Despite a renovated bus stop at the corner of 31st Street and Spaulding Avenue, activists are saying people with disabilities are still denied equal access to public transportation and full equality in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood on the city's Southwest Side.
“This is a great win, but there is still a lot of work left to be done,” said Adam Ballard, an organizer for the disability advocacy group Access Living.
The newly-renovated bus station received fresh cement and sidewalk ramps in June, thanks to Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), who dedicated $230,000 from his ward’s menu money, which is a pot of discretionary funds designed for infrastructure projects.
Ballard, whose mobility is limited to a wheelchair because he was born with arthrogryposis, joined activists and community residents on Wednesday morning to celebrate what participants called a “partial victory.”
“This is just the beginning, and now we have to continue to push for the rest of the area to get renovated,” he said.
After the No. 35 bus route was extended to include large portions of West 31st Street in September, grassroots organizations that had been working for nearly a decade to restore public transportation to their neighborhood were disappointed to discover an overwhelming majority of the bus stations were in desperate need of repair.
In response to accusations that the bus route violates guidelines of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires equal access to public transportation, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) sent engineers out to inspect and identify stations that are inadequate.
In total, the engineers identified $1.2 million of necessary repairs at 22 of the route’s 26 stations on West 31st Street.
“We're not thanking anyone yet," said Claudia Ayala, public transit coordinator for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), who attended Tuesday’s demonstration.
Only a few years after the No. 35 bus route was discontinued in 1997 due to low ridership, members of LVEJO began advocating for a better public transportation system in Little Village.
“This area has changed dramatically in the last several years, including [the addition of] a new high school,” she said. “But the whole area has a complete lack of accessibility.”
Scoffing at cracked and poorly-maintained sidewalks on both sides of the renovated bus stop, Ayala called the 31st Street and Spaulding Avenue station a “quick fix to the situation.”
“These sidewalks should have been prioritized months ago,” she said. “We need to make sure the whole area is addressed entirely, because this lack of accessibility affects our entire community and our ability to go to work, go to school and really just live.”
The infrastructure’s dilapidation is likely due to the area’s long-standing reputation as an industrialized area without a lot of residential activity, said Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner of CDOT.
“Obviously this area is in need of renewal, the infrastructure is pretty old,” she said.
Hamilton, who addressed the crowd at the rehabbed station, added that completing all of the necessary renovations on the West 31st Street bus route would likely be a “multi-year” effort.
“It’s still hard times financially,” she said. “But we’re making the most with what we have and trying to direct it to the places with the most need.”
Michelle Garcia, a community organizer with Cambiando Vidas, Access Living’s Latino-specific grassroots offset, said she will continue to push for increased accessibility along the No. 35 bus route.
“We’re not treated as equals in many instances, that’s why we’re here,” she said. “It is my right as a human, and as a citizen of Chicago, to have access to public transportation.”
Here’s more from Garcia:
Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who celebrated the new bus station with Access Living and Cambiando Vidas, also committed to spending a portion of his ward’s menu money on upgrades to the bus route, which extends into a portion of his ward. He did not, however, indicate how much will be spent or when it would happen.
“If there’s a bus stop that has accessibility issues in the 12th ward, it’s going to get fixed,” he said. “I don’t know what the cost is, but it’s going to get fixed.”
Cardenas added that the Illinois General Assembly should also be contributing to the bus route’s infrastructure upgrades. He said he would write a letter to State Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), whose district includes the bus route, to request capital funds be dedicated to increase accessibility at the stations.
“If you look at these sidewalks, all of these upgrades can’t come from menu money,” he said. “This area is not adequate for people with disabilities, but we can’t fix it alone. We need money from Springfield.”
Meanwhile, Cambiando Vidas also plans to visit stores and restaurants in Little Village to call on business owners in the neighborhood to assist in the push for infrastructure upgrades.
“We live in the community, we’re part of the community,” Garcia, who was born with cerebral palsy, said. “We should be able to patronize local stores and restaurants. But our neighborhood just has such a lack of resources.”
She said most residents don’t know which agencies to contact when sidewalks are cracked and curbs are lacking ramps. The first step, she added, is education.
“If they need to make their businesses accessible to everyone, we’re going to show them how to do it,” Garcia said. “Reaching full equality and accessibility is a work in progress.”