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.

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