Chicago’s segregation, seen via time-lapse on the CTA Red Line

CTA Red line
CTA Red line

Chicago’s segregation, seen via time-lapse on the CTA Red Line

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There is no news here. Nothing could be more every day – literally. I did something that one in 20 Chicagoans do on weekdays and something that I’ve done too many times to count. I took a ride on the CTA Red Line.

Seeing the city’s segregation does not take feats of investigative reporting. No database. No fancy equipment. No special occasion.

Our segregation is visually stark on the Red Line. And I wanted to document it.

I only added two elements to a routine commute. First, I posted my cameraphone on one end of the El car, shooting as I rode, which created a time-lapse of the trip.

Secondly, I rode the whole length of the line, from Howard to 95th Street, and back again as far as Belmont (where my phone let me know its battery was about to die.)

There was nothing unexpected about what I found; the city shifts from black to white when going from the South Side to the North Side. The Roosevelt stop and downtown look less segregated.

The Red Line is the Chicago area’s most-used public transportation. Every weekday, more than 250,000 rides start at a Red Line station – 50 percent more riders than its closest competitor, the Blue Line. And it passes through some of the most segregated areas of the city – north as well as south.

A single ride makes clear where the boundaries are. And provides plenty of opportunities for people-watching. In both cases, we tend not to look. It’s awkward.

So we went there— and then compressed more than two hours to just a little more than a minute. That’s the clip above.

Below that is a slower, six-minute version. I hope you find it as hypnotic as I did. The links on the map should let you skip around if there’s a part of the ride you especially want to check out.

A couple weeks after taking these images, I rode the Red Line again. This time to ask riders: What’s this neighborhood like? Who lives here? Who doesn’t?

The differences in people’s responses were as revealing (and unsurprising) as the images.

At the Addison stop in Lakeview, where the concentration of white residents is especially high, I met DePaul University law student Mary Kay Chrzanowski.

“It’s a very friendly neighborhood,” Chrzanowski said. “There’s always people out walking, exploring, seeing what’s going on. Baseball games, festivals. Pretty nice, pretty friendly, pretty clean. It’s a pretty great place to live.”

Who doesn’t live here?

“I guess I don’t see a lot of children here,” Chrzanowski said. “I see a lot of unique people here, a lot of different people. I don’t think the neighborhood is limiting or exclusive to any one kind of person.”

At the Roosevelt stop, where the city looks more mixed, I talked to Adrian Figueroa. He lives in Humboldt Park and was on his way to his job as a bar porter at McCormick Place.

“Every time I come over here it’s pretty decent. A lot safer than Humboldt Park, that’s for sure. More jobs— different jobs that are over here,” Figueroa said.

Who lives around here?

“Medium-class, upper-class people,” Figueroa said. “You don’t see too many lower-class people over here. Unless they’re working.”

I also met Rosin Thomas at Roosevelt, who gave me the most direct, revealing— and moving— interview of all.

Like Chrzanowski, she’s a DePaul student, and she was traveling to school from her home in University Village.

“Sometimes I find myself being racist,” she said. “On the CTA, there’s a lot of African-American, or black people. And they’re screaming on their cellphones. It’s like, ‘Why do ‘they’ have to be so loud? Have to be so rude? Have to be so…’ And it sucks. There’s something wrong with that mentality. There’s something wrong with the statements that I’m thinking in my head.”

My colleague LaCreshia Birts joined me along the way. At 79th Street, she talked West Sider Travis Allen. He was en route to visit his daughter and her mother on the South Side.

“It’s not good to go outside at night time on the train,” Allen said. “If it’s after five or six at night, I won’t come because the train is crazy—especially the Red Line. You’ve got older citizens getting their purse snatched on the train. And you gotta watch your back because you don’t know who might be watching you or want to snatch your phone. You never know what’ll happen when you’re on the Red Line.”

Finally, to see how the same idea plays out in New York, check out this YouTube clip from the 1980s cult film, “Brother from Another Planet” in which an extra-terrestrial lands in New York City looking like a scared African-American man.

In this scene, the alien is riding the “A” train, where he meets a young man who offers to show him two magic tricks. The first one involves playing cards. The second one, which works a little like our time-lapse, starts around two minutes and 40 seconds into the clip, which we’ve cued up for you here:

By coincidence, the BBC has a feature today about the “A” train with beautiful photos and narration by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik. Race gets plenty of play, but segregation not so much.