2nd September 2017

Tour of the Bloomingdale trail

The Bloomingdale trail is a pedestrian-cycle path atop a former railroad embankment running east-west through four neighbourhoods on Chicago’s west side: Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Bucktown and Wicker Park. The trail and its adjoining parks are called ‘The 606’ collectively. Clearly the trail is particularly relevant to my study of the disused Kenwood railroad embankment in Bronzeville as a precedent for City reuse of post-industrial infrastructure.

We couldn’t have hoped for a more knowledgeable docent than John Paige, who has lived in Wicker Park for 38 years and was involved with the development of the Bloomingdale trail from start to finish. Paige criticised the media for disproportionately negative coverage of the trail based on a number of isolated incidences of crime, appealing to a report that had argued that 16 such incidents over a 16-month period was a mere fraction of the crime levels expected from a typical police ‘beat’ (territory) of similar surface area. Nonetheless, late at night “the police will chase you away” during their 11pm sweep, though if you are continuously moving and don’t look suspicious they may let you continue undisturbed since the park is officially open 24 hours – this remains a point of dispute between the Chicago Police Department (in favour of limited hours) and the Chicago Park District.

John Paige takes questions about the project in one of the seating areas besides the trail.

Also of interest were the serviceberry trees dotted along the length of the trail, which apparently bloom from the west end to the east over the course of 10 days or so due to the marginally warmer temperatures besides Lake Michigan. These berries are picked and sent to a nearby ice cream parlour, where sales from the limited edition flavour help to fund the trail maintenance costs.

Miko's Italian Ice, where the serviceberry flavour ice cream is served annually.

Just as the Kenwood embankment is being incrementally donated to Bronzeville Urban Development (BUD) by a private landowner, the Canadian Pacific Railway were similarly charitable with the Bloomingdale line, selling it to the City for $1. The City has since made reasonable offers to adjoining landowners where parks have been planned alongside the trail, though not all have been forthcoming. Paige recalled how one homeowner initially demanded around 5 times the market value of his property, but eventually came down on the price. A fellow tour attendee asked Paige at this point why the City chose not to use the eminent domain (compulsory purchase) process. His response was that the City was keen to avoid eminent domain with any properties adjoining the project in order to avoid bad publicity.

Paige left me with the impression that the City handled the project well, with consultation and transparency wherever possible; this project might hold potential as a model for rail-to-trail conversions further afield. For example, a large stretch of graffiti had to be removed from one side of a western stretch of the embankment between Central Park Ave and Kimball Ave due to safety concerns over the lead content in the existing paint. This section was designated a ‘permission wall’ and the original graffiti artists (offenders, technically) were enlisted to repaint the wall with chemically safer alternatives. Unendorsed continuations of this graffiti hotspot have since appeared on nearby walls. Another example of good practice in public consultation was the choice to approach every homeowner adjoining the embankment and allow them to select from three fencing options where the trail passes close to their property: a high fence, a medium fence, or no fence at all. These preferences were honoured as the project was realised.

The 'permission' wall. Similar designated graffiti areas are becoming increasingly common around the world.

Fence height was determined by adjoining property owners.

Paige believes that Mayor Rahm Emanuel received disproportionate credit for the project, when in actual fact it was Luann Hamilton’s securing of $50 million in federal funding through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program that was the turning point for the trail proposal.

A final admission: the dedicated website for The 606 insists that the project is a park, which I initially dismissed based on my preconceptions of what a park should be – continuous and leafy rather than linear and mostly concrete – despite the fact I knew the trail was technically park number 572; I just wasn’t prepared to accept that it served as more than a simple piece of infrastructure labelled as parkland to statistically benefit some park-acreage-per-capita goal. I was quietly ashamed of my prejudgement when I witnessed the droves of joggers and dog walkers using the trail for exercise, and it dawned on me that if these forms of recreation did not indicate ‘park’ status, then nothing could.

The trail drops in height where access points are located, exposing the original wedge-shaped concrete structure.

However, the Bloomingdale trail’s usefulness as a precedent for the Kenwood embankment is limited by several important differences:

  • the social conditions surrounding the site were not nearly as dire as the epidemic of vacant plots, food poverty and widespread unemployment (and by extension, crime) plaguing the south side
  • the site was physically readier to be turned into a trail with most of its street bridges intact and in usable condition (the majority of the bridges connecting segments of the Kenwood line were removed for the benefit of large trucks, and replacing these linkages would be very expensive)
  • the Bloomingdale trail was also well-timed with funding opportunities such as the CMAQ program
  • the pre-existing economic development in this part of the city would have been a major draw for public space investment in the eyes of Mayor Emanuel and his ‘growth machine’ agenda, which serves to grow the city in easy concentrations rather than ensure economic health more evenly across the north, west and south sides