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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