No WaPo, The 606 is not a High Line copycat or a “simulation of vibrancy”

Photo: Sergio Ruiz
Photo: Sergio Ruiz

H/T to my old friend Chicago journalist and editor Martha Bayne from Belt Publishing for some of the talking points in this post.

Environmental gentrification, the phenomenon of new trails, parks, transit-oriented developments, and other eco-friendly amenities attracting wealthier people to blue-collar neighborhoods and communities of color, often raising housing costs and displacing longtime residents in the process, is a very real thing. And Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, is definitely a textbook example of that issue.

But Tuesday’s Washington Post column “How ‘landscape urbanism’ is making gentrification look like fun: The problems with the High Line and all its imitators,” by Michael Friedrich, is an awfully jaundiced look at the development of high-profile recreational paths and parks. This glass-half-empty article, written with next-level snark, brands these projects as heartless examples of “late-capitalist city planning” that are largely playgrounds for the privileged with few redeeming qualities for their communities.

That may be more true of such initiatives in other U.S. cities. But when it comes to the Bloomingdale, Friedrich paints with way too broad a brush, failing to acknowledge that while the trail has had negative impacts on housing affordability, it has also had many benefits for residents of all income levels and ethnicities as a place for healthy physical activity and an inclusive public space.

Friedrich also failed to do some basic research about the origins of The 606 and how people use it, comparing it to a museum where spontaneity is discouraged, while it’s actually a key hangout spot and transportation corridor. Let’s take a look at some of his more dubious statements.

First of all, Friedrich is dead wrong in describing the Bloomingdales an “imitator” of the famous linear park on the west side of Manhattan that “[aims] to duplicate the High Line’s stunning achievement.” If he’d done his homework, he’d have known that The 606 was conceived at least as early, possibly earlier, than its NYC counterpart. The idea for the conversion of the old Bloomindale rail line to a greenway was first documented in a 1997 update of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s regional trails plan. Meanwhile, Friends of the High Line didn’t begin lobbying for the conversion of the Chelsea rail corridor until two years later.

It’s true that the High Line, which became a cause célèbre with many wealthy and famous donors, opened in 2009, while raising political support and funds for The 606 was more challenging, and the ribbon wasn’t cut until 2015. But even a decade ago, it was clear that Bloomingdale backers weren’t trying to copy the NYC project.

“The High Line and the Bloomingdale are very different beasts” Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail board president Ben Helphand told me shortly after the opening of the former. He noted that while the High Line ran through some of New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods, The 606 would connect economically diverse communities, and it would be nearly twice as long at 2.7 miles. And although cycling is forbidden on the High Line, the Bloomingdale would allow it, making it a useful corridor for car-free transportation.

While Friedrich’s dismissal of The 606 as a High Line clone was lazy journalism, his description of the Chicago trail as a factor in accelerating gentrification and displacement is on point, although he got some of his facts wrong about that too. For example, he wrote that “On the west side of The 606, housing prices have increased 48 percent since construction began in 2015.” In reality, that figure from a 2016 DePaul University study is “since the trail opened” in 2015 (construction started in 2013), but you get the idea.

And Friedrich rightly noted that a 2017 DePaul report found that the area around the west half of the path in Humboldt Park and Logan Square communities was seeing some of the most intense displacement pressure in the city. Streetsblog Chicago reporter Lynda Lopez, who grew up in nearby Hermosa, has done in-depth coverage of these issues.

A family cycles on The 606. Photo: John Greenfield
A family cycles on The 606. Photo: John Greenfield

Friedrich also correctly pointed out that the developers of high-profile trails that repurpose old industrial infrastructure like to say their “landscape urbanist” projects “create value” in neighborhoods, but there’s a question of whether they’re intended to improve the lives of current residents, or if their main purpose is actually to attract wealthier newcomers. With the Bloomingdale, that’s a particularly complex issue.

Efforts to get the elevated path built gathered momentum as a grassroots movement by neighbors who noted that the area needed more green space and recreational opportunities, and founded of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail in 2003. But progress was relatively slow until Rahm Emanuel took office as mayor in 2011 and promised to open the trail within his first term.

As gentrification picked up speed in Humboldt and Logan in the 2000s, some residents had concerns about how the trail would affect housing costs. When it was announced under Emanuel that the budget for the trail had expanded to $95 million to create a showpiece rather than a simple paved path, with much of the funding coming from corporate sponsorships and wealthy donors, that fueled speculation that Emanuel’s main motivation was to spur high-end development near the trail and increase property tax revenue for the city. (Illinois gubernatorial candidate and RFK son Christopher Kennedy later blasted such tactics as Emanuel’s “strategic gentrification plan.”)

In June 2013, the city of Chicago announced that the name of the facility was officially changing from the Bloomingdale Trail to the trendier, real estate developer-friendly appellation The 606, having told, not asked, the longtime path advocates at FOTB about the name change only hours earlier. To me, that marked the precise moment when the path changed from a grassroots community project to one driven by the mayor’s office, with ambiguous intentions. That’s why I prefer to use the old name.

In late 2015, as housing prices along the corridor were skyrocketing in the wake of the path opening, early Bloomingdale booster Lucy Gomez-Feliciano told the DePaul researchers, “It breaks my heart… People who can retire and sell, good for them. But what about those of us raising our kids here, who want to stay in the neighborhood?”

Activists blockade the Bloomingdale during a 2017 rally for the 606 affordability ordinance. Photo: Iris Postman, LSNA
Activists blockade the Bloomingdale during a 2017 rally for the 606 affordability ordinance. Photo: Iris Postman, LSNA

In response, in 2017 the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Latin United Community Housing Association and other groups proposed an ordinance levying stiff fees on development along the trail that would be used to fund new affordable housing in the area. Although the plan had support from local aldermen and the Active Transportation Alliance, it stalled in the City Council.

While the columnist’s depiction of gentrification along the Bloomingdale is mostly accurate, his description of what the trail is like today is completely wrong. He argues that spaces like it are neither truly vibrant, nor community oriented:

What they are instead is a Disney-fied simulation of vibrancy, their environments highly programmed and patrolled. Visit them and you might catch a scheduled yoga class, dance night or public art performance. You’ll see clusters of suburbanites emerge from SUVs to push fancy strollers or go on dates to new cafes and brewpubs under the watchful eye of security staff and cameras. But they make little room to linger or live, let alone for community gatherings. Narrow and crowded, their designs demand we tour them and leave. The park rules on The 606 — “stay to the right, pass on the left, step aside if you stop, encourage your children to do the same and keep your dog on a short leash” — remind us as much. They are spontaneous like a museum is spontaneous, which is to say not very.

Characterizing the Bloomingdale this way is total B.S., from a Brooklynite who is projecting his experiences with the High Line onto a Chicago amenity he has surely never visited. As it stands, The 606 largely serves not as a destination for suburbanites, but as a place for local neighbors of all income levels and ethnicities to exercise, hang out, have fun and relax.

If Friedrich actually stopped by on a summer day, yes, he’d see young Anglo professionals jogging or pushing strollers on the path, but he’d also observe multigenerational Latino families strolling together at sunset, and Black and Brown youth whizzing by on fixed-gear bikes playing hip-hop on Bluetooth speakers, or gathering with their fixies in the plaza above Damen Avenue. And, unlike the High Line, security guards aren’t a thing on The 606.

Fixie riders hanging out in the plaza over Damen Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield
Fixie riders hanging out in the plaza over Damen Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield

The rules about Bloomingdale Trail use that Friedrich ridicules are merely common sense for a popular path that, in contrast to the tourist-oriented High Line, is an important safe commuting corridor for local residents of all ages traveling on bike and foot to work or to the many public schools next to or near the trail. The path’s programming also offers many educational and job opportunities for local youth of color from lower-income and working-class families.

So while Friedrich makes some valid points about gentrification, when he writes that the Bloomingdale isn’t vibrant or community-oriented, and lacks space for unscheduled enjoyment, he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. As it currently exists, The 606 is a very democratic and inclusive space. However, Chicago does need to take bolder action to preserve affordability along the trail, such as passing the 606 affordability ordinance, to help keep it that way