Teens Help Spread the Word About the Bloomingdale Bridge Transplant

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The Ashland bridge removal. Image: Trust for Public Land

Tomorrow morning, early risers can catch what may be the most dramatic step in the process of converting the Bloomingdale Line to an elevated greenway and linear park. Starting around 5 a.m., crews will begin the process of transporting the rail line’s massive Ashland bridge 1.5 miles to its new home at Western.

“On Saturday, you’re going to see a bridge parade,” said Beth White, director of the local office of the Trust for Public Land, which is managing the Bloomingdale Trail project for the city and the Chicago Park District. The span will be rolled down Ashland, North and Western using a device called a self-propelled modular transporter, operated by remote by a crew member with a joystick.

“It’s a piece of very specialized machinery that moves very large things,” White said. “It has about 80 wheels. It’s the same piece of machinery that was used to move the space shuttle. You’ll see the machine move the bridge into place, and then they’ll secure the bridge, and the machine sort of collapses down and is taken away in pieces.”

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The Western bridge site. Photo: John Greenfield

The old Western bridge was the only one that was found to be structurally unsound for the Bloomingdale Trail, the centerpiece of the park network the city has dubbed The 606. Meanwhile, plans call for the trail to terminate at Walsh Park, on the west side of Ashland, although White says it will eventually be extended east to Elston.

In March, crews demolished the Western bridge and took down the Ashland bridge, which is currently sitting in a park district work yard just north of Wash Park. They also removed concrete from the line’s Milwaukee bridge, when will be elevated and enhanced with decorative arches.

“One of the goals of the sustainability plan for The 606 was to reuse and repurpose infrastructure,” White said. She estimates that recycling the Ashland bridge will save $300,000 compared to building a new Western bridge. “So it wasn’t just a case of, ‘It would be cool to repurpose the bridge.’”

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The Milwaukee bridge, sans concrete. Photo: John Greenfield

During Saturday’s bridge procession, parking will be banned along the route, and police will institute rolling street closures as the bridge and its transporter cruise along at a tractor-like one-to-five mph. The public is welcome to walk behind the bridge to observe this unique spectacle, White said.

While the bridge is reinstalled, through traffic on Western will be prohibited. Buses and cars will detour around the closure via North, California, and Armitage; pedestrians and cyclists are directed to side streets in the immediate vicinity of the bridge work.

To get the word out about the bridge projects and their effects on traffic and parking, TPL has hired Humboldt Park high school students to talk to commuters at transit stations and local business owners, and to flyer cars and homes in the neighborhoods. The teens, called The 606 Community Ambassadors, are recruited via the community organization Build Chicago, and are paid $30 per shift.

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TPL and Build Chicago staff and ambassadors prep outside the Western stop. Photo: John Greenfield

“One thing we kept hearing at public meetings for The 606 is that the neighbors wanted there to be a connection to the community,” said Bonnie Tawes, civic engagement coordinator for TPL. “They wanted youth to be involved, learn some skills, and, if possible, earn some money. They told us, ‘If you can hire locally, do it.’” She said the outreach job educates the kids about how city infrastructure projects work, while giving them experience with public speaking and interacting with different kinds of people.

TPL is also hiring youth from the nonprofit Community Television Network, headquartered at the Bloomingdale Arts Building, just west of the Western bridge site, to film the move. The group also documents the Western demolition and the Ashland removal.

Yesterday after work, the ambassadors were offering info on the bridge transplant to commuters exiting the Western Blue Line station. Vanessa Perez, a junior at Prosser Career Academy, said she enjoyed getting to interact with new people, and that the job has sharpened her communications skills. “The Bloomingdale is an elevated park that will really be a great asset to the community,” she said. “I’ll probably go up there to ride my bike.”

Arturo Lopez, a sophomore, Noble Street College Prep, said he enjoys helping out his neighbors by informing them about the street closures and parking bans, and that working as an ambassador has helped him become less shy. “I’m excited about the Bloomingdale,” he said. “I’m going to be able to take jogs there in the morning. It’s going to connect Humboldt Park with other communities.”