Train modelers search for new track after COVID-19 derails Uptown club

One of several model trains travels around a loop in the Garfield-Clarendon model railroad layout. (Image provided by Garfield-Clarendon Model Railroad Club)

By Sean Rhomberg

Medill Reports

As freight trains pass through a bustling small town, passengers eagerly watch and wave. The towns, buildings and people from a former era come alive again when many different locomotives make their way around Garfield Central, an elaborate model train layout in Uptown.

The Garfield-Clarendon Model Railroad Club brings together model train enthusiasts to socialize and extend their layout while offering an opportunity to educate curious members of the public when it comes to a hobby that dates back a century or more.

Curtis Koch, of Uptown, joined the club in 2018 after being passionate about model trains for years and has enjoyed seeing the impact it has on people experiencing these miniature worlds for the first time.

“The club is such a fun focal point not just for members,” Koch said. “During open houses, we have kids and families that come in, and you just see their eyes light up with joy when they get to see something so detailed and cool.”

But open houses don’t happen anymore. Visitors haven’t been allowed at the club located in the Clarendon Park Community Center since early 2020, when the pandemic shut down so many activities. Various outreach initiatives such as the award-winning Clarendon STEM Youth program that met in the same space remain dormant due to COVID-19 as well.

Club President Ryan Balla understands the importance of keeping the club’s members and community safe but said it’s hard not being able to operate and socialize as they once did pre-pandemic.

“It was really rough not going to the club room for so many months,” Balla said. “Everything was just left the way it was with a coat of dust on things.”

Members not being able to see each other for months was made worse when the Chicago Park District decided to heavily renovate the community center at 4501 N. Clarendon Ave. That move came shortly after members were allowed back in May and will displace the club for more than a year once renovations begin on the community center.

According to Balla, construction has been delayed several times, making it difficult to plan for alternative ways to keep the club established within the community.

“We’re looking into ways we can potentially still have a railroad layout that we can disassemble and reassemble and have it at hosted places like libraries, museums or other venues,” Balla said.

But the sprawling layout, which takes over 25 minutes to complete a full loop, includes nine distinct areas of a replica mining town that have been hand-laid and glued to the surface.

Despite the difficulties that come with being uprooted from the club’s location, the renovations should provide members with an upgraded space in terms of storage, lighting and air conditioning once construction wraps up, according to Koch.

The challenge for newer members such as Koch and club veterans is keeping the same sense of community and camaraderie that was there long before COVID-19 and the building renovations became obstacles.

“A lot of us got together, not at the club, but at somebody’s house who may have been having a setup in their basement that they needed help on, and we’d help out and contribute that way,” Koch said.

According to Koch, some members have had to step away to keep safe from COVID-19, but those who remain are as passionate about the hobby as ever.

Visitors are unable to check out the current train setup in the Clarendon Park Community Center in person, but the club is still actively accepting new members who may be interested in taking up a new hobby and can reach out to for more information.

“The people are really friendly and really great,” Balla said. “If you’re interested in the club, our website is a great place to start.”


Sean Rhomberg is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @seanrhomberg.