the western half of the disused Kenwood railroad. Much of this section is overshadowed by the active CTA green line, which briefly runs parallel to the embankment on a separate elevated structure to the south. The overgrown Kenwood embankment therefore acts as a visual/noise barrier for plots to the north.
I met Billy Ray and two of his friends lighting a barbecue in the shade of one of the disused bridges at the westernmost end of the line, preparing to celebrate his friend’s 45th birthday. Billy Ray has lived in this area his whole life, and has seen it transform from a bustling, albeit troubled neighbourhood to a post-project ghost town.
Local residents barbecuing under a bridge on the disused Kenwood line.
Though I have read horror stories regarding violence in the public housing projects that used to exist here – at the hands of both gang members and of corrupt police (see this exposé, for example) – the account put forward by Billy Ray and his friends was entirely positive, and seemed to bear no relation to what I have read in archived newspaper articles from the last few decades. I suspect this may be a classic case of the media reporting true but solely negative events in the area, inadvertently (or not?) skewing the reputation of the projects despite the positive experience of the majority of residents. Billy Ray pointed to a nearby strip of planted sunflowers, visible in the background of the photo above.
"Right there in the sunflower seeds used to be a whole project, 16 floors, 160 properties – a real high-rise. We took care of each other in the building. We carried groceries for old ladies, brought them up the stairs."
Then the conversation shifted to the Chicago Housing Authority’s demolition and relocation efforts as part of the ‘Plan for Transformation.’
“They fucked the projects up. They took something from us that we ain’t ever getting back – our foundations. That was our foundations we knew, we had our family here."
His friend chipped in:
“They came in and ripped out whole generations of our folks."
When I asked them why they think this happened, knowing that my understanding, garnered from the media, was that it had been necessary due to uncontrollable levels of crime, I was told that there were ulterior motives at play. Billy Ray and his friend believe the urban renewal projects that displaced their communities were financially rather than socially driven – attempts to gain valuable lakeside real estate, more than to improve living conditions for some of Chicago’s poorest families.
“It’s just for money – all Chicago is about, is money.”
I could see this was a sore point and was keen to move the conversation on. In true (awful) British style I asked the worst possible question, as if I was asking about the weather – ‘so how do you like the neighbourhood now?’ A synchronised snort shared by Billy Ray and his now 45-year-old companion was followed by:
“The neighbourhood changes every day, man. Same way you change your clothes, the neighbourhood changes.”
Moving eastwards towards the Lake, the neighbourhood appears to become tidier.
Later this afternoon I met Marisa, who moved from New Jersey to a property alongside the Kenwood line just 6 weeks ago. She was enthusiastic about the idea of a park atop the embankment, and explained that she had very quickly grown to love the texture that the infrastructure adds to the urban landscape surrounding her home.
“I never really noticed it before. I couldn’t work out why I love it so much. There’s something about the texture, particularly of the bridge. All it needs is a little varnishing to bring it to life… not fully cleaning up though."
Here she touched on an issue that I have discussed in my previous written work. A loss of provenance occurs in the wholesale refurbishment of obsolete infrastructures – covering scuffed metalwork with fresh paint disregards the physical traces of history that have accumulated on the surface of the structure. This is one of my criticisms of the High Line project, which has lost some of its industrial appeal through shiny new materials and a strictly managed planting scheme. Unfortunately the High Line could not escape the stainless-steel-and-glass brush that so boringly homogenises much of lower Manhattan. Perhaps the Kenwood line will not fall to the same fate. Marisa suggested illuminating the bridges at night from underneath to showcase the textures that intensify as the structure ages.
Marisa could see I was craning my neck to try to get a better view of the embankment, which is difficult to appreciate from ground level, so offered to take me up to her flat to get some photos from above. I gladly accepted.
Photo of the Kenwood line taken from Marisa's back porch.
Lesson learnt today: the western end of the Kenwood embankment bisects a place where the relationship of the city to local residents is still raw from the upheaval of families in the 1990s and 2000s when the housing projects were emptied. A certain level of distrust exists, and this will affect the efficiency with which any plan for the development of the 2.4km Kenwood line could be put into place. The involvement of community-based organisations would be essential to mediate communication between residents and officials during such a process.