Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Bloomingdale: Oasis or Devil's Playground?

Despite easy access and great publicity, the 2.7-mile stretch of abandoned rail bed isn't slated to open as a park till at least 2016. Whose job is it to secure it until then?

by John Greenfield

[This article also ran in the Chicago Reader,]

On a recent Wednesday evening, with hours of summer daylight left, dozens of people were out enjoying the Bloomingdale line, a dormant railroad right-of-way that runs 2.7 miles across the northwest side, 15 feet above its namesake street. They strolled, they jogged, they cycled, and they exercised their dogs, oblivious not only to the carpet of glass, weeds, and garbage but to the law: the Bloomingdale line is private property, and everyone on it was trespassing.

Of course not all trespassers are created equal. "During the day joggers and bicyclists are fine," says Bucktown resident Joan Fox, whose house abuts the line. "But when the sun goes down the violence goes up."

Fox and her neighbors say traffic on the line, both harmless and not, has skyrocketed since the city and advocacy groups began promoting its conversion into the Bloomingdale Trail, a long, skinny 12-acre park. "Until this year there were a handful of people up there a week," she says. "Now it's more like 50 people a day."

Bike wheel left on Bloomingdale line

So who's responsible for keeping them out? The right-of-way still belongs to Canadian Pacific Railway, but the railroad has agreed to sell it to the city for a dollar and is eager to seal the deal. Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Steele, however, says the city probably won't take possession until a preliminary design process is completed, more than 18 months from now. Meanwhile, trail security has become a hot potato.

The idea for the conversion was first documented in a 1997 update of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's regional trails plan, which noted the line's potential as a greenway. The last train came through in 2000, and in 2002 the city began planning an elevated multiuse trail to run from Ashland to Ridgeway (three blocks west of Central Park), connecting Bucktown, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square. In 2003 advocates formed Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail to promote the concept and prevent the railroad embankment from being leveled and the land sold to developers. The following year the Chicago Plan Commission approved the trail as part of a plan to remedy the shortage of open space in Logan Square, which has the city's second-worst parkland-to-people ratio.

Soon after that, the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land came on board to help manage the project and facilitate the purchase of four parcels of land for trail access points, at a cost of $1.2 million. In 2008 buildings were razed at Milwaukee and Leavitt and at Albany, making it easy to walk up the embankment at Leavitt and clearing space for the half-acre Albany/Whipple Park, which opened last fall near an existing trail up to the rail bed.

CAPS meeting at Albany/Whipple park this summer

Although the abandoned line has seen its share of visitors in the past decade—from partying gang members to homeless people searching for a place to sleep—Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail board president Ben Helphand admits these recent developments, along with awareness-raising events like "Walk/Bike/Run the Bloomingdale Trail" in late June, have encouraged new waves of residents to "venture up there."

In November 2008, the city issued a request for proposals for the preliminary design and engineering for the trail. According to CDOT's Brian Steele, 23 firms applied and five were selected for further screening. In mid-July the city announced its choice: Arup, a London-based multinational firm whose projects include the Sydney Opera House, the "Water Cube" aquatics center for the Beijing Olympics, and the LEED Platinum-certified California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Arup's nine subconsultants would include Chicago's Ross Barney Architects, which worked on the Wacker Drive reconstruction and Chicago Riverwalk, and Brooklyn's Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a landscape design firm that worked on New York's High Line, a park similar in concept to the Bloomingdale Trail.

CDOT has secured about $3 million in state and federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds lined up for the design process, which Steele says will include significant community input via charettes organized by CDOT and the Trust for Public Land. Steele says it's premature to estimate construction costs, but Andrew Vesselinovitch, Chicago urban parks director at the Trust for Public Land, puts the figure at around $70 million. Helphand's hoping for completion by 2016—just in time for the Olympics, should Chicago win its bid for the games.

The Bloomingdale Trail is often compared to the high-profile High Line, which in June opened a half-mile stretch of its planned 1.5-mile conversion of an old elevated rail line on Manhattan's lower west side. The new space features native plants and shade trees, sleek surfaces, an undulating planked walkway, and lots of seating, including reclining wooden deck chairs for contemplating the unique city views. It's already had half a million visitors.

It came into existence relatively quickly: the Friends of the High Line began lobbying for the conversion in 1999, and construction began in 2006. Still, Helphand says he's satisfied with Chicago's progress. "The High Line and the Bloomingdale are very different beasts," he adds. "You think Bucktown's a wealthy neighborhood? Go to Chelsea." Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and her husband, media mogul Barry Diller, alone donated $15 million to the $150 million project. "And remember, our trail is twice as long. As far as I know it will be the world's longest elevated greenway."

In the meantime, though, it's a liability for whoever has to keep it secure. Canadian Pacific has its own security people, who you'll occasionally see driving SUVs along the rail bed, but at a recent public meeting a rail cop said they have only five officers covering three states.

John Escalante, who came on in June as commander of the 14th District, says the police don't generally arrest trespassers on the line—though they will detain suspected gang members and contact Canadian Pacific to see if they want to press charges. (The district is apparently pretty busy this year; on August 3 the Sun-Times reported that it's experienced double-digit percentage increases in murders, robberies, and assaults and batteries with weapons.)

"The biggest problem is the public perception that there is a trail here when there isn't," says Canadian Pacific spokesman Jeff Johnson. "It's a rail line. Anyone who's up there, whether they're walking, jogging, or doing vandalism, is trespassing."

Joan Fox says her house, which comes as close as two inches to the trail, has been hit by rocks and Roman candles fired from the trail, and taggers have defaced the back wall three times this year, leaving graffiti below her three-year-old son's window. "That makes me really nervous," she says. A group of eight or nine "squatters" often camps out near the house, she says, smoking, drinking, and playing music, although she doesn't think they're to blame for the vandalism. "They urinate by my son's bedroom window and I can hear them snoring," she says. "I call the police and they're usually very responsive but sometimes after an hour I have to go out at 10 PM and ask them to move. They've been cool about it but it could have been a lot worse."

Fox and her husband, Rodney Mann, recently put in a privacy fence and a security camera and will be installing bars on their son's window. She also got permission from Canadian Pacific to add barbed wire to the top of an existing chain-link fence at her own expense, but has opted not to spend the money. "I don't understand why either the city or the railroad can't secure this," she says. "It's not my property. I don't want to spend a whole lot more on this."

One of Fox's neighbors, who didn't want her name used, says she had a baseball smash through a plate glass window from the trail and had to replace it at a cost of $800. Another neighbor, also speaking on condition of anonymity, says young men hanging out on the line have dropped rocks on her kids playing in the alley below. In June and July, Fox and her neighbors say, there were three break-ins in homes abutting the Bloomingdale line within a two-block stretch near the intersection of Hoyne and Churchill; in mid-July burglars broke into a home while the residents slept, stole a wallet and keys, and then drove off in their car.

Escalante says he vaguely remembers that incident but doesn't think there's much evidence that people are using the trail to break into houses. "There doesn't seem to be an inordinate amount of burglaries happening along the Bloomingdale line," he says.

The development of trails like the proposed Bloomingdale project, notes a FAQ on the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail site, "has actually reduced crime. The use of lighting, guardrails, webcams, bicycle police, and emergency telephones will ensure safety." Fox and her neighbors believe it, but want a solution for the interim. "It will be safer when the trail is finished, but it was also safer two years ago when no one was up there," says Fox. "I'm wondering what we're going to do in the next seven years before it's built."

Fox says she and about 15 neighbors sent a letter to 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack on May 31 requesting action to secure the Bloomingdale line. On July 7 Waguespack held a closed meeting to discuss the issue with representatives from other affected wards, the railroad, the 14th District police, CDOT, Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, and the Trust for Public Land.

"I've supported the trail from day one," says Waguespack. "But we're getting a ton of people up on the line. Someone even bolted a nice wooden ladder to a wall at Ashland near Walsh Park." (Last week pieces of a steep wooden staircase remained bolted to the wall, but a pile of lumber was on the ground. On one of the boards someone had written in Sharpie, "Seriously, please don't take this!?! We are trying to make this a public access way. Don't take it!")

At the July 7 meeting, says Jeff Johnson, a representative of Canadian Pacific said the railroad could tear up the tracks and grade the rail bed in the near future to create a simple dirt path. The city has rejected the idea. In an e-mail to 35th Ward alderman Rey Colón, CDOT's Brian Steele explained: "The Canadian Pacific, wanting to rush the City into relieving it of its responsibilities to maintain a facility it and predecessor railroads used commercially for decades, made a vague suggestion at a recent meeting that they would 'throw a strip of asphalt up there,' not including any necessary structural repairs, railings, ADA compliant access ramps, bridge reconstruction, lighting, protection for adjacent landowners, or environmental remediation.

"Such a facility would be unsafe, fail the Park District's land acquisition standards, and be unsustainable as it would leave the City with immediate repairs and no resources to maintain 37 bridges and 37 embankment segments that are nearly a century old. It was not a serious or acceptable offer, nor does the city's rejection reflect anything more than properly serving the public interest as it pursues this project with the goal of achieving the best long-term results."

On July 28, to address rumors about the offer, Colón posted a statement based on
Steele's e-mail on a Logan Square community forum. Of all the projects recommended by the Logan Square Open Space Plan, he added, "the Bloomingdale Trail is the grandest, most compelling and due to its magnitude, the most costly. It is going to take time."

Colón did tell me a week later that he's interested in cheaper, quicker ways to build the trail than the current projections allow. "I'm not an engineer but I do see people using the line right now," he said. "I'd like to know, could we start with ten million dollars and get the trail up to an acceptable level of safety and then sort of pay as we go to improve it?" He also told me he and Waguespack discussed this possibility while cycling together on the boulevards during the Active Transportation Alliance's Open Streets event on August 1.

On July 23, Waguespack hosted a public meeting on security at the Bucktown-Wicker Park Library. Helphand and TPL's Andrew Vesselinovitch made a presentation on the conversion plans. Raymond Valadez, chief of staff for First Ward alderman Manny Flores, attended, as did Escalante, a few other Chicago police officers, and some Canadian Pacific rail cops. About 60 Bucktown residents showed up, and most seemed fired up about trail-related crime. Photos were circulated: pictures of an encampment, the staircase at Ashland, cases and cans of beer, and even the half-burned corpse of an upright piano.

During the Q & A one man demanded, "All of you who are promoting the trail as such a great thing need to step up and secure this." Another suggested the possibility of tearing down the rail line and building an at-grade path: "It'd be safer and cheaper." A third suggested the residents pool their money to install secure fencing along the trail, or else consider filing a lawsuit against Canadian Pacific. "The railroad's weighing the consequences of having to spend money on security versus the cost of [potential] litigation," responded Waguespack.

"That was productive," said the alderman the next day. "We got a sense of what the residents of the ward would like to see and I think we're all on the same page. They've accepted that the trail is going to open but they want to see it secured."
In early August, according to Waguespack's chief of staff, Paul Sajovec, the city fenced off vacant lots at Kimball and at Milwaukee and Leavitt, making access more difficult. "There was a big run-around from various city departments about who was going to step up and put in the fence," he adds. "The city owns the lot, so it's their responsibility to secure it."

The lot on the east side of Milwaukee north of the line is indeed fenced, with green tarp (already defaced) on it to block the view and a locked gate. But on the south side of the line, there's a door-size gap between the end of a wrought-iron fence and the beginning of a concrete wall, and beyond that a path leading up the embankment. The small piece of property on the south side of the line still belongs to the railroad, according to Vesselinovitch.

In the wee hours of August 11, several bicycles, including a chopper with a mutilated Barbie tied onto its elongated fork, were locked to the fence and nearby sign poles, and several twentysomethings were walking down the path, carrying fixed-gear bikes and doing an a cappella rendition of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart."

I could hear more voices coming from the rail line, so I clambered up to investigate. Two young women and a young man were drinking cans of High Life and the women were playfully chucking rocks at each other. I asked if I could interview them for the story and they agreed to speak anonymously. I asked if they knew it was illegal to be there, and they said they did. The women soon wandered off, but the guy, who was wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt featuring the face of Bob Ross, host of public TV's The Joy of Painting, said he and his friends often came up to party and have never had any trouble from the police.

"A couple weeks ago there were about 15 of us up here and we heard a scream," he said. "A cop showed up and said someone got their purse snatched nearby and asked if we saw anybody. He was pretty chill. I think he realized we were just hanging out and not causing any trouble."

Although he occasionally encounters "assholes" on the line, he said, he enjoys using the Bloomingdale line in its primitive state. "I kind of like that it's not a trail yet. It's nice to have a part of the city where you can drink out in the open without worrying about getting busted."

As if to prove his point, as we walked together back down to the street, two police officers were confronting three men who had been drinking on the sidewalk, ordering them to pour out their beers. When two of the men, one of them a small guy with gray hair and beard, protested and cursed at the cops, the officers pushed them against the fence and forced them to empty their bottles over the side.

As the third man retreated across the street, the first two struggled and kept swearing. The officers handcuffed them to the fence. When the gray-haired one ignored an order to "sit your ass down," the officers hit him repeatedly on the legs with their night sticks.

By the time I rode off, at 1 AM, eight police vehicles, including a paddy wagon, had appeared. All three of the men were loaded into the wagon as a small crowd of officers stood on the sidewalk chatting. The three young people I had talked to on the rail line sat on the parkway, watching in silence.

Waguespack and Manny Flores both say fences probably won't keep out the trespassers neighbors are most concerned about. "The rail line has already been used by runners, walkers, and bicyclists for a long time," Flores says. "I don't think that trying to seal it off to all users is necessarily going to be the right answer. If someone wants to use the trail for nefarious purposes, they're going to figure out some way to get around whatever barriers you put up there."

The onus for securing the line is on Canadian Pacific because it owns the land, he adds. "But the city, and the nonprofits and community organizations, and the residents that are promoting the idea of a trail, also bear some responsibility," he says. "We're all going to have to work together to improve safety."

Helphand says his organization is adding messages on its Web site and in future dispatches that say trespassing on the line could harm efforts to build the trail, but advocates for "common sense" solutions like warning signs, better fencing at access points, and more enforcement by the Canadian Pacific security force and the police.

"The way I see it, everyone has the same objective, to turn the Bloomingdale line into a trail," says Paul Sajovec, "but we have an open-ended time frame. Some constituents who are having to deal with the hassle of having it be a no-man's-land right now would like to see it razed. Canadian Pacific has over 1,700 miles of track in Chicagoland and only five people to patrol it. They're being asked to provide security for a property that's actually a drain on their bottom line. Other than liability they don't have much of an incentive to secure the trail right now."

Shortly after the July 23 meeting, Canadian Pacific's Jeff Johnson promised Waguespack's chief of staff that the railroad would install private-property signs along the Bloomingdale line and committed to securing legal grants of access for property owners to install barriers, like fences and shrubs, on Canadian Pacific property—at their own expense. "We're willing to work with them on this," he says.


Unknown said...

Hey John: Thanks for reposting this since I missed it when it came out in print. It's nice to hear the rage of some of the neighbors come out since they'll be living with it down the line. Over the last five years, I was always surprised how quiet things had been even though trail plans were just starting to bubble up. Hopefully some of them will get more involved with FBT and keep pestering the city. As the person at the end said, it's unlikely the RR is going to do much other than hand the line off. It's time for the city to step up and be the land owner much like it is at Michael Reese in expectation of the Olympics.

Greg said...

Great article, John. Much better than anything you would see in any mainstream publication. Keep doing what you're doing...PLEASE

John Greenfield said...

Thanks for the kind words Greg.


Steven Vance said...

A great article. I didn't know any of this.

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