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As city gets ready to reopen The 606, neighbors say Slow Streets need more signs

Although the Bloomingdale Trail isn’t open yet, people are already using it. Photo: Ariel Parella-Aurelli

Update 6/18/20: This morning Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that, along with the Lakefront Trail, the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, will reopen on Monday. Like the LFT, the Bloomingdale will only be open between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., there will be a limited number of open entrances and a "Keep It Moving" rule prohibiting stationary activities, and Social Distancing Ambassadors will be stationed along the corridor to do outreach about safe trail practices and monitor use.

Also this morning, Lightfoot announced that Republican hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin, Illinois' richest man, is donating $4.75 million to repair damage to the lakefront caused by rising water levels and winter storms. Griffin previously gave $12 million to create separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists on the shoreline, but portions of the trail have since been destroyed by the elements.

It’s been almost three months since the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, closed due to the pandemic and residents are eager to know when it will open again. But unlike the lakefront — which opens on Monday — there is no date yet set to reopen the 606 trail. 

As the city slowly gets moving again, officials warn that COVID-19 is still in our communities and that safety remains the top priority when reopening public spaces, including patios and restaurants. But since the Bloomingdale is only 14 feet wide, social distancing is harder to accomplish, according to Ben Helphand, president of the advocacy group Friends of Bloomingdale Trail, who said that residents are generally observing the current ban on using the trail. “Most people are being respectful and understand that the trail is a narrow space and presents a number of unique challenges for successful social distancing,” Helphand said. 

606 closed
Barricades on the Bloomingdale Trail. Photo: Ariel Parrella-Aureli
Barricades on the Bloomingdale Trail. Photo: Ariel Parrella-Aureli

However, that has not stopped some people from moving the entrance barricades and getting back on The 606. In the last week and a half, I’ve seen a small but steady flow of people on the trail, from bikers to joggers and families with kids and dogs.

Last Friday the Chicago Department of Transportation created a "Slow Streets" route (CDOT is calling it a "Shared Street" route) along a network of streets paralleling the Bloomingdale, installing barricades and signs informing drivers that through traffic is prohibited along the corridor so that pedestrians can safely use the street. However there have been reports that drivers are still using the corridor as a cut-through route and speeding, and that some of the barricades, which slow motorists down by forcing them to slalom a bit, have been moved. CDOT has not yet provided an update on how it will address these issues.

I talked with some Chicagoans who have been using the Bloomingdale while it's closed. Logan Square residents Doug and Carolyn said they've been on the trail multiple times this week. “It’s been three months, I am done waiting,” Carolyn said. "Everything else is opening. We pay enough taxes so I’m using the trail.”

Doug and Carolyn, who have a clear view of the trail from their balcony, occasionally saw police officers kicking people off the path until about two weeks ago, when the George Floyd protests and related unrest took priority. This week the couple saw cops on the trail who were allowing people to use the path without intervening, so they decided to go on it too. Doug said he counted 210 people passing by their balcony on the trail within one hour.

The couple said they understand that if the Bloomingdale is officially reopened, social distancing will be a challenge, but argued that’s part of the new normal. Doug, who rides his bike on the trail at 6 a.m. when no one is around, sees the social distancing issue as being analogous to the precautions one needs to take when shopping at a store nowadays. “You go down the aisles and they are narrower than [The 606],” he said. “And even if some aisles have one-way signs, nobody goes one way in the stores.”

Logan resident Jenny Duda said she has not been on the Bloomingdale since it closed, but she thinks it should be open by now, making a similar argument as Doug that if Costco is business, The 606 should be open too. “An outdoor trail that is mostly used for exercise seems like a relatively low-risk situation compared to many other situations people are putting themselves in.”

A family rides on the Bloomingdale alternative Slow Street route. Photo: John Greenfield
A family rides on the Bloomingdale alternative Slow Street route. Photo: John Greenfield
A family rides on the Bloomingdale alternative Slow Street route. Photo: John Greenfield

Duda said she tried using used the Bloomingdale alternative Slow Street route, but she did not feel safe because of the many speeding drivers. She hopes more signs and outreach by the city will curb this problem.

Said another neighbor on Facebook regarding the Slow Street route, “[The drivers] looked at me like I was crazy for being in the street, which leads me to believe that they did not understand what was going on,” she said. “We really, really hope the Bloomingdale trail will open soon so we can enjoy it, especially since the Lakefront is opening.” 

32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack, whose district includes some of the trail, said his office has been talking with the Chicago Department of Public Health about when it can reopen. “I think they're getting pretty close on it, which is a good sign but it's all based on not individual needs but about the needs of the public as a whole. I’d think maybe another week or two weeks at the most before the 606 is open — that’s my hope.”

Waguespack said he wishes people would not use the Bloomingdale until it’s officially open but understands residents' frustration. He added that asked police to enforce the ban, but at this point it's difficult to keep residents off the path. “I'm hoping that people just adhere to the policies as they should because it will be opening up pretty soon,” he said.

As for increased safety precautions once The 606 is open, he said the trail could could be getting signs about social distancing measures like maintaining six-foot-plus distance from others and wearing a mask. Closing off some entry points to limit crowding, similar to the lakefront plan, is also an option. 

Waguespack added that he has heard residents' safety concerns about drivers ignoring the Slow Street rules, and has witnessed violations himself but hopes that more signs and outreach will help. “People could drive safely, people can do all those things safely if they just slow down and take a moment, which is what we're hoping,” he said. “[The Slow Street route] kind of comes [coupled] with the 606; it really gives us a good amount of space.”

Friends of the Bloomingdale's Helphand, who calls the Slow Street route the “Alt Bloomingdale,” said he loves the extra space on Cortland to be outside with his family. He added that while the Bloomingdale Trail itself is still closed, the access parks, including Walsh Park, Churchill Field, Park 567 and Julia deBurgos Park, are still open. (The dog runs and playgrounds at these green spaces are still technically closed.) 

But Helphand cautioned that when the Bloomingdale reopens, it's going to be crucial for residents to use it responsibly with proper social distancing. “Illinois has done well, we have flattened the curve and then some,” he said. “It would really be scary for it to go in the other direction just because we need to get onto a trail.”

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