The Bloomingdale, Chicago’s Awesome New Public Space, Makes Its Debut

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The Humboldt Boulevard bridge. Photo: John Greenfield

In a 2009 Chicago Reader story, I noted that the best-case scenario for the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway would be a 2016 opening, in time for the Olympics, if then-mayor Richard M. Daley succeeded in winning the games. We all know what happened with the Olympic effort.

But here it is, only 2015, and thousands of Chicagoans of all ages and walks of life were already hanging out, strolling, jogging, biking, skating, and parading on the 2.7-mile path, last Saturday as part of the trail’s joyful opening celebration on a gorgeous spring day. The rails-to-trail conversion and the construction of several adjacent access parks never would have happened without tireless advocacy and activism from neighbors, particularly the grassroots nonprofit Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail.

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One of the many opening day processions. Photo: John Greenfield

We also need to give some credit for the speedy delivery of the trail to current mayor Rahm Emanuel. In July of 2009, the city announced its choice of the contractor to design the trail, but when Daley left office nearly two years later, the contract still hadn’t been awarded. “The project was really creeping along,” acknowledged Chicago Department of Transportation deputy commissioner Luann Hamilton at the Saturday opening. She has been involved with discussions on converting the rail line since 1987.

After he was elected in 2011, Emanuel announced his intention to open the trail within four years, which seemed next-to-impossible at the time. However, soon after he took office, the design contract was awarded, and not long after that the city lined up $50 million in federal funding to build the $95 million project. The Trust for Public Land was recruited to manage the project and raise the additional money through private donations.

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Emanuel takes a spin on the trail. Photo: John Greenfield

The opening was originally scheduled for fall of 2014, but the opening was pushed back after a brutal winter delayed construction. However, it was surreal to see the nearly completed path and parks filled with revelers on Saturday. “Mayor Emanuel galvanized support for the trail,” Luann said.

The Bloomingdale is still a work in progress – the east end near Ashland Avenue is largely a construction site, and unfinished handrails on the California Avenue access ramp created a potential hazard. TPL still needs to raise $20 million more to fund additional landscaping, public art, and other amenities, and Governor Bruce Rauner has frozen some of the state funding for access parks by the eastern and western trailheads.

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Trailside sign promoting a new development: “Experience The 606 from a place called home.”

Many residents of the largely working-class neighborhoods by the western half of the Bloomingdale have expressed concerns that, by raising property values and taxes, the trail will accelerate the process of less wealthy people being priced out of the area. The Reader, the Chicago Tribune, and RedEye, have covered the gentrification issue in depth.

You’ve also probably heard plenty of comments about the pedestrian traffic jams on the Bloomingdale during the busiest hours of the opening that made biking on the path a tricky endeavor. However, Saturday was surely far more hectic than the path will typically be. Trail-sharing issues will likely improve as people get used to the facility. Signs asking pedestrians to walk on the right side of the path and reminding cyclists to ride at slow or moderate speeds would be helpful.

However, even curmudgeons must acknowledge that the Bloomingdale is a spectacular new facility that will provide access to nature, relaxation, transportation, and healthy recreation for many, many neighbors, people from other parts of the city, and visitors. Some 80,000 people – a quarter of them children – live within a ten-minute walk of the trail, as evidenced by the multitude of cute kids in strollers and on foot, bikes, skates, and scooters last Saturday.

The day started with twelve simultaneous ribbon cuttings at the various access ramps, with 20 to 50 people at each one, many of them young children. This was followed by a massive bike parade on the trail led by West Town Bikes, featuring cycles decorated to look like a train, a unicorn, and other fanciful designs.

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Kids cut the ribbon at one of the access parks. Photo: Michael Burton

“[The Bloomingdale] is an alternative transportation corridor, a park, and a living work of art,” said Beth White, head of TPLs Chicago office, during the main ribbon cutting at the westernmost ramp. “That’s a pretty tall order, but I think we pulled it off.” The crowd responded with thunderous applause.

Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail president Ben Helphand noted that the rail embankment was built 100 years ago to exclude people by separating them from freight traffic, but residents have been reclaiming the dormant line for recreation for several decades. “When you go up there today, you still feel that sense of exploration,” he said. “You’re only 16 feet, 17 feet up in the air, but you see your community all around you with new eyes… I’m looking forward to the next 100 years of people exploring the Bloomingdale Trail.”

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A view of the trail from Humboldt Boulevard. Photo: John Greenfield

Emanuel congratulated the residents who originally pushed for the trail for never giving in and never giving up on their efforts. “This is your day, this is your park, this is your celebration,” he said. He said that, along with the riverwalk extension, the Big Marsh bike park on the Southeast Side, the renovation of Northerly Island, and a new nature preserve by Rosehill Cemetery, the Bloomingdale is part of his efforts to provide access to parks and trails for all Chicagoans.

Emanuel then strapped on a bike helmet and took a test ride on the trail. As he pushed his cycle up the ramp, a cop asked him if he rode regularly. “Yeah, I’m a big biker,” the mayor replied.

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A capoeira demonstration in Julia de Burgos Park. Photo: John Greenfield

The day was packed with activities, including multiple art processions, nature activities, and craft-making sessions, as well as a street festival on Humboldt Boulevard, several blocks of which were completely pedestrianized for the occasion. Classes, demos, and concerts included a huge yoga class, capoeira bouts, a square dancing lesson, and performances by everyone from an East Indian-funk fusion band to a Puerto Rican cuatro ensemble to a jug band.

Residents I spoke to gave the Bloomingdale rave reviews. “I think this is a big, big win for the neighborhood,” said Juana Sanchez, a retiree who lives near the access ramp at Julia de Burgos Park, located between Whipple Street and Albany Avenue. “I like the beauty. I love openness and I love trees – I’m a tree hugger – and I think this is wonderful. I think this is a great venue for all races to come together and just enjoy the city.”

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Ricky Flores, right. Photo: John Greenfield

“The Bloomingdale Trail is great for our community,” said Ricky Flores, vice president of the Chicago Cruisers, a classic bicycle club with a mostly Puerto Rican membership, which was involved in the community input process for designing the path. The club wore t-shirts with an image of the path’s Milwaukee Avenue suspension bridge transformed into a cruiser bike. “People can really travel back and forth across the neighborhoods easily now,” Flores said. “It’s faster and it’s safer.”

Javier Silva, who usually uses a wheelchair to get around, was checking out the street festival on a handcycle. “This is a beautiful event today, with lots of nice people,” he said. “I’m having a great time with my wife.” He added that the trail and its gently graded access ramps work great for people with disabilities. I asked if he’s happy the city built a fully accessible new trail and park system. “Hell yeah,” he replied.

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The Milwaukee Avenue bridge. Photo: John Greenfield

The overwhelming success of the Bloomingdale Trail will help get more Chicagoans on bicycles, and create political momentum to build more “eight-to-eighty” bike facilities, suitable for use by everyone from kids to seniors. Hopefully, we’ll see more advocacy for on-street protected bike lanes, as well as new rails-to-trails. One such project is the New E.R.A. Trail, a Bloomingdale-like elevated greenway that may be built in Englewood. The city currently has a request for proposals out for that path.

As a scenic, car-free multiuse path, the Bloomingdale will attract similar users as the Lakefront Trail, so the next logical step is to create a low-stress route connecting the two. From downtown, you can currently ride from the lakefront along the riverwalk to Dearborn Street. At that point, you can pick up an almost-uninterrupted series of protected and buffered bike lanes that takes you all the way to Milwaukee and Elston Avenues in River West, soon to be extended northwest to Division Street and Ashland Avenue in Wicker Park.

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View from the observatory at the west end of the trail. Photo: John Greenfield

In the near future, the city should create a low-stress route from there to the Bloomingdale’s eastern trailhead. Wood Street, located two blocks west of Ashland, already has a neighborhood greenway for several blocks, so that could be extended north to meet up with the trail.

In the longer term, the Bloomingdale may be extended east to cross the Kennedy Expressway, perhaps as part of the redevelopment of the nearby Finkl Steel plant. From there, it would be ideal if the city could create a network of eight-to-eighty bikeways east all the way to the pedestrian bridge over Lake Shore Drive that leads to North Avenue Beach. It’s exciting to ponder the possibilities.

View more photos of the Bloomingdale Trail here.

  • Lisa Curcio

    Very nice, in-depth account. I am pretty sure that all 80,000 of the people who live within walking distance were on the trail Saturday morning. Yes, it was a test of how slow one could go on a bike, but it was glorious to see so many people enjoying it.
    The ease with which we can now travel between the neighborhoods along the trail cannot be overstated. Even at a slow pace on my bike, I know it will be better than winding through streets, crossing busy intersections, and dealing with traffic. Hooray for the Bloomingdale Trail!

  • MayorEmanuelApologist

    The Bloomingdale Trail is a $90 million walking path for yuppies and their dogs that connects no major destinations and limited other active transportation routes. The Cal-Sag Trail is a much cheaper and better trail connecting far more people, communities and destinations.

  • Kevin Mulcahy

    Have estimates been released showing the number of people in attendance? It was PACKED!

  • DR

    Your life is sad.

  • If the blue squishy stripes were about 6″ wider they would be more clearly “this is where you walk” lanes. As it is, they’re narrow enough to appear to be decorative borders.

    Also, it was incredibly difficult figuring out where the down-ramps were, even when standing within 20ft of one — apparently once the trees and grasses grow in the plantings will help lampshade that, which will be nice.

    It would also be nice if the trail maps included information on the features of the various landing-spot parks (like which have playground equipment, water fountains, the dog park at Damen, etc). Right now the trail maps are just “here is a trail, there are entry ramps,” which is really bare-bones.

    Back when Streetsblog was posting renderings and prospective ideas, there appeared to be a LOT of parts where it would get wide and the “trail” would swerve to the side, with green space and sitting space — but I walked from Julia de Burgos to Damen and saw three benches, total, and very little planting space at all. Are the wide spots outside of that length, or did they mostly not get built?

  • JacobEPeters

    The only way to truly complement something you love is to put down & insult someone else’s. If you had been on the Trail Saturday you’d know that none of your critiques are accurate or valid. I can’t wait to use the Cal-Sag though the next time I am biking the south lands.

  • JacobEPeters

    There are a bunch of benches & seating elements where only the supports seem to be installed. But between Damen & Jula de Burgos you at least passed the Humboldt blvd benches, and the boulder seating elements at the Milwaukee stairs & access point. There are 3 parks abutting the trail which have yet to be built and 3 or more sections of side paths are partly installed or still under constructions, but all of them are West of Kedzie or East of Damen.

    As for trail maps, it would be great to have informational plaques at wider sections to draw users off the central path & give information about the history of the line, or nearby attractions.

  • Kevin M

    Thank you, Chicago and Pacific Railroad Company.

  • tooter turtle

    Only infra that serves my needs has value; infra that serves the needs of other, less worthy, people should not be built.

  • David Altenburg

    Informational plaques about the history of sites along the trails are planned.

    It seems like there are more benches installed on the western part of the trail than on the eastern part. West of Kedzie, the character changes quite a bit because the trail doesn’t have residences built so closely, so it is able to widen out a bit and provide some walking paths that meander away from the main paved part.

  • Speaking up for the Southland

    Ignoring the earlier provocative “yuppie” comment, there is a point in the post. The Cal-Sag Trail does provide access to far more people, connect more communities, and was accomplished for less money than the Bloomingdale. Both projects can be good, but the Cal-Sag’s benefits are worth reporting.

  • duppie

    Having ridden the Cal-Sag trail from beginning to end twice now, I can say that it is a fantastic trail: tranquility, wide open views, interspersed with dense forest, make for a wonderful riding experience. But to compare it to the the Bloomingdale and concluding that it is superior, smells like sour grapes, at best:

    The differences could not be more stark: location of trail (suburban forest preserve v. dense city neighborhood), intended use (recreational v. connecting neigborhoods, history of trail (greenfield v an abandonded raillline, funding of trail (multiple communities combining to write one grant proposal v. a promise by one megalomaniac mayor), you name it. It is all different. Comparing it and declaring a winner is not possible.

  • Thanks Lisa.

  • Humboldt has outward-facing auditorium-style cliffs, but I wouldn’t call them benches, exactly; they encourage people to squish together for a very specific purpose, not sit as a group socially to, say, have a picnic lunch in the middle of doing the trail.

    I did include both the Humboldt inside-out auditorium and the unfinished benches we passed when I said I’d seen three spots.

    What I mean is that in person it feels a lot more like its intended purpose is “Walk/ride/perambulate as fast as is comfortable in a straight line from one (off-trail) destination to another”, as opposed to the pre-release renderings, which seemed to imply it has regularly-spaced “take a step back from the trail and enjoy it as a park” sections. At least between Julia de Burgos and Damen, there weren’t any, just a ribbon of sun-baked concrete and minimal space for plants or pausing.

  • Waiting for Google Maps to update its satellite imagery, or the 606 site to actually put a map of the trail itself (instead of just an abstract line with dots on it) up so I can explore it from home and figure out better segments to go recreate upon.

  • My family had nothing to do with the history of the Cal-Sag Trail.

  • Folks, no personal attacks please. Additional comments along these lines will be deleted. Thank you.

  • Here’s a long article I wrote on both trails for Rails-to-Trails Magazine. http://magazine.railstotrails.org/resources/magflipbooks/2015_spring/files/assets/basic-html/page18.html

  • JacobEPeters

    there is quite a bit of structure that is in the groves parallel to the trail which seem to be awaiting seats.

  • Astralmilkman

    Congrats on the opening of the Bloomingdale trail . I enjoyed listening to their rep when they visited Philadelphia and spoke at the Academy of Natural sciences some time ago. The next Rails to Trails story will be the first phase of THE RAIL PARK in Philadelphia. A quarter mile rise from street level up to the viaduct. When complete the 3 miles will connect over 50 city block without crossing a single street. With a extension of the trail and dedicated bike lanes on girard ave you’ll be able to ride or walk almost from center city to the Philadelphia zoo ( the my nesters will love that ), many of us Rail Park fans have even grander visions . Keep pushing Chicago …. To complete the trail

  • BlueFairlane

    I was going to walk the whole thing the first day, regardless, and I think the rest of the free world probably felt the same way. I look forward to things calming down a bit, though I expect any pretty Saturday will look much the same way. I liked what I saw beneath the sea of humanity. Winter will be nice.

    On a side note, I am almost sure I saw Steven Vance with a big group of people toward the western end of the trail, listening to a guy I might have seen before in pictures giving a talk while holding a ChicAIAgo sign. I would have introduced myself, but 1.) I didn’t want to interrupt, and 2.) I’m awkward about introducing myself to locally famous celebrities I’ve only seen in pictures without being sure they’re actually them. I never saw John Greenfield anywhere, but I think he’d be more likely to want to slap me around, anyway.

  • David Altenburg

    My personal recommendation is St. Louis Ave. There, there’s a grove a trees, and a small footpath diverts from the main trail. To the west, you can see the waterpower and smokestack from the end of the trail. It’s beautiful there.

  • David Altenburg

    Some unorganized thoughts on the trail so far:

    My family spent Saturday on foot because the trail was so crowded, we thought that riding our bikes would be unpleasant. Plus, strolling along at walking speed allowed us to take in a lot of detail. It also allowed us to stop and chat with countless neighbors. For all the (justified) concerns about displacement in the neighborhoods the trail passes through, I’m optimistic that this trail will be a unifier for the neighborhood. Yesterday (Sunday), we rode end to end, and that was pleasant in a different way. It got pretty crowded once it became clear that the rain would hold off, but it was still an enjoyable, slow ride.

    Today, I commuted both ways on it. In the morning, the crowd was mostly joggers and bike commuters. I did have to come to a near stop a few times due to dog walkers with extended leashes. It beats coming to a stop because a car swerved into the bike lane or even for a red light. Going home, I took Elston to Cortland to the trail. That connection needs improvement if it’s going to attract cyclists who aren’t comfortable being assertive in automobile traffic. Reaching the trail after riding on Milwaukee and Elston (and then under the Kennedy) was a dramatic change – it seems so peaceful up top after riding on those streets. I had to ride much more slowly in the afternoon than in the morning because there were a lot more recreational users, but I didn’t mind at all. A number of the users there were little kids on bikes. I can’t overstate how happy it makes me to see that. I’m always glad to have to slow down for a child learning to ride a bike. I hope my fellow cyclists are too.

    I am really curious if the air up there is measurably cleaner than the air on the surface-level streets. It seems plausible to me that it would be.

    My bedroom overlooks the trail, so today I watched as a number of folks up there got caught in the rain (and then hail!). What was surprising to me was how quickly the trail became crowded again once the rain let up. It’ll be really interesting to see how crowded the trail is once the novelty wears off. I suspect that during good weather, it will continue to get heavy usage. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about how crowded it’s been the first few days, but I see the crowds as a good thing. Those crowds mean a lot of people who are outside, getting exercise, being social. That can only be good for our city.

  • Yep that was me.

  • The Trail-Marshfield-Cortland-Elston connection is crappy, especially under the Kennedy and Metra viaducts and between them and the Cortland bridge (which, FYI, has only a sidewalk in commission).

  • BlueFairlane

    I first came at the the trail from Ashland and moved west, and I had an enormous amount of trouble figuring out how to get on it. I could see the trail and all the people from the Ashland sidewalk beneath the Kennedy, but I couldn’t easily see the connection. And I wasn’t alone. While I was walking back and forth, I had two people on bikes and a group of four pushing a stroller ask me if I knew how to get on it.

    I’d say they need better signs, but that would imply they had signs.

  • They do have signs. For bicyclists, in the typical wide-green style. However, their placement is weird. For example, the sign is placed on WB Cortland at such a point where one should have already made their merge to the left.

  • skelter weeks

    For Halloween, they have to decorate it with scary stuff and call it ‘The 666’.
    And when I say scary stuff, I don’t mean Trib headlines about crime.

  • skelter weeks

    $95 million for an elevated sidewalk. Only in Chicago.

  • Neat time-lapse showing the trail end to end:

    https://youtu.be/paAAhfqblHY

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At Last, the Bloomingdale Looks Like a Trail

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In June, Steven Vance and I got a sneak peek at construction to build the Bloomingdale Trail, AKA The 606. On Tuesday, I went back up on the rail line for a tour with Beth White from the Trust for Public Land, which is managing the project, and saw that major progress has been made […]