A Chicago City Council ordinance to transfer a chunk of Englewood’s roads to Norfolk Southern Railway was blocked Wednesday by the presiding alderman — the latest twist in the freight company’s multi-year plan to double the size of one of its rail yards despite pushback from local residents.
Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, and allies used a parliamentary tactic to defer the legislation that would allow the railroad to acquire the streets and alleys it doesn’t already own between two existing sets of tracks from Garfield Boulevard south to 59th Street.
This would have given the railroad leeway to expand its largest U.S. intermodal yard, which has its main entrance at 47th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway. The lack of a signoff comes after Norfolk Southern acquired about 500 lots nearby in anticipation of City Council’s land deal.
Taylor vows to get Norfolk to agree to community demands on jobs before next Council meeting: “It’s just been a disrespect to me and the community. … Let’s remember, this was the displacement of 400 families in a Black community. And since 2014, they’ve done nothing. It’s dirt.”
Alan Shaw, Norfolk CEO, declined comment after Wednesday’s deferral.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who introduced the ordinance, has maintained that after decades of industrial job loss, the city can help its remaining businesses by providing land they need to expand at reduced cost.
At the same time, Norfolk Southern’s location in the heart of Chicago means it can’t avoid withering debates over who benefits and who doesn’t from the city’s prominence as a freight hub, what happens when the railroad displaces longtime residents, and whether it’s doing enough to promote green space and clean air for those still living near the tracks.
Taylor previously blocked a vote on the ordinance for five months to pressure the railroad to conduct a study on the long-term health impacts of diesel soot from trains and trucks and to hire more Black contractors and employees, including from Englewood. She dropped her opposition to a vote, until Wednesday.
Taylor has cited a lawsuit from a longtime Englewood resident whose home was acquired by Norfolk Southern through eminent domain as evidence that the company’s expansion is harming its surrounding community. The railroad made no apologies for taking over the property, according to its court filing in response to her lawsuit, and is now finalizing a settlement with the plaintiff.
“We’re talking about a billion dollar company that got rich off the backs of slaves, and now they’re mistreating Black and brown communities,” she said.
Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker has said the company supports educational efforts about the history of railroads and the Black community, and that the railroad has tried to be a good neighbor. As required by the city of Chicago for all contractors, the ordinance transferring streets and alleys to Norfolk Southern listed by name hundreds of slaves that the railroad’s corporate predecessors owned prior to the Civil War.
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of our culture today, and we’re committed to continued progress,” he said. “We’re proud to be a majority-minority employer in Chicago, where more than 30% of our local workforce is Black.”
Spielmaker continued: “Expanding this in-town facility eliminates the need for residents (to) commute out of the city for work, creates new jobs, and reduces urban sprawl while directly reinvesting in the communities we have long been a part of.”
Chicago is the country’s largest freight hub, handling half of all U.S. intermodal trains and a total of $3 trillion worth of cargo each year, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
John Lippert is a freelance reporter.