Window watching on the Brown Line


James Porter, pictured above at the O’Hare Line’s Western stop, is one of Chicago‚Äôs foremost authorities on getting around the town without an automobile. As a music journalist, singer, harmonica player, and one half of the DJ duo East of Edens Soul Express, he travels from his home in the Mid-South neighborhood of Chatham to every nook and cranny of the city to get to record stores, concerts and gigs, usually by walking, bus and train. Here’s a guest post from James about one of the many perks of riding the CTA.

One of my favorite things to do, whether walking, riding the bus or driving, is traveling down the street and watching the neighborhoods change. ‘L’ riding offers a more sophisticated version of this. Unlike the bus, which on most routes sticks to one street, the trains slip and slide through a circuitous route and once the train emerges from the underground tunnel, you can view some interesting takes on the city skyline.

The Brown Line train sticks to the great outdoors, with no underground segments. I take this train regularly, and can verify that it is one of the better routes for looking outside the window.

I usually get on board in the Chicago Loop, where businesses are savvy enough to advertise on the upper floors, to catch the eye of train riders. Passing through this area, you will see signs shilling for (corner of Adams & Wabash), as well as voyeuristic views of high-tech gyms, office buildings, and college classrooms. After the signs for a Popeye’s Chicken and a parking lot (both with an arrow pointing downward), the train turns a corner to Harold Washington College, passes a few Loop law offices, followed by the North/Clybourn intersection with the √≥bligatory banners for Steppenwolf Theater, and various balcones and fire escapes in Lincoln Park before the train stops at Fullerton. This is where you can see the sprawling campus of Depaul University. Their new art museum is a work of art in and of itself – the metal sign, while new, looks decidedly vintage, as if it were unchanged since 1959.

Over on Wrightwood facing Lincoln, you will see a rapidly fading sign for the old Club 950 nightclub, even though it has been closed since December 2000 (it is now Barn & Company, a BBQ joint). After a great aerial view of the Belmont strip (plus a partial view of Wrigleyville), the train turns once again. It is right around this time that the view gets delighfully esoteric. Around Newport/Ravenswood, an old brick building has a rusted “HELP WANTED” sign outside that probably hasn’t served it’s purpose in decades. On a rooftop the Cornelia Arts Building advertises it’s presence with a giant black and white snapshot of an unidentified young lady, smiling. And then there is that garage door with a street sign for “DOLLY PARTON BLVD.” I’ve always wondered about the identity of the owner.

While graffiti art isn’t as prevalent in Chicago as in, say, New York, it is definitely alive and well on the local rooftops. It is possibly the one consistent feature of the city as the neighborhoods change. No matter what the structure, the rider is greeted by the sight of big bulbous lettering spelling out an unreadable name. As the train enters Lincoln Square, some of the most ornate backyards greet the rider’s eye, with some homeowners and apartment dwellers putting as much care into the back area as the front. Western is the big Lincoln Square cultural hub. Even though it has given us such institutions as Laurie’s Planet of Sound, the Quake nostalgia shop, the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Dank Haus German cultural center, and the Lincoln Square Lanes bowling alley, it’s the sign for the Davis movie theater that happens to be the first thing you see. At a time when old-school movie houses are disappearing to make room for cineplexes, it’s good to see the Davis still doing its thing. Popcorn in the lobby and posters for coming attractions outside – can’t go wrong.

From here on in, the ride gets decidedly residential. At this point, the train loses altitude and travels on ground level, directly facing the backyards of several apartments. While helping a friend move some years ago, another friend and myself sat on his back porch, discreetly noting the diversity of the riders getting off at that particular stop. We were even so delirious as to make up stories about them – “That one just received bad news about his grades at Columbia, that lady was filing divorce papers, this girl over here was pissed about having to cover for a late coworker at the coffee shop,” etc.

Chicago is so full of visuals that on a good day, you can get your kicks just from peering out the window at the streets and rooftops. And if you liked that tour, I can assure you that the Green Line is also ripe for the picking…

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10 thoughts on “Window watching on the Brown Line”

  1. My favorite window on the Brown Line is the orthodontist office right before it leaves the loop to cross over the Wells Street bridge. Every morning I used to see the patients sit facing the tracks with the mouths wide open as a team of doctors work on their teeth. That and the LA Fitness on the Wabash section where you could watch all the people in their group classes work out. Not much privacy!

  2. All I have to say is yes, Green Line please! I took it very often when I lived in Hyde Park and would love a guided tour of what I was seeing when I looked out of the window.

    1. My favorite green-line sight is out along Lake, just east of the Kostner stop, looking west — the big orange treefrog mural! I lived out there eight years and I still have no idea what it’s advertising, but it’s awesome.

  3. I love passing by the Davis Theater sign. I live in the neighborhood, and it gives me that comforting feeling of being home again.

  4. One of my favorite memories from window watching (one of my favorite train riding pasttimes) is a sign I used to see from the red or purple line north of Belmont. An apartment on the east side of the tracks had a handwritten sign in the window: “If you can read this, I live too close to the El.”

  5. I really like this piece. Well done!

    (I do feel compelled to say, though, that it drives my geographical OCD insane that the photo was taken on the Blue Line.)

  6. Great story. My house backs up to the Francisco stop and I often find myself on our deck watching all of the trains go by and the different people getting on and off.

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