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Wednesday 28 May 2014

Taking the El to Work


58th on the South Side 'L'. A moment of everyday life out in front of an 'L' station. 58th, a former station on the South Side Main Line (just three blocks south of Garfield on today's Green Line), had a rare island platform (the line was mostly built with side platforms, as it is today). Note the distinct station house -- with its round bay and a half-cone roof
: photographer unknown, 1946 (CTA Collection / CTA Web)

I make it out the door to the El station.

It's a hot summer day in 1955.
Heat waves jump off the El tracks.
From the train you can see down into the backyards
Where angels live in dejection.
Ragged wash hangs there: grey t-shirts without arms.
Next come vistas of wrecked cars and the bolt factory.
Downtown I change trains for the North Side
Or the South Side. One night late
I'm walking down 35th Street toward the El
When out of the double doors of a bar
Explodes a woman screaming as if escaped
From hell, her torso a red streaming suture.
I decide I am unsuited for this line of work
But the next night I'm back on the train to the ballpark.

63rd and Cottage Grove. Pedestrian traffic and CTA buses under the 'L' at 63rd and Cottage Grove. Streetcar tracks can be seen in the street; overhead are remnants of trolley wire hung for streetcars that ran beneath the structure: photographer unknown, 1955 (CTA Web)

State Street Subway Entrance. The northwest stairs to what appears to be the Madison-Monroe mezzanine of the Monroe station on the State Street Subway. Before a change in routing that led to today's Red and Green Lines, the "North-South" service went from the North Side Mainline (Red North) to the South Side 'L' (Green South) via the subway, thus trains to Howard, Englewood (the branch that terminates at Ashland/63rd) and Jackson Park (the branch that now terminates at Cottage Grove): photographer unknown, 1970 (CTA Web)

Passengers at Chicago Avenue station. On a late winter Thursday, 'L' riders exit a Loop-bound Ravenswood "B" train at Chicago. The rear cars are among the first four cars in a series of single-unit rail cars built for CTA by the St. Louis Car Company in 1959. These cars were painted in a distinctive maroon and silver gray color scheme: photographer unknown, March 1962 (CTA Web)

Tech-35th during 1959 World Series (White Sox vs Dodgers). Trains handled massive numbers of people at the Tech-35th station on the South Side 'L' for a World Series game at Comiskey Park. Today, the station in this location is called 35th-Bronzeville-IIT and is served by Green Line trains: photographer unknown, October 1959 (CTA Web)

South Side 'L' at 33rd. On June 6, 1892, the first 'L' line, South Side 'L' began service from Congress St. just south of what is now the Loop (which didn't fully open for another five years) and 39th St. (now Pershing Rd.). This 121-year-old elevated railway is still in service as part of today's Green Line from near the S-curve at Harrison to just before the Indiana stop on Chicago's South Side. Like those that would follow, the South Side 'L', was in direct competition for passengers with surface transit in the decades before consolidation into CTA. Although the 'L', with its separated right-of-way, was inherently faster than surface transit, streetcar stops were often closer to people's homes, so 'L' lines had to build stops that were spaced closely enough to attract more walk-up traffic. This  photo is taken from the former station at 33rd, looking south toward 35th. In 1949, a service revision was implemented which streamlined and simplified operations, and reduced travel times at all hours by eliminating some intermediate stops, including 33rd. It also established Howard-Englewood and Howard-Jackson Park through-service via the State Street Subway. As a convenience to riders coming from north of 35th, a walkway was built so people could still enter at 33rd, then proceed at track level to the inbound platform at 35th, for service into downtown. In this photo the walkway, seen at left, has only lately opened. Later, around 1960, CTA would rebuild the station at 35th and add an entrance at 34th to more directly serve people coming to the 'L' from the north (and eliminating the blocks-long track-level walkway): photographer unknown, 1949 (CTA Web)

Lake Street 'L'. A two-car train of all-steel 4000-series cars, near St. Louis Avenue, on the Lake Street 'L'. This train has trolley poles because, west of Laramie, the Lake St. 'L' would descend down to street level and ride along Lake, Corcoran and South Blvd through Austin and Oak Park, and trains would draw power from trolley wires rather than from third rail. If you look closely, you can see a number of 'L' cars also sitting, stored on a third (center) track that once ran through this area: photographer unknown, c. 1940 (CTA Web)

Douglas Trains Passing. Two Douglas trains pass each other at Paulina Junction -- the train in the background consists of wooden 'L' cars and the train in the foreground is one of CTA's 6000-series rapid transit cars; seen just after this track connection between the former Logan Square branch of the Metropolitan West Side 'L' lines and the Lake St. 'L’ was added. The view here is looking east down Lake, and the Chicago Board of Trade is the tall building toward the center-right on the horizon. The station just in the background is the original station at Ashland, opened in 1893, recently re-opened at the time this photograph was taken. It had been closed for years due to there being a station just a block away, which was added to allow transfers between the Metropolitan 'L' to Logan Square and the Lake St ‘L’: photographer unknown, c. 1954 (CTA Web)

Loomis/63rd. The Englewood Branch, in its early years, had been built out to Loomis/63rd and ended there for much of its life (before being extended to Ashland/63rd in 1969, now part of the Green Line). As  can be seen in this south-facing view from just north of 63rd Street, the tracks ended unceremoniously over the street. The location was a busy interchange for Englewood residents (as the Ashland/63rd terminal is today). An 'L' train is visible in the terminal and a "Blue Goose" streetcar is in the foreground. The paint scheme on this particular car is atypical for these cars, as it's one of several that received experimental livery modifications for better visibility on the road: photographer unknown, c. 1944 (CTA Web)

Stock Yards Loop. A two-car train of wooden 'L' cars makes its way around the single track loop of the Stock Yards Branch. This branch connected to the rest of the 'L' at Indiana on the South Side Elevated (now part of the Green Line) and largely ran as a shuttle throughout its life. Elevated track structure snaked its way west into The Yards at around 41st and split into a single-track loop to serve the area where the major packing houses existed, with a handful of stations to connect people with jobs there. Trains operated counterclockwise around the Stock Yards loop: photographer unknown, c. 1946 (CTA Web)

Wilson. The Arthur Gerber-designed Uptown Station building is seen here, looking westward on Wilson and north on Broadway: photographer unknown, 1959 (CTA Web)


Merchandise Mart. This is Merchandise Mart -- although not the one you'd recognize today. These platforms from the original station opened in 1930 to serve the then-new Merchandise Mart. When the Merchandise Mart station was built, it had a transfer bridge that not only bridged the platforms for transfers, but also continued east to make a connection to an adjacent North Water Terminal (a "stub terminal" just east off the tracks), which some trains to/from the North Side used instead of continuing onto the then-at-capacity Loop 'L'. In the station is a 4-car Evanston Express train of CTA 4000-series cars to Linden in Wilmette (today it's the Purple Line Express): photographer unknown, 1970, courtesy Bruce G. Moffat (CTA Web)

Lake Street 'L' at Central, pre-elevation. A Lake Street 'L' train at Central, in Chicago's Austin neighborhood on the West Side, before the part of the route west of Laramie was elevated. At Laramie, train conductors would raise the trolley poles (the station had both third rail and overhead wire to make the transition to running along the street) and trains would descend to grade level where they'd travel alongside Lake Street and the Chicago and North Western railroad embankment, out to a terminal station in Forest Park, just west of Harlem. In 1962, trains were diverted onto the North Western's right-of-way (now Union Pacific), where they operate to the Harlem/Lake terminal, as part of the CTA Green Line, today. The line serves Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park: photographer unknown, c.1960, courtesy Bruce G. Moffat (CTA Web) 

Ice. A stark contrast to Chicago's hot summer weather, this photo shows a worker on the elevated structure at a signal with ice all around after what was likely spray from firefighters putting out a building fire. The location isn't marked, but this photo might be somewhere along the North Side Main Line, where the Red & Brown Lines run together. The side of a train of "Baldies" (a nickname given to early 4000-series cars with plain, arched roofs) is visible just behind the signal: photo by Acme Newspictures, c. 1950 (CTA Web)


TC said...

As a raw youth I had work for several years that took me all round the city on the rail transit system. The poem revisits a period when I worked regularly at Chicago's two major league baseball parks, Comiskey Park on the South Side and Wrigley Field on the North Side, as well as at, among other places, the Chicago Stadium (boxing, hockey, political conventions), the old Amphitheatre in the reeking shadow of the stockyards (where wrestling shows took place), two major racetracks (Arlington Park and Washington Park), the old Arena at 11th and Wabash (roller derby), the Merchandise Mart (furniture conventions), two golf courses (PGA tournaments), several South Side neighborhood dance halls (Friday night mayhem), and a very strange almost-completely-deserted private museum in a onetime Hyde Park mansion (suits of armor, stuffed birds, duelling pistols, and the adults-only piece de resistance, a chastity belt on a weird plaster mummy-woman propped on a dais in an alcove at the base of a spooky spiral staircase... jeez, no wonder my growth was stunted). From my home on the West Side I rode the Lake Street line downtown, then changed trains. The photos here were picked because at one time or another, in the course of the abovementioned work, I rode those trains. The work was, as can be imagined, educational.

It seems curious to me now that I took for granted the fact of a citywide, inexpensive, relatively efficient transit system. It got you there.

Even in sleet and snow and storm... and one night, a flood that drowned the Lake Street line between Austin and Ridgeland, stopping the train, and necessitating a spell of wading in deep water, where formerly streets had been.

Swinging round some of those sharp corners, up there on those rickety old elevated structures, was an experience that always increased one's appreciation of the stability of solid pavement, later. And negotiating the Byzantine walkways over the tracks at the South Side stations -- one thinks now of Escher, and the enclosed bridges of Venice -- could be pretty challenging, particularly when you could see your train coming, down below. Scary merely to think of it now (can't do stairs).

Nora said...

There's something really wonderful about riding the train through a city at night -- so much mystery opening up along the edges. I never had any good reason to do so, but when I was in my teens and twenties, I did it as often as I could.

Boston's transit system has gotten a lot cleaner and better since I was younger, and I miss its rickety old elevated stations, especially the one by Boston Garden. When they were tearing the stadium down, you could look right down into it from the platform.

And I can't think of a good segue for this, but thinking of the old platform (now gone) and the demolished Boston Garden always makes me think of this monkey.

Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore said...


There’s a train that stops at all the stops
and there’s an express that doesn’t stop but
shoots to the end

There’s a woman in burlap who sells potatoes
her face a potato her feet in cardboard
but if you buy from her your roots distend and
your eyes grow parboiled

There’s nothing wrong with lightning that strikes an abyss
unless it’s filled with picnickers or runaway slaves banking on

The express train would take us all in safety
but not all of us are safe

For some the end of the line is at the beginning
and no matter how fast the train goes
the end is always near

For others each tree passed as it blurs past is
new and covered in furry light standing tall in its
singular sweetness from tip to root

The earth may not be flat as it falls off at the
sunset curve but its rondure turns imperceptibly to those who
walk its circuitous ways

God whispers into the captain’s ears as the
night train chugs around curves

lighting the world with an uncanny brightness
(from Cooked Oranges, 2004)

TC said...


That poem approaches the ineffable in the persistent irresistible way a slow night train approaches the ineffable.


Very spooky story. The Jane Goodall in me is moved... and a bit bothered, particularly when her researcher monkeys, who swing about among factoids at my request, unearth the queasy-making bit buried deep in this funny-animal-trivia story re. that "one worker [who] wanted to take the bones home but his bosses ordered that they be disposed of." (May 24)

The helpful little guys turn up this detail, from sixteen days earlier:

Boston Garden worker kept monkey remains

"The girl who doesn't want her name mentioned told us that she met the worker who found the Boston Garden Monkey.

"She interviewed him on video and it turns out that he hid the monkey up in the rafters and then took it home when no one was looking."

Jeez. Creepy. If one believes in reincarnation, especially. There was that poor guy in the 1940s who got stuck all night on the MTA.

In an odd way, I had wondered whether, or perhaps indeed hoped that, the monkey's ghost would have been respected at least to the extent of permitting him to spend eternity riding the night trains down there with Charlie.

Night trains, yeesh. One remembers all too many of those, suddenly. Once in 1950s rode a New York Central train all night to Detroit while reading Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, the perfect night train book.

This bit of Nabokov on night trains isn't half bad either.

Hazen said...

Very nice post, Tom. Dejected angels down amid the backlit detritus of civilization. I’ve always been interested in urban transit systems, maybe because of the absence of them in my youth, though I do recall fondly riding on a trolley car with my grandfather. Nowadays, not so much. It’s the mass in mass transit . . . One ferociously hot summer in Budapest (a city, then, virtually without air-conditioning or fans) we used find relief down into the metro stations, where we'd wait for the trains to arrive, pushing a wave of cool air in front of them.

TC said...


At one time I was a constant rider of the underground train systems of London and Paris, but I had never experienced a true human crush until, one hot July, I was forced to rely for a while on the underground railway system of Madrid.

Odd now to recall these histories. As can be seen in the photos, in Chicago the rail system hardware was then still intertangled with the hardware of the previous city transit system, the trolley lines.

In the second shot you can see the old trolley rails in the street, a common sight in that era.

My paternal grandfather had driven one of an earlier generation of streetcars over those same tracks. He was a robust young Irishman who had done hard work in the Dakotas, but that job, he later said, was the toughest he'd ever had.

The electric wires are still visible and in fact were still in use at the time of the penultimate shot here, which shows a Lake Street train pretty much like the one I would have been on at about that time, in pretty much that same place. Five photos above that, the Lake Street line is seen as it elevates, a little further on its way through the West Side; and a few miles further to the east came the grey t-shirts and the bolt factory.

TC said...

Messages from the Underground

ACravan said...

"It seems curious to me now that I took for granted the fact of a citywide, inexpensive, relatively efficient transit system. It got you there." That's a great description of a feeling and a transit system. I share the (long ago) memories and second the emotions. New York's transit system used to be kind of romantic and charming and it thrilled me as a teenager. No longer and not for a long time. Then I visited LA, which was and remains utterly different. I love the poem and especially the images of the bolt factory and the angels living in dejection. Curtis

TC said...


It's interesting to consider the way competition from rival transit systems encouraged better service from the emerging and eventually dominant system. And to keep in mind that these developments were occurring prior to and apart from the increasing dependence on the private automobile as primary transport. But of course all this was going on in a city that had in place various urban transport systems dating back to the latter half of the 19th century. In California meanwhile the freeways created an illusionary alternative, but with time, these fast-lane death-traps, once regarded as one of the crowning miracles of American Progress, became themselves a major source of trouble. Lately I noticed a side-margin news item indicating that for citizens of the Bay Area, traffic and parking are life's #1 worry. Considering the dire shortage of medical care and decent housing, that says quite a lot about the social uses of the automobile. Up the freeway feeder a little way there's a traffic circle that, back in the day when such statistics were first being kept, handled about 30,000 cars a day. Now it's up over 100,000 and counting. Cars are still the #1 transportation option. Public transport is a massive problem in perpetuity, with operations always risky, and strikes and threats of strike a continual worry. Without a car and with significant health issues, the old folks here are continually challenged with having to find ways to travel long distances through urban wastelands to get to the places that would have been thought of as necessary rather than optional destinations. It's not a good arrangement -- but then all these arrangements are predicated on the assumption that the providers of "public" transport must extract satisfactory private profit, a pretty strange assumption when you look at it from any distance at all. And of course it's not easy to achieve that distance when you're looking through the windshield of your car.

Ed Baker said...

TC said...


Right. See above comment, where "stuck on the MTA" is highlighted. It's a link to that song. There are these newfangled code thingies you can put around a link, so that other people can use it. I'm always hoping they will, once I've taken the trouble.

That song sticks in my old craw, too. There's some lore suggesting the guy didn't have a wife to kiss goodbye, that he was actually just a bum riding the trains all night. Harumph, the things people do and say. Anyhow what gets me now is the fare mentioned in the song.

A dime.


Be the BQE said...

Back on the train to the ballpark! This poem and the gorgeous collect of photographs pushed a lot of buttons for me. When I first lived in New York, I'd take the 7 train from midtown to Shea Stadium (sadly replaced the corporate friendly CitiField). Now I live a quarter block from the same line and still choose it over going below ground on the E or F trains, although they are express. Lovely post!

Nora said...

A few years back, the subway switched from tokens to "Charlie Cards," meaning every commuter has that darn song in their head forever.

Nora said...

Also, having clicked on your link earlier today, I've spent the entire day wondering aloud how I'm going to visit my sister in Chelsea my cousin in Roxbury.

Ed Baker said...

thanks for clearing up those "newfangled coded thingies" links... lucky my mouse didn't eat the rat poison and i.e.... anyway
last time I was up in The City... like about 2002 a part of the Elevated I think some of the 3 rd Avenue line was all that was left... they made a little park out of it... and used the street level for movies makers.... as a st. anyway, check this ouut:

neat that where my Original Muse had lived.... around Houston sand Second Avenue and then around
Canal Street.... exactly where the # rd Avenue went..

now ? you gotta walk north from Vestry to get there.... or is that South?


a transcript of this guy's dialogue would be Pure Poetry !

I can just imagine/visualize it in the form that Ted Enslin used in his Ranger..... or in his Synthesis..

all for "those who dig it" and can get lost in it.

TC said...

I had chosen to link to the track from the record rather than the not-quite "live" version of the Kingston Trio song. Doubtless everyone's on the edge of their loveseat wondering why that was. Partly because it's lip-sync'd. Partly also due to temporary cognitive burnout caused by the immense delayed flashback blast from a Kingston Trio concert at Ravinia in Evanston the year that song came out. Nothing like being among 500 little Dave Guards and their dates for two hours in a lovely open air setting to execute a permanent caution implant.

Nora, I learn that the CTA is also gradually shifting over to electronic cards.

Yeesh, I possess no card of any kind that an electronic device of any kind would recognize. I've never even had the courage to brave BART.

Once I could no longer get around on my own, after that accident here, I became dependent on AC Transit. The horror.

In the most recent fascinating chapter in my history of spinal degeneration, after two years of failed "rehab" following the car hit, a "setback" in the first week of February left me unable to manage the bus stop, much less the bus. Good news in that I'm now spared the horror of AC Transit. Bad news in that I can't get anywhere.

David, I ought to confess that the example of your terrific blog, with its bemused micro-scrutiny of your own urban locale(s), probably contributed to this post, if only in encouraging admission to a residual interest in such shorings-up of what we remember on the shifting sands of where we are.
In the course of unearthing this slice of the past, I turned up colour footage someone had shot in the 1960s, recording the passage of trains on the Lake Street line. There's no sound. Everything is darkly wrapped in silence, as in old Russian movies made before the introduction of sound. The trains come by, the trains go by. It's wonderfully without temporal reference, except that from the cars in the street it's apparent that the date of the footage on the first part of the video is earlier than the given date of 1964 -- and this is confirmed by the fact that in that first section, the trains are still traveling on the ground, using overhead electric wires; in 1962, the Lake Street line was moved from ground level to the railway embankment above.

In the later part of the video, the post-1962 trains appear. It's obvious that whoever made this film was seriously dedicated to capturing both the before and the after. At the end of the video, we arrive downtown, shuddering around the Loop junction. (I say "we", meaning me and the other 168 people who, whether by accident or design, have taken this virtual excursion.)

Home movie: Lake Street El, early 1960s

Ed Baker said...

I just remembered... The City (published in 1974)
ends with a train poem... and various 'stuff' about NYC 1971-72 or so:

TC said...

What tore it for Charlie on the MTA was that five cent transfer. My kingdom for a nickel!

But of course, Bahstun. It had to become a campaign song, in the mayoralty race of 1948.

These Oirish chaps do a rousing return for your original dime.

TC said...

The present-day CTA, I discover, doesn't DO transfers. Hmm.

Not much use the elaborate over-the-tracks walkway plan, then, thought architect Luigi Piranesi, rubbing his chin over the blue pencil drawing, and nodding to himself ironically, deep in the past.

TC said...

Ed, just catching up here, the history of your relations with your Original Muse always ignites the sleeping dwarf in the chimney. You know the scene in the movie where the guy's just been shot, but...

Catching up, then. No, I don't know if that would be Ted's Ranger or Ted's Synthesis.

In fact, I don't know about you, big guy, but when I'm in Virtual Beantown, I just want to do Ted's Funniest Scenes.

(I see Nora's in there too. Hmm. Small world. No, different Nora!)

Otherwise, for me, when torn between a ranger, a synthesis and a forty-foot-high green wall with a guy talking funny inside, it's always going to come down to The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

(MTA reference in there near the end of the clip, as you'll undoubtedly have noticed.)

TC said...

So... daring to nudge things back back, like a yard engine pushing a slow train, toward where we began: some more recent shots of the Loop elevated action, including a great top view of one of the famous "interlocking" junctions:

Recursion (Infinite Loops)