The other day, I took a walk on the High Line. It had been a while — a year-and-a-half at least — since my last visit to Manhattan’s $187 million park in the sky, and I had just emerged from spending a good part of the afternoon in the stuffy, oppressively lit confines of the Javits Center where I was attending a trade show. I required fresh air and natural light in abundance.

I was kind of in the neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from the urban oasis-meets-lauded urban renewal project’s third and final phase — a rare occasion, so why the hell not?

Shortly after ascending to the High Line at 30th Street and 11th Avenue, I remembered why so long had passed since my last visit. It was a zoo. I’m not normally one to succumb to insta-claustrophobia, but New York City’s most beautifully planted conveyor belt on a pleasant Saturday afternoon sent me into a self-contained freakout. There was little for me to do but push forward toward the east — and then south — while familiarizing myself with the halt-take selfie-and then move again rhythm of the massive throng I had joined. With few opportunities to sit, stop or stand aside, I was unable to appreciate why the High Line is so special. I was too busy looking for the next exit.

I don't doubt that the High Line is a magical place at certain times. I’ve just never been fortunate enough to set foot in the park during one of them.

The 606, a 2.7-mile-long aerial parkway due to open this weekend on what was once Chicago’s old Bloomingdale elevated railway line, has more in common with High Line than most of the other disused infrastructure-turned-urban park projects, both conceptual and realized, that have popped up in numerous cities over the past couple of years.

Although the folks behind The 606 proudly claim that the idea for a linear park/trail situated atop the unused-since-the-mid-1990s rail line was kicking around long before New York’s “Disney on the Hudson” became a reality, Chicago's new park could be considered a textbook example of what Lloyd at sister site TreeHugger would call “Highlinitis.” Yet The 606 is incredibly different — and it's for the same reasons that I’ve never been able to enjoy the High Line in its full splendor.

Mainly, it’s the fact that The 606 isn’t positioning itself as a tourist attraction, or at least not yet.

The 606, a new adaptive reuse/elevated park project on Chicago's Northwest Side.

Four Chicago neighborhoods, united

My first reaction to the long-awaited “multi-use recreational park” and “alternative transportation corridor” was that it’s a place for locals.

And it’s not that the High Line isn’t for New Yorkers, but The 606 would appear more welcoming of every day Chicagoans: people walking their dogs, people out for leisurely jogs, people commuting by bike. (Cycling and dog walking are both verboten on the High Line while leisurely jogs are best enjoyed super-early in the morning). Whereas the High Line is the high-end cocktail lounge where one might take fancy out-of-town cousins to show off, The 606 promises to be more of a comfortable dive bar — a real neighborhood joint.

"Kids will learn to ride their bikes here, commuters will find a new shortcut to work, and neighbors will make new friends. The 606 will change what it means to go to the park,” reads The 606 website.

Running parallel alongside Bloomingdale Avenue from Ashland Avenue on the east and Ridgeway Avenue in the west, The 606 has been described as a neighborhood unifier as it connects four incredibly diverse and vibrant Northwest Side neighborhoods: Wicker Park, Logan Square, Bucktown and Humbolt Park. Washington D.C.’s forthcoming 11th Street Bridge Park project functions in much the same manner as it aims to link two diverse, long-isolated neighborhoods separated by the Anacostia River.

“What's clear now is that The 606 marks a major step forward in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's drive to make Chicago's gritty, off-the-lakefront stretches a more livable shade of green,” writes Blair Kamin for the Chicago Tribune. “Goodbye, junkies and rock-throwing trespassers. Hello, cyclists and rising property values. A barrier that once divided communities that are economically and ethnically disparate may become a zipper that unites them.”

Snaking though the once-sleepy, now luxury condo-heavy far west side of Manhattan, the High Line connects, via Chelsea, the Meatpacking District in the south to the under-construction Hudson Yards mega-development in the hinterlands of Midtown. It serves as less a neighborhood unifier and more of a neighborhood gentrifier.

The 606, a new adaptive reuse/elevated park project on Chicago's Northwest Side.

Longer, older, grittier

While the whole shebang was once referred to as Bloomingdale Trail, the ambitious project is now called The 606 — an homage to Chicago’s ZIP code prefix that “evokes a connection to the site’s transportation history, a play on the tradition of using numbers to name rail lines, highways and other transportation corridors.” The “centerpiece” of The 606, a late 19th century railway line that was elevated 17 feet above street level in 1913 for safety reasons, is still referred to as the Bloomingdale Trail.

Although the concept for a disused railway-to-park conversion project can be traced back to the late 1990s, it wasn't until 2004 when The 606 truly began to take form as part of the Logan Square Open Space Plan, an initiative to help bring much-needed public greenspace to a Chicago neighborhood long deprived of it. From there, the community-based organization Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail was formed. The official involvement of San-Francisco-based nonprofit The Trust for Public Land, the Chicago Parks District and the City of Chicago all followed and a private-public partnership was formed to make the starry-eyed dream to open a park atop a derelict elevated railway line a reality.

Officially breaking ground in August 2013, The 606’s core design team is composed of Chicago-based Collins Engineers alongside Brooklyn-based landscape design firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Frances Whitehead, a sculptor and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, serves as lead artist.

Mayor Emanuel has been a tireless champion of The 606 from the get-go, calling it “a major investment in greenspace that will benefit neighborhood residents and people throughout Chicago.”

And since we’re on the topic of major investments, in terms of all-important cost, the $95 million project has received $50 million in federal funding and $5 million from the City of Chicago, the Chicago Parks Department and Cook County. An anticipated $40 million (fundraising is still ongoing) will come from private donation activity spearheaded by the Trust for Public Land.

Nearly twice the length of the High Line at a little under 3 miles long, the community-connecting Bloomingdale Trail has evolved as just that, a trail, and less of an immaculately landscaped showpiece. Again, cyclists are allowed/encouraged to use the trail as are leashed dogs and people moving at all sorts of different speeds. And while the trail (10-feet-wide flanked by two-foot-wide jogging paths) is indeed home to an array of not-yet-mature flora including what the Tribune calls “an arcade of trees,” The 606’s larger public green spaces are actually located on street-level in an effort to open up the relatively narrow former railway to alternative forms of transportation.

“Strung along the trail like gems on a bracelet” to quote the Tribune, The 606 is home to a quartet of new parks including Julia de Burgos Park. When fully completed following additional phases, The 606 will boast a total of six ground-level parks along with enhanced landscaping, a “wheel-friendly” event plaza, observatory, art installations and numerous other features.

While much of the urban cityscape around the High Line is either under construction or unrecognizable from its former not-so-glitzy self, a sense of authenticity adds to The 606’s overall appeal. It offers a change of scenery, but not a change of place. Writes the Tribune: “The muscular walls are one of several elements — including galvanized steel railings, graceful, arcing lights and gently renovated bridges — that remain faithful to the old line's industrial character rather than turning it into an urban Disneyland. Surrounding scenery (factory smokestacks, water towers, and passing Amtrak, CTA and Metra trains) adds to the sense of true Chicago grit.”

A party 10 years in the making

Once officially unveiled to the public this weekend, The 606 will be open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. — normal Chicago Parks District operating hours. The Bloomingdale Trail itself will be accessible via a series of fully ADA accessible ramps, 17 in total, peppered along the length of the park. The 606 is within close range of numerous public transit stops, including bus, commuter rail and subway. There's also a generous handful of Divvy bike share depots in the immediate area. Park officials implore Chicagoans descending on the park during opening weekend and beyond to take advantage of public transportation as street parking in the surrounding neighborhoods can be tight.

While some residents in the four neighborhoods that The 606 passes through have expressed apprehension about the possible ill-effects that the park may spawn — traffic congestion, increased rents, public safety, etc. — most are looking forward to seeing how the project revitalizes and unites the area. The current public bathroom situation (or lack thereof) has also stirred up concern.

Described as a “party 10 years in the making,” the grand opening festivities (kicking off on Saturday, 6/06, naturally) will include ribbon cutting ceremonies at each of the trail's access points and dozens of celebratory organized processions along the trail. There will also be numerous events held at The 606’s four new parks including live music, dance performances, "nature-centered activities" and food vendors.

Following the grand opening, The 606 will host an array of arts- and nature-based cultural programming and special events. 

And although a visit to Chicago isn’t in my upcoming travel plans, I’m hoping to one day take a stroll along the country’s latest, greatest adaptive reuse/linear park project. In the meantime, I’m going to try to get my timing right with the High Line. 

Via [The Chicago Tribune]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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