Window watching on the Green Line

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James Porter, pictured above at the O’Hare Line’s Western stop, is one of Chicago’s 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. He recently contributed a post about sights visible from the Brown Line. As promised, here’s the sequel, James’ field guide to the Green Line.

When I think of the Green Line, I think of my old cassette Walkman. One morning in the early Nineties, I remember standing at the 47th Street stop waiting for the next train. At one point I ejected the tape, and as God is my witness, that cassette flew straight to the rooftop of 316 E. 47th street, which is located right under the ‘L’ stop. I didn’t make any attempt to get it back, either – I purchased the tape in a bargain bin for $1, so I just went back and got another copy for the same price. But I was more fascinated than anything by this impromptu physics lesson. I had no idea that the eject button of a portable tape player had that much velocity. So if anyone ever found a Flamin’ Groovies tape on the roof of what is now the New York Deli, now you know why.

This incident came to mind during my recent window tour of Chicago via the Green Line train, which wasn’t even called that back then. [It was called the Lake-Englewood/Jackson Park Line, represented by a gnome-like mascot named L.E. Jack on CTA promotional materials when the line was reconfigured in 1993.] The Green Line runs from the South Side all the way to Oak Park, giving the rider a view of run-down tenements and towering skyscrapers all in one dramatic sweep.

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The start of Porter’s trip. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

I started my trip at the East 63rd/Cottage Grove station in Woodlawn. Not far from the University of Chicago, fifty years ago this area was once a teeming hub of the city with many businesses and nightclubs. Unfortunately, that era has long-since passed – although many people still live and work around the area, many buildings are either vacant or have been torn down. There are several buildings standing alongside empty lots on 63rd Street, the southern leg of the line. After the train turns north, it runs adjacent to Calumet, where several unassuming apartment buildings stand, including one near 58th that has two empty rowboats sitting beside it. As the train draws closer to 55th, several newer, nice-looking red brick apartments dominate the landscape.

The 47th street stop overlooks the first main drag since 63rd, providing a view of King Drive to the east, including the imposing Harold Washington Cultural Center, named for the late Chicago mayor. At the 47th Street station, again looking east, there’s an interesting curiosity, a huge red brick building with carved wooden sign denoting it as “The Forum.” Plenty of union groups met here for rallies during the Great Depression, but it was also a popular theater where a young Nat “King” Cole won a talent contest.

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The Harold Washington Cultural Center. Photo by Eric Rogers. 

The Indiana station is the site of an iconic vista, seen on the cover of the 1966 compilation album, Chicago/The Blues/Today! After 46 years, this landscape still looks more or less the same, only with satellite dishes on the tenement building. At the 35th-Bronzeville-IIT station, Chicago Fire Department station #16, the sprawling campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology and De La Salle High School (Richard M. Daley’s alma mater) come into view. At Cermak and Michigan, slated for a new station, the White Castle burger stand shows up and you can just make out Chinatown to the west.

The buildings start getting conspicuously classier from this point on, with great views of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist center and Andy’s Hair Studio, which has a great vintage-looking sign. The last time I rode the elegance was temporarily interrupted by the sight of Chinese food dumped on a window ledge, but picks back up around Roosevelt, with the Shedd Aquarium visible to the east side. After the train makes it to the Loop proper, you will see the same sights on Wabash/Lake that I described during my Brown Line jaunt, with views of the upper floors of Roosevelt University, a youth hostel, the Chicago symphony Orchestra, and other businesses. The Lake Street stop does offer glimpses of the classic Chicago Theater marquee and the corn-cob-shaped Marina City towers, but they are obscured by the elaborate subway design.

The skyscrapers fall back once the train crosses the Lake Street Bridge, offering a view of the Chicago Sun-Times offices. After the train crosses the Kennedy Expressway, you can see several rooftop apartments mixed with industrial buildings. As the line crosses Ogden Avenue, a brand new McDonald’s is visible to the north, while the Lyon & Healy Harp Factory stands on the south side. Union Park, home of the annual Pitchfork music festival, and the Garfield Park Conservatory whiz by. Closer to Kostner, you can see the Garfield Park Social Club blues venue, the Repairers of the Breach Church, and a mysterious tree frog mural.

Around this point the signs are more vintage and exotic-looking, particularly as you look south. One wooden orange sign advertises the Peachy Clean Car Wash and the now-defunct New Drift Liquors. Closer to Central Avenue, a few classic signs make their presence known: one for the Shine King shoeshine parlor, the Rib Palace Bar-B-Q (“Fit For A King”), and a grey sign advertising “1-Day Odorless Cleaning.” The train also goes right by the intriguingly-named I Am That He Is Lecture Hall, where you can “learn the secret of prosperity.”

The clock tower at the Oak Park station visually announces that we have arrived in that particular suburb, with the Marion Street Cheese Market and Oak Park Jewelers lining the south side of the tracks and an enormous strip mall to the north, housing TGI Fridays and Old Navy. When it comes to showcasing diversity, the Green Line train is right up there with the Western Avenue bus.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

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