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Purple Ride: Chicago’s South Side Critical Mass Pays Tribute to Prince

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Members of Chicago’s South Side Critical Mass at the Prince mural by Rahmaan “Statik” Barnes. Photo: South Side Critical Mass

“I put her on the back of my bike and we went riding / Down by Old Man Johnson’s Farm.” – Prince, “Raspberry Beret”

OK, it’s true that the Purple One was talking about a motorcycle, not a bicycle, in that beloved pop song. And, sure, one of his biggest hits compared a lover to a “Little Red Corvette.” But there are plenty of photographs out there proving that the late, great Prince Rogers Nelson enjoyed cycling.

So it’s appropriate that Chicago’s South Side Critical Mass bike group paid tribute to the self-proclaimed “purple Yoda… from the heart of Minnesota” with a Prince tribute ride last Friday. They made a pilgrimage to a new mural in his honor on the side of an auto repair shop in the Avalon Park nieghborhood, and then pedaled east to purify themselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, I mean Michigan.

South Side Critical Mass, a spinoff of the larger Chicago Critical Mass rides that leave from downtown, meets every third Friday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at Nat “King” Cole Park, 361 East 85th Street, departing at 7, and drawing a mostly African-American ridership. For the Prince ride, they wore their finest purple garb and towed a sound system blasting songs like “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” and “Pop Life,” to the delight of passers-by.

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The full group at Nat “King” Cole Park. Danielle McKinnie and her sister Alisa Holman are in the center with T-shirt’s bearing Prince’s symbol. Photo: South Side Critical Mass

Danielle McKinnie, a technical trainer at Lurie Children’s Hospital, showed up for the cruise with her sister Alisa Holman, who made special T-shirts featuring The Artist’s mysterious symbol. McKinnie says the ride seemed like a natural way to honor the man whose music had brought them so much joy. “You know he rode his bike just before he passed away,” she noted.

From the park, the group pedaled in the 83rd Street bike lanes towards the mural, singing and grooving to the funky tunes while spectators waved and beeped their horns in approval. “People seemed pleased and a little surprised to see us out on our bikes, especially with the South Side having such negative connotations because of violence,” McKinnie said. “We always get that reaction – people are really happy to see us.”

They stopped by the mural at 8051 South Stony Island, painted last month by artist Rahmaan “Statik” Barnes in the wake of the legend’s untimely death. Prince appears as he does on the cover of the “Purple Rain” album, astride a violet motorcycle, but with angel wings.

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Moreno Announces Chicago’s First Affordable TOD Project in Logan Square

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Rendering of the planned affordable TOD, 2031 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Transit-oriented development is a sensible way to build housing. Creating dense housing within a short walk of transit stations, without a lot of off-street parking makes it easier for more people to live without having to own a car. It leads to fewer newcomers bringing autos into neighborhoods, which reduces congestion and pollution. And, since garage spaces cost tens of thousands of dollars to build, it saves money for developers, which can result in lower condo prices and apartment rents.

Unfortunately, in Chicago TOD has become associated with luxury. Virtually all of the dense, parking-lite towers that have been constructed since the city’s TOD ordinance passed in 2013 have been high-end buildings in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods.

In Logan Square, anti-displacement activists like Somos (“We Are”) Logan Square have argued that new upscale TOD towers being built along Milwaukee Avenue near Blue Line stations will accelerate gentrification by encouraging other landlords to jack up rents. On the other hand, pro-TOD advocates such as the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which recently held a workshop on equitable TOD development, say that building more units in gentrifying neighborhoods can take pressure off the existing rental market.

For better or for worse, the poster boy for TOD in Chicago is 1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, who sponsored the 2013 ordinance, which halved the city’s usual 1:1 parking ratio requirements for new developments within 600 feet of an ‘L’ or Metra station. City Council passed a beefed-up version of the ordinance last fall, which essentially waived the parking requirements completely for developments within a quarter mile of stations, a half mile on designated Pedestrian Streets.

Moreno, unlike most Chicago aldermen, insists that ten percent of the units in new developments in his Ward be on-site affordable housing, instead of allowing developers to take the cheaper route of paying into the city’s affordable housing fund, before he’ll approve zoning changes.

However, he’s come under fire from Somos Logan and other activists, who’ve held protests against upscale TOD developments like the Twin Towers and “L” on the 2200 block of North Milwaukee Avenue. They argue that to mitigate what they say will be the gentrifying effect of these projects, the developers should be forced to make 30 percent of the units affordable. And while the city defines affordable units as being affordable to those making 60 percent of the Chicago region’s area median income, the activists say the threshold should be lowered to 30 percent, to make the units affordable to the community’s Latino families.

To promote these goals, Somos and several other groups are holding a protest and march today called “Our Neighborhood is NOT For Sale / El Barrio NO Se Vende: Rally Against Alderman Joe Moreno and Luxury Development.” It starts at 11:30 at Moreno’s office, 2740 West North, and is ending at the twin towers, 2923 North Milwaukee.

The activists are also calling for a moratorium on rezoning for new luxury developments “until we can establish policy for truly equitable development in our community.” They also want to see the Chicago Housing Authority’s surplus for Project Based Vouchers to get more affordable units in luxury developments.

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Last month members of Somos Logan, Lifted Voices, and other groups barricaded Milwaukee to protest the Two Towers TOD project. Photo: Eric Cynic

So it’s probably not a coincidence that Moreno is holding his own event a couple hours later today to promote the city’s first 100-percent affordable TOD, an 88-unit, LGBT-friendly apartment building planned for the current Congress Pizza parking lot at 2031 North Milwaukee. From 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. the alderman is hosting an open house at the site to release more details about the plan as the first step in the community review and approval process for the proposal.

Moreno’s office didn’t respond to an interview request I made yesterday, but it’s safe to assume that, as an affordable TOD located a four-minute walk from the Blue Line’s Western stop, it will have far less than a 1:1 parking-to-units ratio.

It’s not yet clear exactly what aspects of the tower will be LGBT-friendly, but it will likely have some similarities to the Town Hall Apartments in Boystown, which provide affordable senior housing geared towards the LGBT community, including onsite social social service providers. Low-income LGBT individuals often face housing discrimination and estrangement from family members who might otherwise provide support.

The Logan development is called the John Pennycuff Memorial Apartments at Robert Castillo Plaza, named after two men who were partners in life and activism, advocating for LGBT rights as well as affordable housing in Logan Square, according to Moreno. The project will be funded by tax-increment financing dollars, plus Chicago Housing Authority money.

It’s great to see that the TOD ordinance is finally being used to create a building dedicated to transit-friendly affordable housing. The Pennycuff apartments will make it easy for residents of modest means to get around without having to rely on driving, which will further reduce their living expenses.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Somos Logan spokeswoman Justine Bayod told me yesterday. “We consider any affordable development in Logan Square a win for our community.” She said Somos will send representatives to the open house.

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During His Musical Bike Tour, Al Scorch Discusses the Perks of Car-Free Gigs

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Al Scorch rides a bike decorated to look like the heart-pierced-with-swords emblem from his album cover, while towing his banjo and guitar. Photo: John Greenfield

In a Chicago Reader cover story this week, rising banjo star Al Scorch credits the local bike advocacy community with helping to launch his music career:

I played this show at the Hideout when I was 18. It was a benefit for Bike Winter, which is a winter-biking education advocacy group. One of my first communities in Chicago, before the music community, was the bicycle-­activism community around Critical Mass—in 2000 to 2004 or 2005. That and Rat Patrol [freak bike gang]. My world was bicycles – and it was simultaneously music.

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The bike procession passes by Horner Park at Irving Park and California. Photo: John Greenfield

On Saturday Scorch, who worked for years at West Town Bikes, gave a shout-out of sorts to the local bike scene. To celebrate the release of his new album of high-octane, five-string-fueled “country soul” music, entitled Circle Round the Signs, he led a bike tour of five local record shops. Scorch and his band hauled all their instruments – including banjo, fiddle, drums, and upright bass – by bike, and then did an in-store performance at each store.

Dozens of bike riders joined the group for a bike procession the size of a small Critical Mass ride. The turnout included double-decker tall bikes, chopper bikes with extra-long forks, a tricycle with a giant cooler box hauling beef and vegan tacos, and a pedicab blaring a house music remix of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

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Scorch’s drummer loads his bike outside Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Lincoln Square. Photo: John Greenfield

Scorch hauled his banjo and guitar and a Fresh Air trailer while riding a bike decorated to look like one of the sword-pierced hearts from his album cover. During the leg of the tour I rode on, bystanders on foot and in vehicles gave a warm reception to the colorful parade.

As Scorch tuned his banjo before playing at Bucket O’ Blood Books and Records in Avondale, I buttonholed him for a quick interview about why he prefers to tour on two wheels.

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Celebrate The 606 at Its One-Year Anniversary Party Next Month

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The anniversary celebration will feature many processions like this one, which took place on opening day. Photo: John Greenfield

It’s hard to believe it’s been less than a year since the Bloomingdale Trail, also known as The 606, debuted last June 6th (6/06). The elevated greenway already seems like a Chicago institution, and it’s a little hard to remember a time Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park didn’t have a ribbon of recreational space running through them.

On Saturday, June 4, the Chicago Park District and the Trust for Public Land, which is managing the ongoing development of the path and access park system, are celebrating its one-year anniversary with The 606 Block Party. The festival will be similar to last year’s opening celebration, which drew an estimated 50,000 attendees to check out the new trail, a street party on Humboldt Boulevard, live music, and parades along the path.

“It was no small task to turn an unused rail line into a green, open space – with a network of parks, art installations and community programming that supports recreation, education, and wellness,” stated Jamie Simone, who took the reins of TPLs regional office after director Beth White recently stepped down to lead a parks group in Houston. “The 606 Block Party is our way of thanking the communities, partners and donors who helped build this beloved Chicago park and make it a success.”

The opening of the Bloomingdale has helped spur a wave of upscale along the trail corridor, and some longtime residents have expressed concerns that rising property values, property taxes, and rents may price them out of the area. However, TPL noted in the news release for the anniversary celebration that, in addition to the trail’s massive popularity as a recreational resource, there have been a number of positive milestones on the trail in the past year year:

  • The installation of Chakaia Booker’s “Brick House 2015” sculpture
  • Star-gazing events with the Adler Planetarium and the Chicago Park District at the observatory at the path’s western trailhead
  • Youth ambassadors from West Town Bikes promoting bike safety on the path
  • Moos Elementary School students participating in an after-school running club
  • Quarterly celebrations and community events with Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail.

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Trying Out New Roll-on Bike Service on the Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee

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Maybe “Hoist-on service” would be more accurate, but simply handing your bike to an Amtrak worker is much more convenient than boxing and checking it. Photo: John Greenfield

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This morning as officials cut the ribbon for roll-on bike service on Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service trains, a whole new set of destinations that can easily be accessed without a car opened up for Chicago and Milwaukee residents.

While the Hiawatha line has allowed passengers to check boxed bikes as luggage for years, it’s a relatively expensive and cumbersome affair. There’s a $10 surcharge each way, the boxes are $15 if you purchase them from the railway, and then you have to dissemble your bike and box it up on each leg of the trip.

Now passengers can pay a mere $5 surcharge each way and simply roll their bikes up to the baggage car, where a staffer will hang it on a vertical bike rack. The one-way adult fare for the Hiawatha Service is $25, with discounts available for ten-ride tickets and monthly passes.

Reservations are required for the roll-on service. To reserve a space for your bike, select “add bike” when booking your trip online, on the phone at 800-USA-RAIL, or when using the ticket counters or the Quik-Trak SM kiosks at both stations. Only standard-size bikes are permitted.

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Bikes in the baggage car — some were more festive than others. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday I rode Metra to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with my bicycle (one-way weekday fare from the Ravenswood stop was $9) and then pedaled some 40 miles to Milwaukee for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was attended by a dozen or two local bike advocates.

“We have worked with [the Wisconsin Department of Transportation] by thinking ‘out of the box’ and mounting 15 bike racks in the [baggage car] on each of the Hiawatha trains,” said Jim Brzezinski, Amtrak’s senior regional director for state corridors. “This will make bringing your bike along on these trips more welcoming and get you on your wheels and pedaling away immediately after arrival.”

“No assembly required, starting now for bicyclists,” said John Alley, WisDOT’s transit, local roads, railroads & harbors manager. “This saves our bicycling passengers money and makes their everyday journeys or vacation trips to explore Milwaukee and Chicago so much easier.”

When the folks with bikes approached the baggage car, Amtrak employees cheerfully hauled their cycles onboard. I was asked to remove my panniers beforehand.

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Shop by Bike and Win Prizes During the “Ride & Seek Lakeview” Promotion

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This sticker in a shop’s window means they offer a discount to cyclists.

Smart community leaders brainstorm ways to get more butts on bicycles. After all, more people traveling in the neighborhood on two wheels instead of four means less traffic congestions and pollution. And when more shoppers access retail strips by bikes instead of cars, there are similar (or even better) economic benefits for the area, with less need for car parking. Plus, when people travel at slower speeds, they’re more likely to notice local storefronts and consider patronizing the businesses.

Accordingly, the Lakeview and Lakeview East chambers of commerce are partnering this year on a Bike-Friendly Business District program that promotes shopping local and helps promote the Lakeview neighborhood as a great place to shop by bike. The Lakeview chamber originally launched the initiative in 2014 through a partnership with the West Town Chamber of Commerce and the Active Transportation Alliance. The program includes improved cycling infrastructure, promotional materials and bike maps, plus educational and encouragement activities like workshops and rides, plus a discount program for customers arriving by bicycle.

Both the Lakeview and Lakeview East chambers have installed dozens of branded bike racks on their business strips featuring the names of the neighborhoods, paid for with Special Service Area funds. The Lakeview East racks have temporarily been removed for refurbishing.

Last year the Lakeview chamber installed a fix-it station at the Southport Brown Line station with a pump and tools for simple repairs. Unlike the fix-it stations that West Town Bikes recently installed on the Bloomingdale Trail, which sadly were vandalized soon after installation, the Southport facility hasn’t seen major tool theft problems, according to SSA 27 manager Dillon Goodson.

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What Could Chicagoans Learn About Rail Transportation From a Trip to Japan?

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A Streetcar in Hiroshima. Photo: Rick Harnish

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is hosting a train-focused tour of Japan that should offer Chicago residents a fascinating window on what’s like to live with truly world-class transit and railroad service. The trip, which takes place between September 27 and October 9, is an opportunity to check out how fast, frequent, and dependable trains help create vibrant communities.

MHSRA president Rick Harnish has previously led rail-focused tours of Spain, France, Germany and China. Highlights of the Japan trip will include riding the Shinkansen bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka – the world’s first and busiest high-speed line. Participants will tour a maintenance facility for JR Central, which runs the line.

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The Nagoya Railway Museum. Photo: Rick Harnish

They’ll also check out a Nippon Sharyo railcar factory – In 2012 the company opened a branch in Roselle, Illinois, to fulfill a contract for 160 “Highliner” railcars for Metra Electric Line service, plus orders for other American rail lines. The group will travel to a number of other Japanese cities by rail, including Kyoto, Hakodate, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, visiting various rail museums and cultural attractions and, of course, riding the local Metro systems.

Through out the trip, there will be opportunities for rail experts and enthusiasts to discuss what they’re seeing and relate them to potential American high-speed rail systems, such as proposed lines from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. “Every time I have ridden high-speed trains in other cities, I’ve gone, ‘Oh, I get it,’” Harnish says. “So we’re trying to get more people to see these things up close and see how they can work.”

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City Begins Work on Next 50 Miles of Bikeways, Funds Bikes N’ Roses

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IIT grad student Yuan Zheng rides in a new curb-protected bike lane on 31st. Photo: John Greenfield

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Today at a ribbon cutting for curb-protected bike lanes on 31st Street by the Illinois Institute of Technology, Mayor Emanuel and transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld elaborated on the city’s previously announced plan to build 50 more miles of bikeways by 2019.

This represents a slower pace of installation than the city’s previous achievement of installing 103 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes in about 4.5 years, starting in 2011. However, while 83.5 miles of those lanes were buffered, merely paint on the road, it’s possible that a higher percentage of the new bikeways will feature better protection from car traffic.

Scheinfeld say the upcoming 50 miles will include many so-called “better bike lanes,” including off-street paths, new “neighborhood greenway” routes on traffic-calmed residential streets, concrete-protected lanes, and safety improvements at key intersections.

Cortland/Ashland in Bucktown, near the eastern terminus of the Bloomingdale Trail, and Logan/Western in Logan Square spring to mind as intersections with high bike traffic that also are scary junctions with high crash rates – hopefully these are on the shortlist for improvements.

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Scheinfeld and Emanuel in of the 31st Street lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

“We’ve made progress installing protected bike lanes in neighborhoods across Chicago, making it easier and safer for everyone – no matter their age or ability – to get around on a bicycle,” Emanuel said. “Today, we’re building on that progress and looking to the future.”

Today’s event highlighted the new roughly half-mile, seven-foot-wide bikeway on 31st between State and LaSalle. It’s a mix of buffered lanes, curbside lanes protected by plastic posts, and concrete-protected lanes, with the majority of the concrete near the college campus. After I took a quick spin on the facility my impression is that it’s a well-designed bikeway, although we’ll have to see how it holds up in rainy and snowy weather – which has been an issue with the city’s other major curb-protected bikeway on Clybourn.

This year the city plans to install nine more miles of “better bikeways,” up to 18 more bikes of other (“worse”?) bikeways, and restripe up to 20 miles of existing bike lanes. “As we focus on building better bike lanes, CDOT will continue to strengthen and improve the connectivity of Chicago’s existing bike network so that bicycling continues to grow and serve as a safe and enjoyable way to travel around our city,” said Scheinfeld.

The commissioner added that protected bike lanes seem to be effective in reducing crashes, partly due to their traffic calming effect. For example, CDOT reports that, since the 55th Street protected bike lanes were installed on 55th Street in Hyde Park in 2012, overall crashes have dropped by 32 percent. CDOT recently released the new bike lane report 2015 Bikeways: Year in Review, which has more info on their findings. I’ll provide an analysis of that document tomorrow.

The Active Transportation previously put out a call for the city to install 100 miles of better bikeways by 2020, but director Ron Burke says OK with the city’s current, more modest mileage goal of 50 miles, although he still hopes CDOT will wind up installing more.

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This Year’s 49th Ward PB Ballot Includes a Few Transit Projects

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A 49th Ward participatory budgeting expo. Photo: 49th Ward

Each of Chicago’s 50 wards gets an annual $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funding to spend on infrastructure projects each year. Usually the alderman decides how the money is spent and typically most of the money is used for traditional projects like street resurfacing, sidewalk repair, and streetlamp installation.

However, the growing participatory budget movement, which lets constituents vote on how menu money is spent, has paved the way for more innovative uses, including many sustainable transportation projects. Seven years ago 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore pioneered participatory budgeting in the United States, and this year six other wards are holding PB elections:

Ward 10 – Susan Sadlowski Garza
Ward 17 – David H. Moore
Ward 31 – Milly Santiago
Ward 35 – Carlos Ramirez-Rosa
Ward 36 – Gilbert Villegas
Ward 45 – John Arena

In recent years, some activists in Moore’s diverse Rogers Park ward have argued that the PB process, intended to make the decision-making process for spending ward money more democratic, actually favors wealthier residents. They noted that there was relatively low participation from low-income residents, people of color, and Spanish speakers.

Moore’s assistant Wayne Frazier, who handles infrastructure issues, told me that the ward did additional outreach this year, and new residents were involved. The work of a Spanish outreach committee resulted in good turnout at the ward’s Spanish-language PB meetings, and there were generally 35 to 60 residents at all of this year’s PB meetings, Frazier said.

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Outgoing 606 Project Manager Discusses The Trail’s Impact on Neighborhoods

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Beth White on the half-finished Bloomingdale Trail in December 2014. Photo: John Greenfield

The Trust for Public Land’s Chicago director Beth White announced last week that she will be leaving Chicago to take a new job as president and CEO of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, beginning in June.

White is best known here as the woman who led the development of the $95 million, 2.7-mile Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway and its access parks, a collectively known as The 606. Jamie Simone, currently the director of TPL’s Chicago urban parks program, will take over as the organization’s interim director after White steps down.

In her new position, White will oversee the implementation of the $220 million Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative to create 160-mile system of interconnected trails and parks along the Texas city’s waterways. The project was made possible by a $100 million city bond measure, which TPL helped get passed.

I checked in yesterday with White to discuss the challenges of managing The 606, which recently won an award from the American Planning Association, and what she believes its legacy will be.

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White, Mayor Emanuel, CDOT’s Rebekah Scheinfeld, and the park district’s Michael Kelly tour the trail prior to opening day. Photo: John Greenfield

White told me that one of most difficult aspects of getting the trail built was coordinating with all the different entities involved. These included multiple city departments, Canadian National Railway (which previously owned the right-of-way the trail is built on), the design team, community organizations and residents, and private donors.

“There were so many moving parts, and sustaining the project over time was challenging, what with all the ups and downs in the economy and the changes in leadership,” she said. “But it’s a testament to the project that so many people were committed to it that we were able to get it done.”

The greenway has been nearly universally cited as a wonderful amenity for Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square. However, many have argued that the trail has accelerated the pace of gentrification in Humboldt and Logan.

For example, in January dozens of residents held an anti-displacement rally after a developer announced plans for luxury town houses a block south of the trail, priced at $929,000 each. Community leaders in Pilsen and Little Village recently told me they feel the city should be more proactive about preserving affordability when it builds the recently announced Paseo trail through these neighborhoods.

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