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What It’s Like to Live Inches from the ‘L’ | Sidetracks | Chicago by 'L'

'L' tracks in backyard of home

For many Chicagoans, the ‘L’ is within arm’s length from their porches and backyards. Photo: Brendan Brown

What It’s Like to Live Inches from the ‘L’

When sparks from a passing train cause flames to flare up along the wooden ties of the Brown and Red Line trains, Craig Figtree sometimes puts them out with his garden hose. When it’s the holiday season, Figtree invites neighborhood children and their families over to watch the lighted holiday train carriages pass by. When Figtree catches the Brown Line at Armitage – which is pretty often, since he got rid of his car long ago – he always chats with longtime station attendant Janet about their neighbors, health, and each other’s pets. 

Life along the ‘L’ is good for Figtree, 67. This fact surprises most people who ask what it’s like to live on the 1800 block of North Bissell Street, so close to the ‘L’ that Figtree can almost reach out and touch its cars – almost. People generally assume the train’s passing vibrations rumble everything in his home like an earthquake, Figtree said, or that the sounds of the ‘L’ thunder through his house. 

But Figtree said he doesn’t even notice the sounds. As for the rumbling? There’s no such thing.   

“It just sort of blends into the background as city noise,” he said. 

Inches from the ‘L’

Watch: Inches from the ‘L’

Figtree likes living just next to the elevated train. He and his wife Sam moved into their two-story, brick home 30 years ago. Transplants from San Francisco, the two shrugged their shoulders when they first thought of living next to the ‘L’ – they were used to their old city’s cable cars anyway.

“We're city kids, we've always been. We love big, noisy, booming cities,” Figtree said. “To have a constant like the ‘L’ is wonderful. When we go to the country, it's too quiet. Neither of us can sleep.”

But living next to the train has impacted their life in direct and indirect ways, some positive, some negative. 

In the early 2000s, Figtree was part of a group of neighbors’ “huge battle” with the CTA over expanding the Armitage station. He said the CTA wanted to tear down 12 houses to construct a larger station in the middle of the landmarked block and “put in a Dunkin’ Donuts and vending machines and all this crap.” Neighbors’ outcries eventually led the CTA to drop the plan.

Another time, the CTA installed a new transformer at the end of Bissell Street, with construction limiting the ability of garbage trucks to get through the alley and collect trash. Neighbors from the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Bissell walked to and from the intersection every week to pile their garbage in a small space. The CTA promised the project would be done in six months, Figtree said. Instead, it stretched a year and a half.  

“So we’ve had these ongoing battles over stupid little things with the CTA,” he said.

Craig suspects they get a little more city grit on their deck and in their home than most places, since the ‘L’ kicks it up. When the Figtrees are hosting one of their many garden parties in the summer, conversation always pauses when the train goes by. They also suspect that the noise of the ‘L’ might deter bats from visiting the bat box that they’ve hung. 

Other than that, they view life next to the ‘L’ as better than life far from it. 

“I love the idea that there's an elevated train that runs through neighborhoods. I think it's very exciting and neat to have it right there. It’s part of the city,” he said.  

The train’s biggest impact on the property likely happened before the Figtrees arrived. Their Victorian house was built in 1873 and, like most properties at the time, had a full Chicago lot 125 feet deep. In 1895, when the city decided to build the present-day Brown and Red Line tracks along Bissell Street, officials seized the land from the homeowners’ backyards. With the bigger houses along the street, onlookers can actually see old windows and doors that led to other rooms that have been bricked off. 

“They just said, ‘OK, boom, your property is not 125 feet anymore,’ and they took it,” Figtree said. “None of us along here have backyards or garages or coach houses. It's all gone. That's all ‘L’ track.” 

Today, Figtree said they’re basically the only ones along the street who have a deck. They decorate it for the seasons. 

During Halloween, ‘L’ riders passing Figtree’s deck will see vintage orange decorations and lights strung along its sides. During Chinese New Year, passengers will see hanging red silk lanterns and porcelain figurines. In the summer, riders can admire the elaborate garden Figtree’s planted. 

His deck is filled with herbs, roses, and a fountain that runs constantly. The design attracts animals. Several years back, a squirrel the Figtrees nicknamed “Mr. Nutkins” visited the deck often, occasionally sneaking into the house to steal crackers from the kitchen pantry. 

“If I didn't get her food fast enough, she [would] come into the kitchen and help herself,” Figtree said.  

Over the years, the lights on the ‘L’ have gotten a little brighter. There are more ads along on CTA trains as well.

“It's just what our life is,” Figtree said. “It doesn't occur to me to think of living next to the ‘L’ as being an interesting thing. It’s just there. You know, like always.”