A look at the other side of the track

Its one-mile oval of green turf sits beneath a clear blue sky, eliciting an elegant appearance and experience. But the Arlington International Racecourse in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs had a secret, and it wasn’t pretty.

Danielle Gordon took an official tour of Arlington’s pristine grounds on the suspicion that something was awry. Instead of spending the hour on the sanctioned route, she changed course and happened upon the backstretch.

Next to the horse stables and hidden from the crowds were 12-by-12 dormitories made of concrete blocks. It was damp, it was bleak and it was simply “stunning,” she said.

Gordon’s March 1995 article surfaced the plight of about 1,500 workers and their families who lived at the track but “did not share in Arlington’s splendor.”

Gordon, who now works as digital content manager at the Chicago Tribune, found that the living units offered little ventilation and basic needs like telephone access and kitchen facilities. Many residents were forced to do their cooking in the communal bathrooms. Laundry was being washed in the restroom sink. Because of these conditions, Gordon learned, a rare strain of dysentery broke out in two of the dorms in August 1994, leaving 17 people infected.

“It wasn’t something you would expect to find behind such a pristine race track,” Gordon said.

Inspectors from the Illinois Department of Public Health found a slew of violations. The Illinois Plumbing Code required family living quarters to contain one lavatory and shower per unit. Four bathrooms existed in each of the three oldest buildings, which had more than 150 units, and more than 13 people were sharing one shower.

Arlington officials reasoned that living elsewhere was an option. The track workers countered that most of the housing in Arlington Heights was unaffordable.

The five-month-long investigation had its share of difficulties. One was the language barrier. Gordon doesn’t speak Spanish, and a majority of the backstretch workers were Latino immigrants–mostly from Mexico. She would bring a translator to the track and hope that someone would talk to her.

“People were scared to talk and were very afraid,” she said. Many were undocumented and feared losing their jobs, she added.

After Gordon’s interview, state Sen. John Cullerton said that he would make it “my business to raise this issue.”

A bill was drafted by a governor’s task force on horse racing, led by Cullerton, to force all race tracks in the state to spend half of their Illinois Race Track Improvement Fund–a reserve fund created to defray the costs of track improvements–on the backstretch. It was signed into law as part of an amendment to the Illinois Horse Racing Act of 1975.

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