<< Back to Feature Page
By Shane DuBow
It seems so improbable, that a heavy urban rail line could feel so cozy and unharried, so curious and human, as if built more for neighborly voyeurism than transit. And yet, for a fare of just $1.50, a ride on one of the last of Chicago's elevated train lines grants these trackside views: a young woman in a pink bathrobe steaming espresso; a young man in trim khakis feeding a baby; a great many suits waiting on the platforms, digging into
newspapers, checking on their Cubs; and then a long, slow blur of flower-box gardens and second-story decks, all passing so close that rider and resident might intimately converse—or even touch—were it not for the roar and rush of the "L." This is Chicago's most celebrated mode of transit, a 110-year-old relic whose enduring downtown run has helped revitalize the neighborhood of Lincoln Park.
You get used to the noise, John and Polly Kelly are telling me one afternoon, as the first tie-loosing commuters trickle into their trackside Webster Avenue pub. And indeed, a quick scan of the room, all aging sports photos and dark wood trim, reveals no one showing much aversion to the recurring din. One of the neighborhood's three train stops, at Armitage, lies two blocks south; another, at Fullerton, two blocks north. In a three-square-mile zip code, that's a lot of stops. What you do here in between them, they say, whenever a train passes, is sip your beer, feel the vibrations, and think of what to say next.
"It's a good place for first dates," John says.
The story of how a few miles of old train line helped a tired neighborhood refill with cafés and cleaners, gyms and condos, landscaped yards and million-dollar homes goes like this: Out of the ash of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, at the edge of where city living stopped and North Side truck farming began, a village sprang up. Built largely of two-story Victorian buildings, it soon featured an elevated train line. Boom times followed. German and Irish families settled in. Gangster life flourished. The Depression dawned. Kelly's Pub, then called the L Tavern, opened after Prohibition, not far from where the FBI would gun down John Dillinger. Car culture came on. The suburbs thrived. The city crumbled. Rail travel declined.
It wasn't until that same car culture choked the highways that more and more young people began to settle in rail-rich Lincoln Park. Between 1987 and 1998, for example, annual Brown Line ridership jumped 37 percent to 11.2 million. The young singles, like the recent DePaul University grads who live above Kelly's and display an impressive collection of shot glasses in their den, come for the action, a tremendous concentration of bustling restaurants and post-frat bars. "It's like being in college except with money," is a refrain you hear a lot. The couples, like Greg and Julie Johnson who live in a renovated row house four blocks north, come to raise kids in a zip code that has come to be known as one of the city's safest and most lovingly restored.
But isn't owning an L-side home, especially with kids, a different sort of commitment from renting an L-side bachelor flat? Greg, an investment banker, shakes his head. We are seated in his tiny backyard, in the shade of the tracks, surrounded by children's toys, a baby monitor, and a Border collie, Cassie, whose behavior may say less about trackside living than the weirdness of dogs. For the southbound trains, Cassie sulks under the deck. For the north bounders, she spins twice, barks, then bounces, feet first, off the side of the house.
"It's really not bad here," Johnson says. In the house the sound might equal the sound of a loud vacuum cleaner. Johnson taught his kids to cover their ears when playing outside. "When I bought this place, I got maybe a 30 percent discount," he adds. "Someday we might move to the suburbs, but you can't say enough about what it's like to have this transportation. It only takes me 25 minutes door-to-door to get to work."
To cope with the noise, some trackside dwellers double and even triple brick their walls. Air-conditioning muffles sound. One couple ordered closed-captioned TV. There have been apartments in which wall-to-wall carpeting was a literal concept. And then there are those whose relationship with the L has grown a tad more involved. One man stood a scantily clad female mannequin in his window, just for kicks. Another, the story goes, woke one morning unable to find his keys until someone waiting on the Armitage platform glanced in to point them out. Still another remembers the time a passing train slipped off the tracks, stranding dozens between Armitage and Fullerton. "We were talking to 'em out the upstairs window," trackside resident Tom Tiernan recalls, "making phone calls for 'em, calling their work to say they'd be late. When they got down, I think a lot of them went over to Kelly's and got free drinks."
"Yeah, I remember that," John Kelly says later back at the pub.
Polly Kelly nods. "That's how it used to be around here all the time," she says, "a real family place. In the old days people used to send their kids down to get a bucket of beer, and they'd bring their own bucket."
A train roars past. Polly Kelly quiets. Outside, through the open doorway, it's easy to see the streets backing up, long lines of gleaming vehicles, the exact sort of congestion that, were it not for the L, might grow to choke the neighborhood entirely. Instead, the L remains, and the neighborhood thrives on foot and rail traffic, and the only notable gripes seem to come from those who dream of rubber wheels.
"John is always making that joke," Polly says. "When are we going to get those rubber wheels?"
"I understand they're very quiet," John says.
Another train passes.
Polly Kelly rolls her eyes.