Faced with a shortage of open space for parks on Chicago’s near northwest side, city planners looked around–and then up. Midway between North and Armitage there’s a dormant rail line that runs along a 13-foot-high embankment from Ridgeway to Ashland, a stretch of almost three miles. It’s overgrown, glass sprinkled, and littered with crumpled clothes, bottles, and other debris. The city has plans to turn it into a park in the sky.

For more than a century the Bloomingdale line, named for the avenue running along the foot of the embankment, transported goods like corn and even army tanks to and from factories along the right-of-way and in the Clybourn and Goose Island industrial corridors. But as condos replaced industry, its traffic waned, and service along the single track finally ended in 2000. Recently the Chicago Plan Commission approved preliminary designs for a landscaped trail the length of the embankment, with eight access points and an extension east under the Kennedy Expressway and across Metra tracks leading to a nearby bike lane.

The trail is one of ten recommendations in a greening-of-the-city document known as the Logan Square Open Space Plan. Its design was inspired by the Promenade Plantee in Paris, a rail viaduct turned into a verdant pedestrian path, built on arches that now house artists’ studios and cafes. The conversion of rail corridors into recreation space isn’t new, but converting elevated passages in urban settings is, and the Bloomingdale would be the first such trail in Illinois and among the first in the country. Costing an estimated $15 million to $20 million, it would run through four wards.

“It’s hard to build parks when you don’t have a lot of space to build parks, so in the end you have to be kind of creative,” says Logan Square resident Josh Deth, founder of the advocacy group Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail and owner of the bike-oriented bar and grill the Handlebar. “The concept of having a space like this is being able to go through the neighborhood without a car.”

For that reason, and because it will connect with existing bike lanes going north, south, and east, the Bloomingdale is also a candidate for top-priority status within the Chicago Trails Plan–a car-free network on the drawing board of the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT).

Deth calls the project “unparalleled,” but there are parallels. Promenade Plantee is one; another is Manhattan’s 1.5-mile-long High Line, whose conversion to recreational use is scheduled to get under way in 2006. “They seem to be popping up a lot more, now that there’s all this competition over limited space in our urban areas,” says Jeffrey Ciabotti, vice president of trail development at the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “So these types of linear corridors are becoming quite a sought after commodity.”

In the late 90s the city planning department concluded that Logan Square was second only to South Lawndale as the neighborhood most sorely in need of green space. “By 1930 you had the highest population density in the city,” said Kathy Dickhut, the department’s assistant commissioner, at a public meeting two years ago. “[Logan Square] developed as sort of your basic, end-of-the-line suburban community.”

The Bloomingdale Trail is perhaps the most imaginative piece of the Logan Square Open Space Plan. “Having an adopted plan for the Bloomingdale will help when we try to get federal funding,” says Dickhut. “They need to know that there’s support for this large project.”

The next step is an environmental analysis of the track bed to gauge the cost of cleaning it up–an expense not included in the initial cost estimate. Luann Hamilton, CDOT’s director of transportation planning, says Chicago’s now awaiting a go-ahead from Canadian Pacific, the line’s owner. Afterward the city must take ownership, which isn’t as easy as just writing a check. Though the line is on city property (a right-of-way easement was granted to various owners over the years), Canadian Pacific must officially “abandon” it. This can’t be done without the permission of the federal Surface Transportation Board, which has to decide that the line is no longer needed for its original economic purpose and that a competent new manager will take it over.

Canadian Pacific has already agreed to sell the line to the city for $1. Control eventually will pass to the Chicago Park District, which will handle design and management issues and probably hold more community meetings to refine the plans. Luckily, the city owns the land–in New York, Friends of the High Line has had to go to court to protect that line from owners of the private property it winds through who favor demolition.

An elevated rail project is far more expensive than a grade-level conversion, such as Chicago’s Valley Line Trail, a mile-long bike path the city’s building along an abandoned Union Pacific track between Bryn Mawr and Devon in Sauganash. That trail’s estimated cost is just below $2 million–a tenth the cost of the Bloomingdale. Hamilton attributes the Bloomingdale’s high price tag to a variety of factors. Building access ramps will be one, examining the line’s 37 bridges and probably replacing some of them will be another. “You’re probably going to want some kind of fencing,” she adds. “And three miles–that’s a lot of fence.”

Rails-to-trails projects, especially expensive elevated corridors, became more thinkable in 1991 when Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which allocated $350 million over six years to pay for them. The act was reauthorized in 1998, and Congress is now debating whether to renew it a second time. Already there are almost 13,000 miles of converted rail line in the country, and every state has at least one such project.

The federal money is funneled through state departments of transportation, which select which projects to fund. “This is the kind of project you might have to coddle funding for over a period of time, or phase the job over a period of time,” Hamilton said of the Bloomingdale. “Put in the path but not the vertical access, that kind of thing. But it’s not easy to come up with $20 million for anything.” Because government funds will have to be bid on competitively every year, Ciabotti predicts that completion of the trail is five to ten years away.

The money hunt, a joint effort of the city and community groups, will get serious once the land is acquired. For now, says Ciabotti, the key to moving the project forward is to build support among residents and political leaders.

Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail (bloomingdaletrail.org) organized in early 2003. One of its main goals was to keep the embankment from being parceled off to developers and leveled for condos. Since then a number of groups have signed on, including both the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce and the Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation–entities that are often at odds.

“We’ve had a lot of different people coming out of the woodwork to support this–from urban professionals in Bucktown to Latino mothers in Humboldt Park,” Deth says. But it’s hard to get anything done in a neighborhood without the alderman’s approval, and here there are four to contend with: Billy Ocasio (26th), Rey Colon (35th), Manny Flores (1st), and Ted Matlak (32nd). Colon and Flores, whose wards are most lacking in green space, are on board, but Matlak and Ocasio have issues.

“I have concerns about it being elevated and personal safety,” says Matlak, whose section of the trail runs from Leavitt to Ashland, a stretch where residences abut the embankment. “I have neighbors who have concerns about being burglarized and don’t want rocks being thrown through their windows–which has happened before.”

Lifelong Bloomingdale Avenue resident Mickey Janowski, 54, who used to catch gum and taffy tossed from the cabooses of passing trains, is one of those neighbors. “I can’t tell you how many bricks and rocks I’ve had thrown through my window. And with all the traffic coming on the trail–it brings the punks, it brings the riffraff,” he says. “I’m not totally against it. I just want to see how my concerns are going to be addressed–is it going to be locked at night?” (The Promenade Plantee is.)

Colon argues that the trail may help curb criminal activity. “I think it’s going to prevent crime because it will give people another way to use their energy–physically, mentally. The idle mind is the devil’s playground,” he says. “I would not use this as a reason to not do this project. If we keep thinking like that, we’re going to deny ourselves some key resources.” He notes that the local 14th Police District recently added 14 officers on bicycles, and that cameras on the trail are an option.

Lucy Gomez, health organizer of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, lives about a block from the embankment. She says people concerned about an increase in crime may not be aware of how much activity takes place on the embankment already. “Whether people want to admit it or not, there’s a lot that goes on up there–I hear people talk about dodging the police up there now,” she says. “People do use it. There are homeless people on the eastern end–and the western end too.”

Ciabotti says, “Once you open a facility like this and it becomes a managed facility, it becomes a safer environment, and crime is deterred in a lot of respects.”

Nonetheless, Matlak would like to see the embankment leveled so that the trail would run at ground level through his ward from Churchill Park at Damen to Walsh Park at Ashland. “I support the concept of open space–it’s just how we do it,” he says.

There’s more gang activity at the western end of the proposed trail than in the more affluent eastern neighborhoods, and concerns have been raised about crime following the trail into Bucktown. But what concerns Ocasio, who represents Humboldt Park, is gentrification coming the other way. He’s thinking specifically of space that might have to be acquired or created at the trail’s access points, where affordable housing might otherwise be. “Overall I think it’s a great idea–it’s a great plan,” Ocasio says. “But you have to look beyond the plan and look at

the impact that it’s going to have on the neighborhood.”

Dickhut says the project is still so far down the road that it’s not clear how much land, if any, will have to be acquired for access points. Some will link parks and school yards to the trail.

Ciabotti says property values along the Bloomingdale are likely to increase if the trail is built. On July 29 an affordable-housing vigil was held on a lot at Bloomingdale and California, prompted by the sale of a section of original Bloomingdale Avenue cobblestone to a developer who’s been trying to build condos there.

“Gentrification is happening–big time. And the trail doesn’t even exist yet,” says Gomez, who was at the vigil. “We’re trying to preserve some of the affordability in our neighborhood, but we’re not going to put a wall around it. That’s not realistic.”

“It’s a diverse area all along the track,” says Deth. “Bucktown is no longer diverse–but if we could link all these neighborhoods together it would be really neat.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea; illustration/City of Chicago Dept. of Planning and Development.