The sun shone on Beth White and Ben Helphand on an August Sunday as they stood on a North Side viaduct, each with their feet planted in the middle of an abandoned railroad track. To the east, the antennas of the Willis Tower poked into the sky. To the west, an industrial smokestack rose, marking the city's still-operating factories. And below them, cars continued down Kimball, oblivious to the planned transformation above them called the Bloomingdale Trail.
For years, Helphand and White, along with dozens of visionaries, project planners, designers and thousands of volunteers, have envisioned the elevated piece of land they were standing on -- a three-mile long strip of century-old railroad track -- as a corridor of green parkway that would run from Logan Square and Humboldt Park to the Chicago River, not only making the space into a greenway but also connecting the communities along it.
"It's much more than just a trail," Helphand, the president of The Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a group of volunteers (and now a nonprofit) who came together in nearly a decade ago to promote the trail, said. "I see it as a thing with infinite capacity. It connects communities across the Northwest Side."
The trail has picked up momentum this past year because of a campaign pledge by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to see the project come to fruition during his first term, as well as the start last month of the trail's design and engineering study, which will clarify the costs involved and lay out a better timeline for the trail's completion. The overall plan calls for the trail to start on the western end near the McCormick Tribune YMCA, with Logan Square to the north and Humboldt Park to the south, and run east through Bucktown and Wicker Park before ending at the Chicago River.
White, the director for the Trust for Public Land's Chicago Office, said that the project offers the chance for communities to come together, even though they have been long-divided by a now-defunct railroad line.
"[The rainroad line] has served as physical barrier for so long between communities," White said. ". . . [the trail] is a way for the communities to work together and learn about each other. It's really breaking barriers down in a different way."
The idea is for the three-mile long Bloomingdale Trail to be open to bikes, strollers, runners, wheelchairs, walkers and all manner of pedestrians. The trail, which was originally proposed as a key piece of the Logan Square Open Space Plan in 2004, carries echoes of New York's High Line, an enormously popular elevated park on the West Side of Manhattan, but is more than twice is long and wider at many points. The trail would also be connected to several street-level parks that would serve as access points to the trail. Still, much of the Bloomingdale Trail's appeal lies in its elevated portion, which allows for bikers and pedestrians to get through much of the most congested areas of the city without dealing with cars or traffic lights.
"Can you imagine?" White said. "Being able to go with your children and not having to cross the street for 37 blocks!"
Alderman Roberto Maldonado, who happened to be driving along the trail with his family as Helphand and White walked along it with this reporter, told the Huffington Post that "I would like it done tomorrow if I could...I think it's wonderful and a different level of open space."
Maldonado, who lives within walking distance of the trail, which sits along his ward (the 26th), added that he planned to do his thrice-weekly, 3-mile runs on the trail when it opens.
The plan calls for the Chicago Park District to eventually own and maintain the trail and for the Friends to be its stewards. In the meantime, the Trust for Public Land, the nonprofit organization that was enlisted by the Friends to help on the project, is negotiating and acquiring key pieces of land, such as portions at street level near Albany Street and Whipple Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue and Leavitt Street. The Trust holds the land temporarily before turning it over to the Park District. The Trust for Public Land also helps with coordination between all entities involved, which, in addition to the Friends and the Park District includes the Chicago Department of Transportation and the city's Department of Housing and Economic Development.
The projected cost of the entire project is difficult to gauge, according to White and Joseph Bornstein, project manager for the Chicago Park District, because the engineering studies have not been completed and thus the condition (and subsequent work needed) of all 37 bridges along the trail has yet to be determined. White did say that about $10 million, with about $1 million coming from private donations and the rest a mixture of public funds and grants, has been invested so far. She says the pre-engineering estimate for the entire project hovers around $75 million but emphasizes the number could fluctuate depending on the outcome of the yearlong design and engineering study.
One thing that's clear is that residents along the trail are already benefitting from the work being done. After White and Helphand, who have permission to access the trail -- the railroad is still owned by Canadian Pacific, meaning that current use of the elevated portion would be considered trespassing -- descended from the viaduct over Kimball, they swung further east along the trail to Albany Whipple Park. Dedicated this June, the park, with its red spider web jungle gym and rubberized surface, has already been a boon for the kids who live nearby.
"I really like being at this park because there's more fun things to do," Lucy Hoyne, 9, who was playing at the park with her sister and a friend, said. "It's great for the kids in the neighborhood to meet each other and make new friends."
Hoyne, who lives in a Logan Square home near the trail, added that she most looks forward to the proposed trail giving her and her friends a long stretch where they can ride their bikes "because we don't have anywhere to bike except going around the block."
Bornstein, the Chicago Park District project manager, called the trail an "unbelievable opportunity" to have a transport system for bikers and pedestrians that runs east-west instead of north-south, as most of the city's major recreational trails do.
As momentum builds for the project, one of the main challenges, Helphand said, is deciding what to do with the influx of volunteers, who thus far have helped paint a mural, as well as help create public art that currently dots the street level portion of the trail. The Friends currently have about 2,300 people on its mailing list and add more whenever they give a tour or have an exhibit, such as the recent "Reframing Ruin: A Prelude to the Bloomingdale Trail" photography exhibit at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival.
White, too, has seen growing support over these past several years for the trail, which she refers to as "a green ribbon" that would be a three-mile long linear park connecting disparate playgrounds, schools and communities across Chicago.
"What's so exciting is the recognition of how important parks are to community health -- economically, physically and spiritually," she said. "It's really fascinating to see how much people care about their parks. From an architectural and design perspective, being able to reuse a part of our industrial heritage and being able to turn it into this cool new park is very exciting. It's like the ultimate recycling."