Like most Chicagoans, Serena Armstrong loves taking a stroll along Lake Michigan.
But to get there from her home in Bronzeville, she has to walk one of the neglected and dilapidated pedestrian bridges that stretch over Lake Shore Drive.
“I like to walk down by the lake, but I’m not comfortable using the bridge that’s there now. It’s full of broken glass,” she says.
It's problems like these that made Armstrong get involved with a city project to make Bronzeville, and neighborhoods like it, easier to help make the communities easier to access.
Last week, Armstrong attended the final Reconnecting Neighborhoods meeting for the Mid-South region. It was the culmination of a yearlong project to revitalize transit, pedestrian access, and commercial development in three Chicago neighborhoods where new mixed income communities have replaced old public housing complexes.
The old public housing complexes were built like sprawling compounds, disconnected from the city's street-grid and isolated from public transportation and commerce, says Joanna Trotter, of the Metropolitan Planning Council, the organization that led Reconnecting Neighborhoods. The Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation may have changed the structure of the complexes themselves, but the isolation often remains.
“We’re putting millions of dollars into the Plan for Transformation,” Trotter says. “We need these other amenities to make sure it works – to make sure people can get to their jobs, to the lakeshore, and so that people can come in and enjoy our communities.”
Last week, the group voted on their priorities for redeveloping the community. For public transportation, the residents decided that putting in north to south neighborhood streetcar and studying the possibility of a new Metra station at 39th Street were the most important goals for the community. They also said new streetscaping and commercial development along Cottage Grove Avenue and creating a community gateway at Lake Shore Drive at Pershing Road were significant priorities.
The group met several times over the last year to get community input on what should happen in the neighborhood. Metropolitan Planning Council then consulted with experts and urban planners to get more recommendations. After those results were compiled, MPC took them back to the community to discuss and vote on what they thought should be the priority.
Some of the recommendations the community made last year have been realized. One of those ideas was adding evening service to the 43rd Street bus. Since the evening hours have been added, ridership on the route has increased overall, says Joe Iecobucci, who works for the Chicago Transit Authority.
Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corp., says the improved ridership is proof that more people would use transit if it were more easy to use.
“The population is here. It’s just that it’s so inconvenient,” says Johnson-Gabriel. “It shouldn’t take 45 minutes to get from 47th street to downtown. If you can improve the mode of service, you will increase your ridership count.”
Iecobucci says CTA is studying options and figuring out how to best use its limited resources.
Construction has also begun on bridges over Lake Shore Drive that would connect pedestrians and bikers with the beaches in the community. The group also talked about improving bus service so that the beaches would be accessible by public transit.
“It would be nice if we had a coffee shop or something, just a place where we could meet and talk. That would make it a lot nicer," she says.
MPC has been operating the program in three different areas of the city where new mixed-income communities have replaced old public housing complexes – Mid-South, where Oakwood Shores has replaced the Madden/Wells complex; Near West, where Westhaven Park has replaced Henry Horner Homes; and in the North, where North Town Village and Old Town Square have replaced the former Cabrini-Green Homes.
The Near West Reconnecting Neighborhoods group met on Nov. 11 to finalize their recommendations. At the top of the list is adding a new El station at Damen on the Green line.
The Near North group will meet from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Near North Public Library, 310 W. Division, St., to go over the neighborhood needs and vote on the community’s priorities.
The full report, with recommendations for all three neighborhoods, will be presented to the Chicago Planning Commission in December.