It was a lovely day for a bicycle ride, so I took my bike up on the old railroad spur now known as The Bloomingdale Trail to see what I could see. The city of Chicago does not encourage this (nor do I after finding all the broken glass strewn along the pathway) but there is something magical about this abandoned railway that pulls people in––so magical that Mayor Emanuel has found $46 million in his first 12 months in office to turn The Bloomingdale Trail into Chicago’s next great public park.
Chicago’s High Line
The day I rode the trail, I was not alone. There were half a dozen other joggers and strollers––harbingers of thousands of visitors to come. Like the High Line in New York, The Bloomingdale Trail is elevated above the city on an old railroad line about 15 feet above grade that once served Chicago’s now dormant city factories.
The eastern edge dead ends into a tangle of concrete pillars, expressways and commuter lines at Ashland Avenue just south of Armitage. But if you go west, the old railway is one long, uninterrupted stretch of 2.7 miles that slices through Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square, crossing 37 streets on viaducts, and ends in the McCormick Tribune YMCA parking lot on N. Lawndale Ave. The last freight cars traveled the route in 1999, and much of the track has been ripped out or grown over with weeds. Even as is, however, it is a terrific place to stroll at sunset watching the sun go down over Chicago.
The Bloomingdale Trail is often compared to the High Line, but there are significant differences. The Chicago parkway will be over a mile longer than the High Line and wider (30 feet at its narrowest point). As lushly landscaped as the High Line is (and it is), it can only be accessed by stairways or elevators so it is by nature a walking trail through the Manhattan cityscape. The Bloomingdale Trail will be something quite different––and better––with room for both pedestrian paths and a bikeway, three areas where the land widens out enough to allow concerts or other artist performances, and “pocket parks” at ground level that will integrate the trail into the neighboring communities.
Entrances at Churchill Park on Damen and Walsh Park on Ashland are easy enough to imagine. But the Chicago Park District is developing three more small parks adjacent to the trail at Leavitt, Albany and Kimball Streets and entrances at Humboldt Boulevard and Western Avenue, and in the McCormick Tribune YMCA lot, that will give the trail eight access points, none more than a quarter mile away from anyone on the trail needing emergency services. And each access point will have landscaped ramps so bicyclist, emergency vehicles, and the handicapped will have easy access to the trail.
When you ride (or walk) The Bloomingdale Trail these days, the first thing that hits you is how much space there is up there. Joggers and cyclists accustomed to stopping at every intersection, and looking both ways, will appreciate the free flowing parkway and open vistas. But the farther you go, the more you realize this is not just a park, it is a boon to the development of neighborhoods along the path––in sections of the city that have been neglected for decades.
That development has already taken place in Bucktown. There must be two or three hundred new homes or condominiums built so close to the embankment the owners could run a plank out the back window and enjoy the largest backyard in Chicago. Some of them have already embraced its presence with upper level decks. (Others who might fear the invasion of their privacy can be accommodated in the landscaping of the grounds.) In that idiosyncratic way Bucktown has grown over the years, the Bloomingdale Trail fits seamlessly into the community fabric.
But the true potential of the trail as a force for social and economic development lies west of Bucktown in the myriad of little enclave neighborhoods nestled in its shadow. After it crosses Western Avenue, the trail straddles the line between Humboldt Park and Logan Square, and, some say, creates it. There are three public elementary schools alongside–– Moos, Yates and Harriet Beecher Stowe elementary schools––and a dozen church schools or day care centers within earshot. Above the din of children in the playgrounds, you can hear the sound of hammers and saws at work, busy homeowners remodeling for better times ahead.
I dropped down from the trail to wander the streets of these neighborhoods a little, just to assure myself this was not the full-throated sound of bulldozers tearing down bungalows to build McMansions. What I found were blocks of frame houses and two-flats with small gardens (and the occasional plaster squirrel), people sitting on the front stoop gossiping, a man mowing the vacant lot next door, corner bodegas just opening their doors, and their owners sweeping the sidewalk outside.
It all seemed too good to be true, so I asked a man out walking his dog whether there are gangs on his block. “There are always gangs, but it is getting better,” he said. I asked him how he would characterize the neighborhood. “It’s a solid place. We’re gentrifying. It would have happened faster, but the economy went down just as things were getting going. But it’ll happen,” he said. “Are you looking to buy? This neighborhood is a good investment.”
When the Bloomingdale Trail opens in 2014, what was once a barrier between communities will become an open door inviting them to share in the activities above and meet their neighbors on the other side.
Making It Happen
One of the remarkable stories behind The Bloomingdale Trail is how readily these communities have embraced it. Along the whitewashed concrete abutments, block clubs have created murals welcoming the new park to the neighborhood. Over the last five years, community groups have held planning sessions, fundraisers and design meetings to talk over how a new park on the railway can help their neighborhoods.
It was not always that way. After the last rail car made its last trip to the factories, the Canadian Railroad offered the trunk line to Chicago for the nominal fee of one dollar. The city turned the deal down. Upkeep, potential repair costs and liability concerns scared city officials away.
In 2004, a group of residents who saw its potential formed the Friends of Bloomingdale Trail. Their first success was having the trail concept incorporated in a Logan Square planning document, but it was given low priority status. Two years later, the Trust for Public Lands, a national organization devoted to expanding urban open spaces, took the project under its wing. A Bucktown architect named Michael Wilkinson staged an exhibit for the Chicago Architecture Club in which 26 architects offered up their futuristic designs for converting the railway into parklands. Then in 2009, the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Commission named the Bloomingdale Trail one of five visionary projects in its “Beyond Burnham” celebration. The momentum for doing something with this unusual opportunity for reclaiming an abandoned industrial resource was building.
Beth White, regional director of the Trust for Public Lands, has been coordinating private contributions to The Bloomingdale Trail for the last five years. The effort has involved over 200 community meetings, half a dozen city departments and agencies, the park district, the Active Transportation Alliance, the YMCA, and any community group that wanted its say. “There are a lot of moving parts,” she admits, but everyone had a special concern that had to be addressed.
“I’ve done a lot of these projects over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the enthusiasm or community involvement that’s gone into this. This isn’t just a park; it’s community development, alternate transit options, reclaiming industrial wastelands. It’s one of the most exciting and innovative open lands projects going on in the country today.”
Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement
While the High Line in New York benefited from having a number of high profile celebrity neighbors––some of whom donated as much as $10 million to the project––The Bloomingdale Trail had to go a different route, and it found it in a federal program to “mitigate congestion and improve air quality” in major metropolitan areas. Since 1992 the Federal Highway Administration has given grants to local governments to get more people out of their cars and improve air quality. These have gone for everything from timing traffic lights, to rebuilding bus engines, to creating bicycle trails. Every year, the Illinois Department of Transportation has roughly $90 million to distribute to such projects in the six-county Chicago metropolitan region.
Under Mayor Daley, Chicago applied for Bloomingdale Trail funds in 2010, but the application failed to meet the stringent requirements for community involvement. In February 2011, the city again put the trail on its wish list (about $1 billion worth of projects were submitted) then on February 22, Chicago elected a bicycle enthusiast named Rahm Emanuel as its next mayor.
When Emanuel convened his cabinet, Andrew Mooney, the city commissioner of housing and economic development, said Emanuel told them one of his first priorities was building The Bloomingdale Trail. So last October all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed––and community meetings convened––to get the trail slated for $67 million in federal CMAQ funds. The federal funds come with conditions: a 20 percent local match and a host of bureaucratic signoffs that can often delay projects for years. To circumvent delays, the city knocked down its request to $37 million. But Emanuel stayed on the case, White said. “He really embraced the concept. More than that, he was always asking how he could speed things along.”
One thing that helped enormously was a corporate sponsorship commitment of $5 million from Exelon and $1 million apiece from Boeing and CNA insurance. More foundation and corporate support for arts programming, which cannot be used to match the federal funds, is coming.
The ultimate budget to complete all the amenities on the Bloomingdale Trail is $81 million. But on March 12, Emanuel announced that he has $46 million in hand to start building one Phase I, the basic elements, at the end of this year. So what was once a dream is about to become a reality, and White is confident the Trust for Public Lands has a plan in place, and funders in mind, to raise the additional money to fulfill it.
It’s Cool. Come see.
Next Tuesday, May 15, at 6 pm, the city will present its final framework plan for The Bloomingdale Trail at a public hearing in the Humboldt Park fieldhouse. It’s pretty cool. Daniel Burnham, the author of the first Chicago Plan, once described public parks as a necklace of greenery connecting Chicago neighborhoods. The Bloomingdale Trail is the embodiment of that vision.