In Some Ways, The 606 Isn’t as Good as the High Line — It’s Better

Ridgeway from the air on Opening Day
According to Renn, The 606 is not “a project of citywide significance, nor a bona fide tourist attraction.” Photo: Trust for Public Land

Nationally known urbanist and ex-Chicagoan Aaron Renn recently threw shade on our city’s beloved new linear park with a blog post titled “How Chicago’s 606 Trail Fell Short of Expectations.” He wrote that the new path, aka the Bloomingdale Trail, doesn’t hold a candle to the High Line in Manhattan, where he now resides. However, I’d argue that The 606 is superior on a few different levels.

During a recent visit to Chicago, Renn checked out three of the city’s new public spaces and was wowed by the new riverwalk extension and Maggie Daley Park. However, he was unimpressed with the 2.7-mile trail-and-parks system on the Northwest Side:

The problem with The 606 is not that it’s bad. In fact, it’s a nice, eminently serviceable rail trail. I won’t do a full writeup since Edward Keegan had a good review in Crain’s in which he asks, “Is that all there is?’ that I think gets it basically right… What I will do is highlight three areas that I think contribute to Keegan being underwhelmed: inflated expectations, financing problems, and an odd lack of attention to design detail.

What Keegan, actually wrote is that visitors to the new path might ask themselves “Is that all there is?” because it lacks the show-stopping design elements of the High Line or Millennium Park. But Keegan himself wasn’t underwhelmed – he argued that The 606’s relative minimalism is appropriate. “It’s an example of simple, clear and modest design being almost the right answer.” The “almost” is there because he thinks the designers should have been bolder with a few elements, such as the trail’s “clumsy and inelegant” Milwaukee Avenue bridge, and he wishes there were more places to sit and linger.

However, Keegan noted that “the designers deftly move the path from side to side and up and down to the extent possible to provide as interesting a path as possible for its users.” He also praises the wide plaza at Damen, the stadium-style seating area at Humboldt Boulevard, and the poplar grove between St. Louis and Drake, as well as the thoughtful trail lighting.

In his own post, Renn notes that the city of Chicago set up expectations that The 606 would surpass the High Line, but he argues that it isn’t even in the same class:

The 606 is not even remotely another High Line, nor a project of citywide significance, nor a bona fide tourist attraction for the masses. It’s a neighborhood-serving rail-trail that is elevated above the streets with some nice features like lighting that you don’t see often.

While the Bloomingdale may never be the tourist attraction that the High Line is, it certainly draws people from many different parts of Chicago, and it beats the NYC facility in three different departments. It’s nearly twice as long as the 1.45-mile Manhattan path. Unlike the High Line, you can bike on the Bloomingdale, and it provides direct access to many public schools, so it functions as a very useful transportation link.

Thirdly, The 606 is more democratic. The High Line runs through some of the nation’s priciest real estate and, during the three times I’ve visited it, the crowd seemed to be pretty homogenous.

The High Line
The High Line. Photo: Susan Sermoneta

In contrast, the Bloomingdale connects neighborhoods that are – at least for now – economically and ethnically diverse, including parts of Chicago that sorely needed more green space and recreational opportunities. As such, it benefits a much wider demographic. On summer evenings, it’s common to see entire working-class families, including grandparents and little kids, out strolling on The 606. That’s a sight you probably won’t come across in Chelsea.

Some Chicagoans have argued that the city is spending too much money to make The 606 a world-class amenity, while a simple paved path might have had similar benefits, with less impact on gentrification. However, Renn argues that the trail had “a budget that was too low.”

The budget for the $95 million project includes $50 million in federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grants and $5 million in city, Chicago Park District, and Cook County funds, with the remaining $40 million coming from private donations. The Trust for Public Land, which is managing The 606 project, has raised $24 million of the private money so far and is still working on raising the remaining $16 million, according to Beth White, director of TPL’s local office.

Renn says the use of unfinished galvanized metal for railings and security fences along The 606 gives the trail something of a prison yard vibe, and he suspects that this design choice may have been due to funding limitations. He does acknowledge that some of the “austere” feel of the path is due to the fact that not all the landscaping is in place, and it will take years until all of it grows to maturity.

What he doesn’t seem to get is that the trail itself is still largely a work in progress. The city’s plan was always to get it in functional shape as early as possible, and then raise additional money for more plantings and public art, plus recreational equipment for the access parks, as well as maintenance and programming.

IMG_1872
The Bloomingdale Trail on opening day. Photo: John Greenfield

For example, after Renn visited in early September, an 11-foot-tall sculpture entitled “Brick House” by artist Chakaia Booker was erected in the Damen plaza. White says that the installation of the last remaining railings and landscaping for the trail should be completed by the end of the year, with additional irrigation work taking place next spring.

Renn admitted that he wasn’t sure what the remaining money to be raised will be used for. Some of that $16 million will go towards building a new access park at the west end of the trail, on the former Magid Glove factory site. The money will also be used to create a new plaza on the trail at Kimball, the widest part of the path, which is currently being used as a construction staging area. Funding will also go towards establishing a bike-and-skateboard park at the eastern trailhead.

In addition to the Milwaukee bridge, which I agree turned out to be a lot less attractive than it looked in the renderings, Renn dislikes the blue rubberized jogging paths. He even has a quibble with the name “The 606,” which he thinks most out-of-towners will mistake for an area code prefix, rather than the first three digits of Chicago zip codes. “These aren’t huge items, but cumulatively they add up,” he argues.

Renn concludes:

If only it had originally been sold for what it was instead of a High Line beater, had raised that last $20 million (plus a bit more, perhaps), and had a little more attention to detail in some design elements, the 606 would be probably be seen as something that significantly exceeded expectations instead of something that did not live up to the hype.

I think he’s vastly outnumbered by those who feel The 606 is a huge success, rather than a disappointment. And while the High Line is obviously a terrific facility, I’ll take a nearly-twice-as-long transportation amenity, that serves a wide range of folks, over a tourist attraction any day.

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  • The issue is not dealing with a minor inconvenience, I have been riding on Chicago streets for pushing 30 years and have never come close to even grazing a pedestrian. The issue is education and mutual respect for all users – just like with the LFT, if you want to stay put for a period of time god bless you, but invest the 1/2 second it will take you to step to the side so that you aren’t pointlessly obstructing a much larger number of people’s travel.

    The car metaphor that is appropriate here would be people who double park on a street where there are plentiful parking spaces, but which might require one to walk an extra 25 feet. Pedestrians are not virtuous simply due to being pedestrians, everybody needs to respect the function of the Commons.

  • Good point: According to Beth White from TPL, one of the main reasons that the name was changed to The 606 was to avoid confusion with Bloomingdale’s department store and the suburb of Bloomingdale, partly to facilitate future sponsorship.

  • dr

    All of your complaints amount to wanting the trail to play a role it doesn’t; they are non-factors for an inter-neighborhood active transit link.

    1: Wayfinding – an interesting complaint, and I wouldn’t object to better signage, but they are entirely unnecessary for anyone using the trail for utility (predetermined usage and entrance + exit decisions) and anyone who has lived in the adjoining neighborhoods for more than a month or two.
    2: Street-Level visibility – similarly a non-factor for anyone in the area regularly.
    3: Amenities – a non-factor for any non-pregnant or other special need users, as trips are not long enough to necessitate. Also there are plenty of water fountains – one every 5-7 minutes of walking.
    4: These is the perception of someone who doesn’t live by the trail. It is an almost unavoidable leg for every east-west trip I make, and provides access to a huge number of my daily destinations. It connects daily trips, not bi-yearly trips.

    Your complaints are essentially all the same objection to the fact that the trail doesn’t fulfill the uses you would like to use it for, but you ignore the fact that it fulfills many, many more practical functions for other people.

    All the criticisms I’ve read fail to understand the 606 as a local amenity, and instead tackle it as a regional tourist destination, and this completely misses how quickly it has become integral to the fabric of the neighborhoods it exists in.

  • skelter weeks

    The 606 was promoted as both. It was promoted as a transportation corridor to the Feds to get the $50 million CMAQ grant, and promoted as a park to donors (the elite). Then they put a park organization in control (TPL), so guess who won? Basically, they stole the 50 mill to build parks, and screw the bikes. Why else would so many of the ramps face the wrong way/be on the wrong side of the street? Why else make a narrow path even narrower (increase congestion/possibility of collision) by putting ‘blue strips’ on the sides? (You can ride your bike on them – probably some federal grant money rule – but they’ve managed to fool most people into believing they can’t), Also the unnecessary changes in elevation, the ramps on side streets hidden away from marked bike routes, the ramp obstructions/gates. They didn’t want another Lakefront Trail, that’s for sure.
    Seeing as how most the traffic on the trail (bikes/peds/joggers) is induced demand, and not ‘replaced car trips’, the feds should ask for their money back.

  • disqus_IG93K4Xq6q

    It just isn’t the 606 that lacks bravado in the City of Chicago. It’s much more. The city could be such a great place to live, however it’s completely over-shadowed by the nearly 100 years of systematic dysfunction that’s plagued the city and continues to get worse. I support Aaron Renn’s honest assessment of the trail. Just because he lives in NYC doesn’t mean he’s a hater of Chicago. Don’t take it personal.

    Living in Chicago is like living in the Middle-East. You live in a land Rich with Gold yet your freedoms are suppressed and opportunities controlled. Your safety is at stake (chiraq), you’re living in a police state and your government is beyond corrupt. So no matter what the city does in terms of “so-called” improvements, quality of life in Chicago still sucks beyond belief. The city is broke and not solving its fiscal mismanagements, the schools are horrible, the streets are LITERALLY deadlier than the Middle-East, the sales tax is 9.25% or 9.75%…i loss track) the city is hyper-segregated, police are underhanded, the city government corruption runs rampant and a nickel and dime pool of regressive taxes are introduced quarterly. I can go on forever and a day. No matter how charming some of the neighborhoods appear, the crap that goes along with it isn’t worth it. The High Line, Maggot Daley Park etc…are simply lipstick on a pig. So no matter what Chicago does, it’ll always be Dirty Chicago. Beautiful city wasted on the ill fortunate.

  • Points taken. But you have to admit, the food is great here.

  • Chicago will do just fine without more of this entitled attitude permeating the air – we have poor and working class commnities here and hopefully we always will. Spend some time in Iraq and then come back here and tell us how Chicago looks. And please continue to tell yourself that Chicago has some kind of a monopoly on corruption and waste, that’s beyond hilarious. We don’t even measure up to the Olympics.

  • galisteo99

    This is a SMART comment! Bravo.

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