Watch in horror as an elevated train pulls into the Armitage Avenue station across the street from the Starbucks where I'm editing a package for this week's paper. Oh, the humanity. Oh, the blight. Oh, the destruction of the urban environment. See the pedestrians fleeing in terror? See the small businesses boarding up their windows? See the nearby apartment buildings collapsing into rubble?
Of course you don't. Because elevated trains don't cause blight or destroy urban environments.
Not only aren't Chicago's elevated trains a source of urban blight—despite what you may have heard—they possess a dignified, lumbering, workaday urban beauty. Elevated trains knit Chicago's far-flung neighborhoods together, funnel pedestrians and commuters to and through vibrant business districts, and beautify Chicago's urban environment. They also serve as inspiration for Chicago poets.
A blast from the past: Eric Fredericksen on the "ugly beauty" of Chicago's elevated trains...
ELEVATED TRACKS in a city make a negative primary aesthetic statement: Cities are not works of art, they say. Cities get dirty; they have jobs to do; they function. Urban beauty is and should be an incidental virtue, rather than a guiding principle for a city's makers. Thus, the beauty of elevated tracks should be one of function primarily, and beauty secondarily....
Chicago's elevated rails (collectively known as "the L") are noisy, dirty, and ugly. Downtown, entire streets lie in shadows due to the overbuilt steel structure. As a child, I mistook it for a hellish vision of urban rot, seeing the regular, thick posts marching up Wabash (the eastern border of the "Loop," Chicago's version of the downtown circulator), holding up a track system that spanned the street from curb to curb: a tangle of rails, beams, and steel grating, with various electric lines and guy wires zooming off in every direction.
But just like Chicago itself, the L works. Chicago has ably weathered the demographic and economic storms that emptied or ruined its rust-belt confreres, not simply because of its beautiful lakeside park system, nor its first-tier cultural institutions, nor even the wonders of its downtown shopping strip, Michigan Avenue (a.k.a. the Magnificent Mile). Cities don't rise or fall for sentimental reasons. Chicago survives because it works.
Seen in that light, the noisy clatter of the elevated trains is evidence of vitality, not blight. Its five major lines cover America's third-largest city and its closest suburbs in an efficient web. It's no wonder that Chicagoans love the three lines of their L—they don't even find it ugly, seeing the nearby buried pair of subway lines creepy by comparison.
Like I said here...
Seattle voters approved elevated transit at the ballot box four times, despite being told by opponents that elevated transit was an eyesore and a blight—excuse me, despite being lied to about elevated transit being an eyesore and a blight. Seeing as there's a chance we might have to go with elevated light rail through downtown Seattle in the end, albeit a small chance, our electeds shouldn't be running around calling elevated light rail a blight or tagging it as anti-urban from an environmental perspective (whatever that's supposed to mean). Because elevated through downtown—light rail, not monorail—could wind up being Plan B.