“The mayor’s thrown us under the bus,” Howard McRae says with a declarative ire. It’s a Sunday, and McRae and the rest of the residents at the end of an Englewood cul-de-sac on 58th Street clamor to condemn a particularly disruptive neighbor.
That neighbor is Norfolk Southern Railways, the nation’s largest rail freight company east of the Mississippi, and at the start of the summer it seemed poised to complete a swift and uncompromising takeover of land in Englewood. Norfolk Southern wanted to expand the size of their 47th Street rail yard by close to eighty-five acres, and with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support, the City Council quickly approved the sale of 105 city-owned lots in the area to them.
In particular, city officials like Alderman Willie Cochran, the initiative’s main sponsor, touted the economic boon the expansion could provide. But it is less clear how this is meant to benefit Englewood itself. Many residents reeled at the underhanded private land acquisition that left them unaware of Norfolk Southern’s expansion until it was sure to take their homes.
This anger is palpably evident in McRae, middle-aged and comfortable in a black sweatshirt. He says he’s lived on this part of 58th Street for a long time, and that Norfolk Southern’s decision to encroach upon Englewood homes has been nothing but trouble for residents. He even suspects that Norfolk Southern has been the cause of the recent influx of rats on the streets near his house, because construction has contracted their territory.
But the sound of jackhammers doesn’t displease everyone. “Well, I’ve got a much better view now,” Milton Bryant says, pointing at the fifteen-foot steel wall that lines the back of his yard. Sporting a work shirt and bandana, he eagerly explains that before Norfolk Southern developed the property, he had to live with a landscape of eroded dirt for more than twenty years.
Although he still has reservations about the air quality and vibrations from the yard’s heavy machinery, he supports Norfolk Southern’s work in the neighborhood. He believes that the development will increase the value of his property by more than three percent. Official support helps, too. “[Alderman] Roderick Sawyer’s been through here a lot, and he’s really helped mitigate some of the impact,” he said. Bryant received some money from Norfolk Southern to prepare his house for the vibrations, and remains hopeful that the expansion will help to revitalize the blocks around his house.
Leading the fight against this Norfolk Southern expansion has been Sustainable Englewood Initiatives, a group that has served as a gathering place for residents concerned about the environmental impact associated with the new rail yard.
Its president, John Paul Jones, points to a July 17 article in the Chicago Tribune that helped change the tone of the conversation. Sustainable Englewood had commissioned a modeling of the potential effects that the expanded rail yard would have on the neighborhood’s air quality. Englewood already has one of the highest rates of asthma cases in the city; the article reported that it was possible the soot level resulting from diesel emissions would exceed a federal safety limit, in a swath of land nearly a mile wide. “[The article] made our concerns reasonable,” Jones says. Armed with substantial pro bono legal expertise, they argued that Englewood’s already fragile environmental health could not withstand the emissions from the expanded rail yard.
These public health concerns formed the backbone of what was possibly Sustainable Englewood’s finest victory. On August 15, Sustainable Englewood and other concerned parties gave a public testimony at the Chicago Plan Commission’s hearing on the railyard expansion. With some critical help from the Northwestern Environmental Advocacy Center, Sustainable Englewood argued Norfolk Southern had acted with a lack of transparency or meaningful commitment toward local residents.
The committee postponed a decision on Norfolk Southern and the approval of tax incremental financing for one month, in order to address neighborhood concerns. This was a notable achievement for the opposition, considering that the commission normally rubberstamps the zoning amendments that arrive on its table.
During that time, Sustainable Englewood sought more community input. Leading a series of meetings in libraries and churches around the neighborhood, they brought different groups and residents together to prepare a substantive case for the commission once again.
Soon afterward, Norfolk Southern surprised everyone at a September 19 commission meeting by announcing a series of wide-ranging concessions. They promised “immediate upgrading” of lift equipment and “cutting-edge pollution controls by 2018” for trucks in the yard, significantly curtailing diesel emissions. They also promised to contribute $3 million toward local sustainability projects, job training in Englewood, and the upkeep of nearby Sherwood Park.
The agreement also stipulates the creation of a new walking trail in Englewood, converting elevated rail track into green space as part of a $30 million, ten-year project by the city of Chicago. Residents at the community meetings had hoped for such a project, modeled after the Bloomingdale Trail on the North Side, for which the city awarded a $50 million construction contract in August.
“You’ve gone way beyond expectations,” Plan Commission Chairman Martin Cabrera, Jr. said of Norfolk Southern’s concessions to Englewood. Jones would gladly concur. Touting the announcement of these promises as “an amazing day,” he was evidently pleased. “The community stood up, the city listened, and the railroad came to the table to find a better way,” he said.
Yet thirty residents were still refusing to sell their properties as of October 2. Seeing as Norfolk Southern has already acquired ninety percent of the property it needs, and has the approval of the City Plan Commission—and even some of their opponents—the expansion now seems inevitable.
Still, the nature of its impact remains unclear. The gifts that came along with the expansion will eventually run dry, and residents will look to the rail yard’s potential to bring real economic benefit to Englewood. It seems that’s now up to the city and Norfolk Southern.