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Eyes on the Street: The Bloomingdale Trail Is Almost Ready for Its Close-Up

Looking east from the top of the observatory, at the western trailhead. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicagoans are in for a treat this Saturday, when the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, finally opens to the public. For roughly two decades, residents have been pushing to turn the 2.7-mile railroad right-of-way into a multiuse path and linear park.

While the initiative slowly moved forward under the Richard M. Daley administration, Rahm Emanuel deserves credit for making the Bloomingdale a pet project and expediting it. A couple weeks after his second inauguration ceremony, Emanuel is more-or-less making good on his promise to open the trail within four years of taking office.

White, Emanuel, CDOT's Rebekah Scheinfeld, and the park district's Michael Kelly. Photo: John Greenfield

On the cleverly selected date of Saturday, 6/06, there will be a wide range of festivities to celebrate the grand opening. At 8 a.m., there will be ribbon cuttings at each of the access ramps, followed by a procession on decorated bicycles, led by West Town Bikes. At 3:30 p.m., there will be a flag-waving parade, and at 8:30 p.m., a third procession will illuminate the trail.

Throughout the day, there will be live music and dance at two stages on Humboldt Boulevard, plus dozens of art, music, poetry, nature, and children’s events and activities at the various access parks. On Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., there will be a community pancake breakfast at the western trailhead. See the full schedule here.

Street signs on the guardrails are handy for wayfinding. Photo: John Greenfield

During a media tour of the Bloomingdale this afternoon, Emanuel acknowledged that the trail wouldn’t have become a reality without the work of local residents, who have lobbied the city to build it since the mid-Nineties. “This is their day, their moment," he said. “The neighbors never gave in and never gave up. They have been advocates for something that used to divide communities that will now be a landmark, a park, and an active green space that will unite these communities.”

“As a believer in public space as a way to transform communities, to make them more livable and accessible, I believe The 606 will stand the test of time,” Emanuel added. “Then all the years of advocacy, bakes sales, and turning out for community meetings will finally have paid off.”

A bench on a side path awaits the installation of its seat. Photo: John Greenfield

Beth White from the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which is managing the project for the city, noted that the $95 million path and access parks project is mostly funded by $50 million federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds. “What I think was so ingenious about the city going after the transportation funding was that they created a transportation corridor, but leveraged that for an incredible park and trail system as well.” Of the remaining $45 million, $5 million came from local government funds, $20 million has been raised in private funds, and TPL is still working on raising $20 million more in donations.

Surveying from the top of the observatory. Photo: John Greenfield

White noted that 80,000 people – 20,000 of them children -- live within a ten-minute walk of the Bloomingdale. There are also 21 schools within nearby, with four immediately adjacent to the trail. There are already plans to use the facility to teach kids about nature, science and engineering.

At first, the trail won't offer much shade, but over time these trees will create a canopy. Photo: John Greenfield

The trail has undergone a major transformation from the time when it was a simply dormant rail line, strewn with weeds, garbage, and the occasional hypodermic needle. Parts have of the embankment have been excavated to lower the height of the trail, making it easier to provide wheelchair access via long ramps. This strategy, along with curves in the path, also makes it more interesting to travel the trail than if it was simply a straight, flat path, and it will help calm bike traffic. “When people come up here for the first time, it’s always delightful to see their expressions as they see how the path dips and curves and moves,” White said. “It’s just such a different experience from end to end.”

Soft surfaces for running have already been installed on some sections, and the rest should be in by Saturday. Photo: John Greenfield

One shadow on the Bloomingdale opening will be the issue of gentrification. While locals generally seem to agree that the trail will be a great amenity for the neighborhoods, it has already raised property values and spurred development, a trend that will surely accelerate as more people come to understand the benefits of living near the path. As property taxes and rents rise, many longtime Humboldt Park residents have said they're worried about being priced out of their neighborhoods. I asked White for her thoughts on what can be done to help preserve the economic and ethnic diversity of these communities as The 606 draws more newcomers to these areas.

"I think the way that’s done comes from the community, and I think the Logan Square Neighborhood Association is really a leader in that effort," she responded. "I wouldn’t say that it’s just The 606 that is the driver [of gentrification], but it’s certainly an element. What I’m gratified by is the folks that have those concerns really embrace the park because these are park-needy areas, and they’re doing a really good job of encouraging people to use it. It is for them."

Installing a railing at the Spaulding access ramp. Photo: John Greenfield

White suggested that locals who are facing housing challenges check in with the city to find out what their options are. "There are a lot of affordable rental properties in the area, the city just [updated its] affordable housing ordinance, and they’ve reached out to the county. Again, I think LSNA and the city are working on this issue in a very diligent way."

With four days to go until opening day, the Bloomingdale already looks fairly complete, if a little sterile. But workers were busy this afternoon, planting trees and installing fixtures. In the coming months, some 200,000 bulbs and grasses will be planted, which will make the path much more colorful and lush. As more funding becomes available, public art will also be added. Right now, it’s exciting to imagine what the trail will look like on Saturday, when it’s enlivened with hundreds of people strolling, cycling, and just hanging out enjoying the scene.

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