Sunday, May 31, 2015

The 606

My old neighborhood of Humboldt Park is in the news again.

This coming Saturday, June 6 to be exact, a new park, actually several of them connected by a trail will open in Chicago. Officially called The 606 Trail (after the three digits of Chicago's zip code), the system of parks was built along an old railroad spur that ran along Bloomingdale Avenue, two blocks north of North Avenue. The trail will run approximately three miles, from Ridgeway Avenue on the west, to Ashland on the east. In its day, the spur serviced several light industrial complexes that were built adjacent to it.

As a child I lived on Humboldt and Cortland, one block north of the railroad line. Even back in the sixties, it was somewhat rare to see trains rumble over its tracks. Despite Humboldt being zoned a residential boulevard, beside the Bloomingdale line there were two good sized businesses, a cartage company on the west side of the boulevard, and a glass company on the east. Bordering the playground of my elementary school a block away was the Acme Casket Company whose windowless north wall was perfectly suited as the backstop for our games of fast pitch.

It's structures like these, or the remnants of them, that the users of the new 606 Trail will pass as they stroll, hike, jog or bike along its paths. Much like the park built upon the site of the old Stearns Quarry in Bridgeport, now called Palmisano Park, the new trail takes advantage of the old industrial landscape it is built upon, rather than obscuring it. This is clearly NOT your grandfather's park. As you might imagine, the trail/park is not for everyone.

I for one, can't be more excited about its opening. As pointed out in the video accompanying Blair Kamin's piece about the 606, the trail is elevated only fifteen feet, but in a city as flat as Chicago, that height makes a difference. The view along the trail will be completely new to residents of this city, (except for railroad workers and those who snuck onto the tracks for whatever reason). It passes through portions of this city that are often overlooked, namely the industrial backbone that drove this city for over a century. Much of that backbone been lost due to changing economies and technologies, but I'm sure the stroll along the 606, if one pays attention, will enlighten the visitor on how cities change and reinvent themselves. Even the peeling paint of those old fast pitch strike zones on the sides of decaying buildings will have a story or two to tell.

Supporters of the project boast about the positive impact the trail will have upon the property values in the communities it transverses. But that's a double edged sword; good news for working property owners, bad news for renters who will face rent increases, home owners on fixed incomes who will face property tax hikes, and in this particular case, ethnic groups who are sensitive to the dilution of their numbers as a result of residents being priced out of their neighborhoods. The trail will provide a pedestrian highway from the transformed, up-scale neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown on the east, to the lower income neighborhoods comprising the community of Humboldt Park on the west. As we saw with the neighborhood objections to a large music festival in Humboldt Park, the new influx of well-heeled visitors from the re-gentrified east may not be welcomed with open arms by all the residents of the communities to the yet-to-be-re-gentrified west.

It's anybody's guess how this will all play out, my guess is the trail will contribute to the change that has been going on in these communities for the past generation. In other words it will be good for some, not so good for others, but in the end it will hopefully attract people, interest and investment into a community that sorely needs it.

Will Humboldt Park lose its soul because of the changes that have been taking place? I think my friend Francis Morrone brilliantly addresses that question in this editorial piece that appears in today's New York Daily News. His article is about New York but it applies to Chicago as well.

As I've stated in this space before, the only constant you can depend upon in a living, breathing city, is change.

Chicago's new park will reflect and be a direct part of that change at the same time, which is both exciting and terrifying.

That's what life in the big city is all about, isn't it?

Here is a link to the mission statement of the lead artist of the 606 project, Frances Whitehead.

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