Blue on the Face; Extortion Under the Stars | Essay | Chicago Reader

Blue on the Face; Extortion Under the Stars 

Riders have been screaming for years about the CTA's Blue Line cuts. But it took a congressman to finally get some aldermen to speak up.

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For seven years southwest-siders have been trying to persuade CTA officials to restore weekend and late-night service on the Douglas branch of the Blue Line. But until recently only one of the four local aldermen was willing to speak up on their behalf. Now, embarrassed by Congressman Luis Gutierrez, they're all suddenly talking tough--at least for the moment.

The battle started in 1996, when the CTA released a study showing that the Douglas branch wasn't drawing enough riders to justify the cost of running trains along its rickety old tracks. A year later the CTA board, citing those findings, eliminated weekend and late-night service on the line as part of a larger package of budget cuts. It also warned that it might eventually eliminate the line altogether.

Angry residents pointed out that however low the ridership, people depend on the Douglas branch, which runs along Cermak from the suburb of Cicero to Paulina Street, then over to the Eisenhower Expressway, where it links up with the Forest Park Blue Line branch. It connects Pilsen, Little Village, and North Lawndale to, among other places, the Illinois Medical District, Whitney Young High School, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Loop, and O'Hare. The residents said the cuts made it difficult for third-shift workers to get to their jobs, for students to get to the downtown library, and for families to get to museums and parks. How could North Lawndale be revived without a direct link to the Loop? And why cut the line at a time when the city and the feds were pumping millions of federal dollars into the Little Village empowerment zone? "Close it off and you shut us off," says Gladys Woodson, a North Lawndale resident. "They might as well just build a wall around here."

The residents suspected the CTA was playing an old game--making whatever cuts it had to make in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods, whose residents didn't have the clout to fight back. The line's ridership was still higher than the ridership on the Purple Line, which runs to Evanston and Wilmette. "The CTA didn't cut their service," says Alejandra Ibanez, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance. "Why do people of color take the cuts?"

In the aftermath of the cuts, activists, social service groups, block clubs, and chambers of commerce formed the Blue Line Transit Taskforce. They held meetings, organized rallies, gathered petitions, pestered officials, and produced studies of their own. They also persuaded Gutierrez to take their side.

"I talked to [CTA president Frank] Kruesi about how important the Blue Line was to these communities," says Gutierrez. Kruesi responded in a letter dated February 6, 1998. "The Douglas Branch situation is further complicated by the pressing need for major reconstruction of the line, which was built at the turn of the century," he wrote. "That means we need you to bring home $336 million in Federal funds for this project. I do not minimize the difficulty of the challenge, but at the same time I am confident you can do for your constituents what your colleague Congressman [William] Lipinski was able to achieve in funding and constructing the Orange Line."

"I think Kruesi made that offer because he didn't think I was going to get the money," says Gutierrez. "I think he was really saying, 'Come on, Gutierrez, try to be the man--be like Lipinski and show us what you can do. Otherwise we're shutting down the Blue Line.'"

But after several months of lobbying, Gutierrez managed to round up almost $400 million in federal funds, and reconstruction began in the winter of 2000. Work crews replaced the tracks, rebuilt six stations, and sped up the trains.

Most of the construction was finished early last spring. "We thought, 'OK, we have this great new line--now they'll restore full service,'" says Woodson.

Nope. The CTA said it couldn't commit to restoring service until it finished a ridership survey to see if locals really wanted to use the line.

The CTA estimates it would cost about $2.3 million a year to bring back weekend and late-night runs. "Let me get this straight--they spend $400 million rebuilding a rail line, but they don't want to spend, what, a couple of million dollars a year to use it on weekends and at night?" says Ibanez. "They have hundreds of people begging to use their service, and they say, 'We'll get back to you after our study.' They should be in the business of promoting it. They should be working with us to get people on the trains, not looking for excuses to shut off service."

The task force held more meetings, rallies, and marches--they even marched to Kruesi's house. It finally dawned on them that their coalition was missing a crucial piece--two of their four aldermen.

The Blue Line runs through four wards. Ricardo Munoz, alderman of the 22nd Ward, was a strong supporter, and 24th Ward alderman Michael Chandler had given quiet support. But newly elected 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas was cautious, and 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis didn't seem to want to be pinned down.

Solis says he's always been committed to restoring the cuts, but many locals say that until recently he kept his distance, rarely returning their phone calls or attending their meetings. It's not hard to understand his reluctance to jump into the fray. He's a Mayor Daley loyalist and not about to endorse a controversial issue without getting the OK from the mayoral aides who tell aldermen what Daley wants them to do. Daley hasn't taken a public stand on whether the Blue Line service should be restored. As other aldermen point out, he generally lets Kruesi, his handpicked appointee, speak for him on these matters. If Kruesi is against restoring the service, then Daley must be against restoring the service, since Kruesi wouldn't push a policy the mayor didn't want him to push.

"We thought it was important to get Danny on board because he's so close to the mayor," says Ibanez. They invited Solis to a major meeting they held in March, but he didn't attend. So in April they marched to his house, where they were greeted by his chief of staff. "It was a rainy night--we were getting drenched," says Ibanez. "The aide said, 'Danny can't come out. He's putting his son to bed.'"

Solis says it was all a misunderstanding--he would have attended the meeting, but an aide forgot to put it on his schedule. "I reamed out my staff for not letting me know," he says. The next morning he invited Ibanez and a few other task force members to his office, where he gave them a lecture on how City Hall works. "He told us, 'This is not about racial discrimination--that doesn't exist anymore,'" says Ibanez. "He said he would talk to Kruesi and get some questions answered."

By mid-June the task force members hadn't heard back, so some of them walked, unannounced, into Solis's City Hall office. "We said, 'Hey, you were going to get us a meeting with Kruesi--why don't you call him?'" says Ibanez. "Danny said, 'I don't have his number.' We said, 'We do. Here it is.'"

Around the same time, the task force persuaded Munoz to write a resolution calling for City Council hearings on whether the Blue Line cuts were discriminatory. Munoz let Kruesi know he was planning to introduce the resolution, and suddenly Kruesi said he wanted to cut a deal. "The CTA doesn't want anyone to even talk about discrimination," says Munoz. "If you prove it, that can jeopardize federal financing of projects."

Working through Munoz, Kruesi agreed to meet with the task force and attend a City Council hearing on the matter. On July 2 he went to Pilsen. "We were at the Lozano Library," says Ibanez. "Kruesi was there. And Danny. Then in walked Gutierrez."

According to Ibanez, Gutierrez openly confronted Kruesi. "He kept calling him Frank," she says. "He said, 'Frank, you told me you'd reopen the service.' 'Frank, you promised me.' 'Frank, you said, "Be like the big boys." Well, I hung with the big boys. I was like Lipinski. You said, "Get me the money, Luis, and I'll take care of the rest." Well, I got you the money, Frank.' It got really quiet. You should have seen Danny. He was sitting there so quiet. Kruesi was kind of smiling, trying to look calm even though Gutierrez was taking some serious shots. Then Gutierrez said, 'How can I go back to Congress and say I got all this money and you're not even providing full service for my district?'"

Gutierrez confirms Ibanez's account, though he remembers saying "Mr. Kruesi," not Frank. "I was waiting to say these things ever since I got his letter six years ago," he says. "That was a 'good luck, get lost' letter. That was an 'I don't think you're gonna do it' letter. I told them, 'I can tell you what your problem is here, Mr. Kruesi. Your problem is you were planning to shut down the Blue Line and have it dismantled because you never believed I would get [the money] to open it up.' Kruesi was calm. He said, 'What the congressman has told you is true. Now, however, after this meeting, I have to seriously reconsider how I can get it open 24-7.'"

"Gutierrez liberated us," says an alderman who's followed the fight closely. "After that, if you didn't speak out you looked like the wimp most of these guys really are."

Solis insists that he, not Gutierrez, should get most of the credit for forcing Kruesi to change his stance. "I called that meeting [at Lozano], OK?" he says. "It wasn't Luis--it was me. After the demonstrators came to my house I said, 'Look, we have to do something about this. Let's get everyone together.'"

On July 19 Kruesi showed up for a City Council hearing on the Blue Line cuts, where Cardenas wisecracked that rehabbing the line without restoring full service was "like buying a Porsche and keeping it in the garage."

Yet despite all the aldermanic tough talk, Kruesi still won't promise to completely restore the cut service. He says the CTA is facing yet another budget crisis, and unless the state changes the formula that funds public transportation to bring in more money for the CTA, the agency will have to make massive across-the-board service cuts. "We're creating two budgets," says Noelle Gaffney, a CTA spokeswoman. "We have a good-news budget that continues to build on the programs we've seen in recent years and a bad-news budget, in case the funding is not changed."

If the General Assembly changes the funding formula, will the CTA restore weekend and late-night service on the Blue Line?

"No decision has been made about that," says Gaffney. "We're still conducting our survey. We expect some preliminary findings, hopefully this month."

Task force members scoff at that. "They're still playing games," says Woodson. "It's always 'Do this and do that and we might restore the Blue Line.' They're still writing us off."

Extortion Under the Stars

Millennium Park, for which city residents coughed up $270 million, is supposed to belong to the public, so you might assume it's open--and free--to anyone who wants to visit. And it is--unless you want to take wedding pictures. Then you have to buy a $50 permit.

No one I talked to, including aldermen and activists who usually know a lot about such things, had ever heard of a wedding-picture permit. But apparently there's one on the books.

On Saturday, September 4, Jeff Grabowski, a resident of Rogers Park, was a groomsman in a wedding at a church on Wilson Avenue. "The reception was at the Cultural Center," he says. "When we got to the Cultural Center, we said, 'Let's get some shots in Millennium Park.' It was sort of spontaneous."

The bride, the groom, and about 12 members of the wedding party--all in formal clothes--along with the photographer and his assistant crossed the street to the park. "We were taking pictures by the Bean when a guard came up and said, 'Do you have a permit?'" says Jim Wright, another groomsman. "We said, 'Yeah, right, whatever.' We didn't know what he was talking about. He asked for the bride and groom's names, and then he left. Two minutes later he came back with another guard and said, 'You have to leave.'"

So the wedding party walked toward the Frank Gehry band shell and started taking pictures on the lawn. "Two other guards came up and very emphatically told us, 'You have to get out of here!'" says Wright. "They said, 'Get a permit right now, or we're calling the cops!' We didn't know anything about permits. We just left. It put a damper on things. It's really pretty crummy--they kicked the bride out of the park on her wedding day."

On the way back to the Cultural Center one of the groomsmen started snapping shots of the park. "This guard--I don't remember which one--says, 'You can't take pictures,'" says Grabowski. "We're wondering--is there some new policy you can't take pictures in Millennium Park?"

Not exactly, says Ed Uhlir, the project manager for the park. A permit is required only for wedding photographers, allowing them to shoot pictures for an hour in the park. He says a similar permit is required at Buckingham Fountain.

"It's an inconvenience to the public to have a wedding photographer shooing people out of the picture--they really don't want other people in the picture," says Helen Doria, a Park District administrator. She says there has to be "some compensation for the people being inconvenienced."

Doria says the permit fees go to the city, which uses them to help defray the cost of maintaining the park--including paying the private security guards who work there. "Obviously we have to really do a lot of customer training with our guards," she says. "We really didn't mean to upset anyone's wedding."

The permit requirement raises lots of questions. Does it give wedding photographers the right to shoo away people from the Bean, the fountain, and other popular sites? Are the security guards going to help shoo away people who insist they have a right to be in a public space? And what constitutes a wedding party? If Grabowski's friends had been wearing jeans instead of tuxes and gowns would security guards have kicked them out?

Doria and Uhlir admit they don't have clear answers yet. "This is all very new," says Doria. "We're still working things out." They say they might just junk the permit.

Grabowski thinks the permit's just another way to soak the public. "I've paid for all sorts of violations for frivolous 'offenses,' such as allegedly parking further than 12 inches from the curb or having a crack the size of a pebble in my windshield," he says. "But this one's really ridiculous. We weren't clearing anyone away to get out of the picture. We didn't even want to clear people away. There's always going to be someone walking in the back of a picture taken in a public space--that's part of what makes a picture in public unique."

Grabowski says the city should just admit it made a mistake and ditch the permit. "We were spending a lot of money in the city for that wedding--the Cultural Center's not cheap--but we can't take pictures in the park?" he says. "That's asinine. Think about it. Someone had to tell those guards, 'Be on the lookout for wedding parties taking pictures.' I hope no one's getting robbed while those guards are kicking wedding parties out of the park."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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