Brown: Getting railroaded in Englewood

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The holdout property owner has long been an American icon, whether it’s the little old lady who forces developers to build their skyscraper around her house or the rancher who refuses to sell to “the government.”

And don’t forget the café owner who won’t make way for the mayor’s pet project, a new urban campus for the big state university.

Now, we have the last 10 of the Englewood Railway Coalition.

For more than four years, these homeowners have held out against the Norfolk Southern railroad’s efforts to buy an 84-acre section of their residential neighborhood on the South Side to expand a freight yard.

While they’ve stubbornly clung to their land, hundreds of their neighbors, including many coalition members, sold their homes, which were then demolished.

The result is that this portion of Englewood has been transformed into a stark urban prairie — a city street grid with no street signs and only isolated houses.

Two weeks ago, the stakes got higher for those who remain.

For the first time since Norfolk Southern went public in 2011 with plans to acquire land between Garfield Boulevard and 61st Street for a new intermodal facility, the railroad is trying to use its eminent domain powers to forcibly take property from holdout owners.

In a throwback to the long-ago days of railroad expansion, railroads retain the authority granted primarily to government to take private property for public use.

The tactic had long been threatened, but it wasn’t until Jan. 15 that three lawsuits were filed in Cook County circuit court seeking title to some of the last remaining parcels the railroad has been unable to purchase.

Norfolk Southern targeted only vacant lots for eminent domain. But the message was clear to all the holdouts: Time’s up.

The railroad followed up last week by informing the remaining residents it plans to begin construction on a portion of the project in early February.

If the owners lose in court, they run the risk of receiving considerably less compensation for their properties than the railroad has offered in negotiations.

Steven Rogers, president of the coalition, insists he remains ready to fight to the end.

“This is a travesty that they’re treating people the way that they have,” said Rogers, 58, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who has made fighting the railroad a personal cause.

Rogers lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but still owns the house in the 400 block of West 60th Place that three generations of his family have called home. He rents it out and says he travels here weekly on business. He also owns two of the vacant lots targeted in the lawsuits.

Of the holdouts, nine still live in their homes, including two teachers, a police officer, a Walgreen’s manager and three retirees.

As always in such situations, a tension exists between somebody’s idea of progress and somebody else’s idea of principle, with profit a consideration on both sides.

Backers of the project say it will produce good-paying private sector jobs for a city greatly in need of them.

I have some sympathies in that regard, having paid my way through college as a railroad clerk whose duties included loading and unloading “piggyback” trailers and containers from railroad cars — the very type of work Norfolk Southern will perform at the new facility.

Ald. Willie Cochran. Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

Ald. Willie Cochran. Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) says he won’t take sides against his residents but applauds the railroad for donating money to neighborhood schools and argues its home purchases were a benefit to many owners who were underwater on their mortgages.

But I can’t really argue with Rogers when he questions whether this project would have ever been undertaken if it wasn’t located in a poor African-American neighborhood with a bad reputation.

“I believe we’re being mistreated because of our race, because we’re black,” Rogers said.

On principle, the holdouts say they shouldn’t be forced from their homes and that the Norfolk Southern shouldn’t have the right to set the price for which they sell.

Rogers doesn’t deny there is a price at which he would sell but insists that should be his decision, not the railroad’s or a judge’s.

“If Norfolk Southern walked away from the project, I would be perfectly fine with that,” he told me.

Margaret Bonnett is one of the last dozen property owners holding out against the Norfolk Southern railroad’s efforts to acquire an 84-acre residential section of Englewood. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Margaret Bonnett is one of the last dozen property owners holding out against the Norfolk Southern railroad’s efforts to acquire an 84-acre residential section of Englewood. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

When this started in 2011, coalition member Margaret Bonnett, 60, said that’s all she wanted: for the railroad to give up so she could stay in her home in the 500 block of West 57th Place where she was born and raised.

“At this point, I know there is no stopping the project,” she said as we stood on her front porch in the cold.

In the end, there may be only one.

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