On a recent summer evening near Logan Square, a working-class neighbourhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side, children rode their bikes in straight lines, zig-zagging around moms pushing expensive jogging strollers, as well as serious runners, tuned-out with ear buds. The smell of sumac mingled with gingko trees and poplar groves; leaves fluttered among lovers – young and old – walking hand-in-hand down a paved path that was, up until recently, the domain of graffiti taggers and drug users.
But this narrow, horizontal park isn’t typical. For one thing, it’s only about four metres wide. Even more striking: it’s perched five metres above ground, stretching an impressive 4.3 kilometres through four distinct neighbourhoods.
The 606 (named for the first three digits in every Chicagoan’s zip code) is a park that sits on a former freight train line that once carried cargo from the industrial West Side to the Chicago River. Built in 1870 along Bloomingdale Avenue, the train line was raised five metres in 1915 to prevent pedestrian fatalities and ran for decades until those businesses moved out of the city, rendering the line obsolete.
Named the Bloomingdale Trail, efforts resurfaced in the 1990s to restore the space, which had become a haven for illegal activity, wayward teens and the homeless. But the 606, which opened in June (on 6/6) after nearly a decade of construction, has suddenly created an elevated oasis for walkers, joggers and bikers.
“It was driven by a need to address the lack of parks,” said Beth White, the director of the Chicago Region for the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization that helps cities and taxing authorities acquire land, manage projects and, most importantly, raise funds. The total cost for the 606 is $95-million (U.S.), about half of which came from a U.S. Department of Transportation grant that requires residents to do quite a bit of private fundraising. White says they still have about $20-million to go.
Unlike the High Line in New York – which opened in spurts, prohibits bikes and is perched almost twice as high up in the air – people on the 606 can call down to neighbours and friends on the street below without screaming at the top of their lungs; and even though there are still two small, unfinished parks along the line, the main thoroughfare was essentially opened to everyone on Day 1.
The entire park sits on a sturdy concrete support system, and on each side of the 606 path, runners have a small, rubberized section on which to jog, while a dotted line divides the pavement in the middle. The park follows the train line but it isn’t as straight as one would think, and architects added a few curves and hills to prevent would-be Tour de France cyclists from running over casual walkers.
Navigating the crowds of bikers, joggers and walkers on a weekend afternoon can be like playing a game of Frogger – dodging and bell-ringing are common. And because the park cuts through four neighbourhoods (the mostly working-class/Hispanic Humboldt Park, the restored mansion-and-new-construction-boom ’hoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown and the hipster Logan Square) there is diversity in the socio-economic makeup of those who use it.
The best times to experience the park are in the mornings and afternoons, when traffic is light. Visitors should begin on the eastern end, at Ashland Avenue, travelling west through a cavern of million-dollar homes. In many cases, you’re able to get a close look, unless homeowners opted for privacy screens to be installed along the path in front of their homes. Still, it will be a few years before ivy grows up along those screens to obliterate the view altogether. There are access ramps every 400 metres, as well as 37 bridges; the sweeping suspension bridge at Leavitt and Milwaukee Avenue is especially impressive, located just a few metres from the elevated CTA Blue Line train, which also passes over the 606. Continuing west, the homes get smaller, but it’s here where the park widens and extends, allowing kids to play Frisbee or tired walkers to sit on benches, perhaps perched directly over busy Humboldt Boulevard.
The city has installed Divvy bike rental kiosks all over Chicago, but especially along the 606. It’s just another reminder that, while you can’t ride along New York’s popular High Line, in Chicago you most certainly can.
For details, visit the606.org.