It’s gorgeous outside at the moment, but when the temperatures dip again later this week, I recommend ducking into the Pedway system for an update on how the arts are being incorporated into the design of the Bloomingdale Trail, AKA the 606. Located in the underground walkway below the Daley Center, the new exhibit “Arts and The 606” consists of ten large panels showcasing plans to turn the long-awaited trail and its access parks into a venue for public art, performance, and scientific exploration.
Thousands of downtown workers pass through the Pedway each day to avoid inclement weather and street traffic, so the display is a good way to get more Chicagoans in the loop about the project and its goals of integrating arts, culture, and sustainability into the design. The panels outline the six major access parks for the 2.7-mile trail, which is slated to open by the end of the year. A spiral-shaped observatory hill at Ridgeway will provide views of nearby active train lines, as well as the night sky. Kimball Park will include space for public art, a performance plaza and a learning garden.
Julia de Burgos Park, located between Albany and Whipple and named for a Puerto Rican poet, will feature a stage for live poetry and spoken word performances. At Churchill Park, there will be a broad arts plaza straddling Damen, which will be a space for rotating exhibitions and temporary events. At Milwaukee there will be a striking arched bridge, billboard art and sculpture installations. Walsh Park, between Marshfield and Ashland, will become a skate-and-bike park with a stage for performances.
For more information about how the arts are being incorporated into the plans, I contacted Francis Whitehead, who was hired as lead artist for the Bloomingdale in early 2012 by the Trust for Public Land, which is managing the project for the city and the park district. Whitehead, who also teaches sculpture and architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, has been working on the Phase II design process along with Collins Engineers and Van Valkenburgh Associates, a landscape design firm. “The commitment to having an artist and the arts involved is at the core of the project, not just something added in at the end,” she explained.
Whitehead is also responsible for recruiting artists, performers and other creative types to get involved with the trail in the future. That’s still in the early phases. “Until the bones of the trail are built, we might not know the best places to do the requests for proposals [for art and programming], so we’re being very mindful to keep an open mind as the construction progresses,” she said. In general, the emphasis will be on having spaces and exhibits that are seasonal, rather than permanent artworks, she said. “We want the whole project to be multipurpose, flexible, and experimental.”
The large, elevated Damen arts plaza is sure to be one of the focal points of the trail, since it will be visible from the bustling Bucktown retail strip, and vice versa. “That’s been part of the plan since the beginning of Phase II, but part of the reason for the Pedway exhibit is to call out features of the trail that might not have been highlighted before and show how they fit into the project,” Whitehead said. “You could install a large sculpture here that could be seen from Damen. The structural engineers tell us the plaza will be able to support a lot of weight.”
De Burgos Park will celebrate the poet, an advocate of Puerto Rican independence, with frequent performances, Whitehead said. “One day I found myself saying, ‘Oh, that’s the poetry zone.’ Instead of just having a monument to the poet, a ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ kind of thing, we wanted to create a place where readings and poetry slams could take place, so it will be a living memorial.”
The Pedway display also outlines a “climate monitoring artwork” dubbed Environmental Sentinel. 453 serviceberry trees will be planted along the entire length of the trail. Since the trees are very temperature sensitive, and Chicago is cooler by the lake during warm weather, the trees at the west side of the trail will bloom sooner than the ones closer to Ashland. Professional and amateur botanists, as well as school kids, will be able to make observations about the climate by comparing the progress of trees at different locations, as well as by keeping track of a particular plant from year to year.
“The running community wanted there to be mile markers along the trail, so we’ll have those set in the pavement next to the soft-surface running trail at every tenth of a mile,” Whitehead said. “Those will also help people locate a particular tree, so they’ll be able to use the trail as a sort of scientific instrument. It’s an example of how fully integrated the arts and science are in the overall plan, including culture mixed with active recreation.”