Friday, March 13, 2015

Vanishing Chicago: The Madison/Wabash Station

Will Eisner’s graphic novel The Building begins with the author musing about how cityscapes change over time.

“As I grew older and accumulated memories,” he wrote, “I came to feel more keenly about the disappearances of people and landmarks. Especially troubling to me was the callous removal of buildings. I felt that, somehow, they had a kind of soul.

“I know now that these structures, barnacled with laughter and stained with tears, are more than lifeless edifices. It cannot be that having been part of life, they did not somehow absorb the radiation of human interaction.

“And I wonder what is left behind when a building is torn down.”

I was reminded of Eisner’s words last week when I read a tweet last week from RedEye’s transportation reporter, Tracy Swartz, which mentioned that the Chicago Transit Authority’s Madison/Wabash elevated train station would close for good on March 16, 2015.

This wasn’t exactly a surprise to me. I’d heard some time ago that the station, which first opened on November 8, 1896, would be permanently shuttered along with its neighbor to the north, Randolph/Wabash, and CTA would build a new, modern station (to be called Washington/Wabash) between the two.

CTA has done this before. You only need to look across the Loop to the Washington/Wells station, which replaced both the Madison/Wells and Randolph/Wells station 20 years ago.

First, Madison/Wells was closed and demolished. Then, the new station was built. Finally, the night before Washington/Wells was to open, Randolph/Wells was locked up. (The station house was torn down, but the platforms remain, apparently for track maintenance purposes—the southbound platform has a long, stainless steel shed, while the other has timbers and toolboxes and such.)

Washington/Wells is a functional improvement over its predecessors. Brighter lights. Better shelter from the elements. Elevators that allow physically challenged customers to ride. Bike racks.

It does not, however, have any discernable personality of its own. It’s a big concrete-and-steel shoebox through which people trundle on their ways to somewhere or something or someone, and that’s all.

The plans to do the same thing on the eastern leg of the Loop go back more than three decades, according to the excellent and thorough Chicago L website. More recently, CTA had finalized plans and acquired federal funding. It was only a matter of time.

I just didn’t know the time would be now.

For the better part of the last decade, I’ve worked in The Loop and have usually taken the Brown Line to and from. The Madison/Wabash station was the one closest to my job, so it’s the one I walked to, usually after a long, frustrating day when I wanted to do nothing more ambitious than go home and fall over.

Unlike other CTA train stops in the Loop, Madison/Wabash hadn’t been substantially updated. The eastern face was updated some time ago with Plexiglas windows to shield riders from the cold while still allowing them to look down onto Madison Street or out into Millennium Park, but the western face, where the original station house stands, looks the same as it always has, who knows how many coats of paint over its century-plus of existence notwithstanding.

So the view I’ve had walking toward this station over all those years is the same one my parents would have had. Or their parents before them. Or their parents before them.

How many millions of feet walked or ran up those steep staircases? How many commuters shuffled and grumbled on the platform, looking down the tracks hopefully for their train to arrive? (One of the few modern touches added in recent years was a train tracker, which displayed estimated arrival times for each train, color coded by line—Green, Purple, Brown, Orange, etc. While this usually kept riders informed, it also sometimes fueled their frustration: “15 minutes for a Brown Line train? At rush hour? SERIOUSLY?”)

How many had that “Oh shit!” moment when they realized they were standing on the northbound platform when they meant to go south (or vice versa) and had to make a mad dash across the pedestrian bridge to catch the train chugging into the station at that exact moment?

The pedestrian bridge was also a fine vantage point from which to watch the construction—and eventual completion—of Trump International Hotel and Tower on the northern bank of the Chicago River (where the Sun-Times building once stood). Unfortunately, it gave you a great view of the huge, garish sign Donald Trump slapped on the otherwise stunning structure last year.

Can so many people have passed through the same building so often without leaving some part of themselves—the “radiation of human interaction” Eisner speaks of—behind?

Whenever someone asks me how to describe Madison/Wabash, I usually use words lie “elderly,” “ancient,” “rickety”—words that don’t really capture the place properly at all.

“Decrepit” would be far more accurate.

In recent years, when the station’s end appeared more and more certain, maintenance beyond the basic necessities ceased. Paint peeled. Gutters leaked. You could see the sky through holes in the corrugated roof. Railings, dating back to the station’s opening, didn’t look safe enough to lean on (though they were…probably).

For all of that, though, Madison/Wabash held a battered charm, a battle-worn dignity.

I know what will be left behind when Madison/Wabash is gone: a new station that will have amenities that Madison/Wabash never did. The brighter lights. The Elevators. The bike racks. And so on. I also have little doubt that Washington/Wabash will be cleaner, warmer, better maintained.

It won’t, however, have that charm, that dignity, that sense of functional, living history—that personality.

On the way home tonight, I will climb those steps and walk the platform—both sides—one last time. I’ll touch the railings, stand on the pedestrian bridge, look up at the buildings I’ll never see from that exact angle again.

And when the Brown Line train pulls out to take me north toward home, I’ll watch Madison/Wabash recede into the distance, then, once we hit the Lake Street curve, vanish from sight altogether.


JB said...

A beautiful tribute to a structure that is a very meaningful part of my history growing up in Chicago. I'm feeling a little verklempt...and I'm not joking.

Dee Williams said...

Your meditation on this piece of Chicago history reminds us of how much the landscape changes as we grow older and things grow away from us. Your images--magnificent.