Should the Bloomingdale Trail Ever Be Shut Down for Private Fundraising Events?

The 606 in Wicker Park/Bucktown this afternoon. Photo: John Greenfield
The 606 in Wicker Park/Bucktown this afternoon. Photo: John Greenfield

Last September the eastern portion of the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606 was closed to the public between Walsh Park and Wood Street during the late afternoon and evening for a $200-a-plate meal hosted by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, who lives by the path. While the event was a benefit for worthy causes, shutting down a section of a greenway that runs through diverse communities for a white-tablecloth dinner for high-rollers was a tone-deaf move in light of residents’ realistic concerns about trail-driven gentrification. It sent the message that the authorities can, at their discretion, close this public amenity so that it can be used for the exclusive enjoyment of the well-heeled.

Last September's closure. Photo
Last September’s closure. Photo Amme Willis

So when the Trust for Public Land (which manages the development of the trail), Friends of the Bloomingdale (which advocated for its construction), and the Chicago Parks District (which owns the path) announced that the greenway would be closed again on Saturday, June 23 for a $35 running event, it raised some eyebrows. The Bloomingdale Trail Run and Family Fun Walk will raise money for community programming along the greenway. The race involves running 2.7 miles from the eastern trailhead at Walsh Park to the Western terminus at Ridgeway Avenue starts at 9 a.m., and the walk starts at 9:45 a.m. from Churchill Field Park, at Damen Avenue. Afterwards there will be a pancake breakfast and a public block party on Humboldt Boulevard between North and Armitage avenues.

Streetsblog readers noted that The 606’s permit policy does not allow outside entities to hold organized walks, running events, or bike rides on the elevated trail, although the access parks can be used for private events held at street level. Some argued that for the trail authorities to hold such an event themselves is hypocritical. “Do as I say, not as a I do,” posted one person. “The 606 is becoming far too privatized,” argued another.

Interestingly, Friends of the Bloomingdale president Ben Helphand agrees that Rick Bayless dinner wasn’t well executed. “It caught me and a lot of other FOTB people by surprise – there wasn’t enough advanced notice.” He noted that the trail closure for the event was supposed to last from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday, but it actually started at 4 p.m. “We got a lot of emails and Facebook posts about that, he said.”

Helphand feels that such events are a bad idea. “I would rather not see benefits like that, which close off the trail,” he said. “There’s a real danger of opening a Pandora’s box to every group that would want to do that.” He noted that an alternative would be to stage such dinners or galas in the access parks, or on the wide expanse of elevated land next to the trail at Kimball.

The map for the Bloomingdale Trail Run.
The map for the Bloomingdale Trail Run.

However, Helphand argued that it’s appropriate for the trail to be closed for one community event a year, and that the Bloomingdale Trail Run is a good candidate. He said the $35 entrance fee (for the first 800 people to sign up, $40 after that) is cheaper than the fees for other local runs, and discounted tickets are available through community groups to make sure that all residents who want to compete are able to. Moreover, Helphand said, unlike the 14-hour closure for the fancy dinner, the trail will be reopened to the public immediately after the competitive run, at around 9:45 a.m.

The proceeds from the race will help fund a wide range of programs along the Bloomingdale. These include a youth trail ambassadors program run by the West Town Bikes education center, arts programming, and environmental education initiatives. The funding will also support twice-monthly walking tours highlighting the history of the trail, as well as a camping night for kids (held on the land at Kimball), and stargazing sessions. “Hopefully the trail run will become a reliable source of funding for community-based programs,” Helphand said.

  • CIAC

    “While the event was a benefit for worthy causes, shutting down a section of a greenway that runs through diverse communities for a white-tablecloth dinner for high-rollers was a tone-deaf move in light of residents’ realistic concerns about trail-driven gentrification.”

    Do you know of any resident concerned about gentrification who has that opinion? As I mentioned on the comment thread on your article about the event at that time, the people complaining about the event (at least those visible on the internet) almost entirely were simply annoyed about the inconvenience of having a portion of the trail blocked off for a few hours. It wasn’t clear that a lot of them were aware of just how small the area blocked off was. And then a small amount of people, such as yourself, were complaining because they thought others could theoretically be offended at a fundraiser for people who could afford it when they were worried about the prospect of being priced out of a neighborhood. But I have yet to see a single person criticize the fundraiser because they-themselves actually were offended because of the supposed class contrast that you see. If you are going to use the phrase “tone-deaf” in reference to those facing gentrification I’d like to see some evidence that someone in that position actually had an issue with it. The fundraiser, for Christ sake, took place in a neighborhood that is already well passed the point of gentrification (the richest neighborhood on the trail) and was only in a very small area for a few hours. If you really think something like this is “tone-deaf” to them I think it’s best to wait for someone to express that organically.

  • ardecila

    To the extent that the maintenance and operation of the trail (and community outreach, etc) requires a private nonprofit partner to perform fundraising, I think it’s absolutely appropriate for that private partner to host a paid event on the trail. Clearly the 606’s landscaping, cleaning and policing could not be maintained on the Park District’s meager budget, much as I would prefer it to be funded from tax dollars.

    I’m also not totally opposed to run/walk events or bike rides if they are also organized in favor of a charity. The Lakefront Trail is frequently closed for such events (although hopefully this will become less of a buzzkill once the trail is fully separated).

  • Jeremy

    I like the idea of a run on the 606, but I wonder if having the starting and end points of a race being 2.7 miles apart will be a logistical problem. Most races end near the starting line.

  • Is this why there was so much effort to get the “trail” rebranded as a “linear park”? Closing parks for private events is easy. Happens at Millennium Park all the time.

  • contyg

    I don’t think the lakefront trail actually gets closed for those events. Maybe there are some that actually close it down, but I’ve run plenty of races on the LFT and it has remained open for all of them. You’re certainly right that practically speaking, as the heaviest volume of those races runs by, it’s effectively “closed” to bikers and not much fun for walkers. But part of the….charm? (better to call it that than dysfunction, hazard, chaos) is that they don’t technically close it.

  • Tooscrapps

    True, not officially closed. The Cinco de Miler definitely closed it in practice on Saturday. Not only did they have both sides of the LFT being used in places, but also the detour path on the west side of LSD between Foster and Balmoral.

    https://www.cincodemiler.com/course

  • Bill Hudson

    Here goes Greenfield again.
    His precious Active Transportation
    Alliance shuts down ALL of Lake Shore Drive each year for a fundraiser,
    yet he cries about a one-time bike path closure.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think it’s one thing if the formal partnering non-profits of the 606 want to have an annual event designed to help the actual 606. After that, the slippery slope problem comes in, and we could see a trail meant for transportation slowly morph into a “revenue generating asset.” Because even if charities are the intended recipients of funding, there will be a temptation for the City to pad those events with line items for themselves. And who gets to choose the charity? How many events are appropriate? The LFT is a victim of its own success, I think there are way too many events on it right now that overlap with the evening rush hour.

    I think as Jennifer mentions above, parks are a slightly different issue.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yep, filling public spaces with people, rather than speeding metal boxes, is a good thing.

  • kastigar

    The solution: shut down Lake Shore Drive permanently. Tear up the asphalt and cement. Restore grass. Turn it into a linear park along the lake that all residents can enjoy, not just those who can afford to by cars.

  • Bill Hudson

    Portland is West- in Oregon.
    Sounds like you’d fit in better there.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’ve already addressed that subject in depth here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYu5yUuVq90

  • planetshwoop

    I think there’s a decent compromise.

    Run the race mostly on the street. Run a portion on the trail, say, a half mile. Makes it easier to manage other users. Like how they have the Soldier Field race, and the runway 5ks at the airports.

  • planetshwoop

    it’s happened more than once when I try to get down to the LFT from Millennium Park and find a wedding happening.

    606 aside, having private events in parks isn’t terrible. I don’t know where you draw the line. I have been to plenty of lovely events — kids birthday parties, picnics, street festivals, etc.

  • CIAC

    Kind of like during the Air and Water Show when there’s always a few people who, for whatever reason, actually try to bike on the lakefront trail at that time.

  • rduke

    No.

    Simple as that.

  • Lynne Marrs

    As compared to a private event that is raising funds for outside causes, the Run and Family Fun Walk is being staged on the actual public amenity that the funds raised will ultimately go to support.

    The event itself is also open to all and deliberately geared to be inclusive of all in the community (family walk + the run as opposed to only the run which could be viewed as a more elite/select event). This is not hypocritical, but rather a direct and dynamic way of supporting the actual public space people want to enjoy.

  • Obesa Adipose

    What Greenfield failed to mention was that the $200 closure of the eastern end of the park last year for the Rick Bayless dinner was a fundraiser for the Chicago Parks Foundation. So yes the money is going back to the parks but not all to the 606. Greenfield snarked at the time that the dinner guests were 1%’ers which I assume to mean that anyone who can afford to give $200 to charity must be super rich. That makes me super rich – how nice.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Except there already is such a park along the vast majority of the lakefront, and as we’ve seen, a lot of Chicagoans argue (rightly or wrongly) they can only access it by private vehicle.

  • I confess to not understanding all the hand-wringing about this.

  • Amen.

  • Running on the street disrupts a lot more people.

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