On the trail of art

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Bloomingdale Trail

A bicyclist rides on Milwaukee Avenue under the elevated Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / June 14, 2013)

The Bloomingdale Trail runs for 2.7 miles along mostly unused elevated freight line. It cuts a path through Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square. It begins on the east at Ashland; it ends on the west at Ridgeway. Standing alongside the Bloomingdale Trail, looking up at it from the street, it resembles a Chia "L" line, its pale weeds and wildflowers holding firm along crumbling, untended banks.

But standing on the top — which is technically trespassing, no matter how many joggers have beaten a well-worn dirt path on it over the years — is to watch how time and nature can collaborate on a kind of melancholy art film.

The old Canadian Pacific rail, which hasn't been used in decades and runs along Bloomingdale Avenue (hence the trail's name), has rusted into chocolate autumn browns. The dark wooden tracks running beneath those rails have splintered. And the ground, littered with broken stones and glass shards, sprouts tufts of lilting greens and long grasses and sporadic fields of dandelions, is so dense in places you wonder if, given a few more decades of unimpeded neglect, a prairie could return to the West Side.

Standing on the Bloomingdale Trail feels like standing inside a Terrence Malick movie.

Or a kind of art installation, about nature reclaiming the post-industrial Midwest.

Or a piece of ruin-porn, some grossly idealized artwork sentimentalizing a raw, blighted landscape.

Whichever it is, to walk along the Bloomingdale Trail is to feel as though you have stepped into art itself.

All it lacks is a frame.

But sit tight: Last week I walked the trail with Beth White, Chicago director of the Trust for Public Land, the national group that is managing a wildly ambitious reworking of the trail. White is bringing the frame to this stretch of incidental landscape art. And what a frame: The trail is the centerpiece of a $91 million project called the 606 (named for the zip code prefix most Chicagoans share). When the 606 is completed, about a year from now, there will be a pedestrian walkway, a spongy jogging path, a dedicated bike lane. And commissioned artworks. And an Adler observatory. And five new adjoining parks. Construction just started.

"And really," White said, "the way we've thought about this from the start, is as a giant, seamless artwork."

"But it already is art," I said.

"But it's not safe," she said, meaning the broken glass, the lack of handrails along the trail, the lack of lighting, the obvious iffyness. She added, rightfully, that while I and others might see post-industrial beauty and a kind of spontaneous artwork here — a rare tract of unused local wilderness — the trail itself was never intended as an artwork, never meant for people to use at all. (Indeed the line, which is about 100 years old, was only elevated after its proximity to everyday Chicagoans led to a raft of grisly accidents during its early years.)

Still, I wondered often during our two hours together: How do you sand down the rough edges of a place like this and make it accessible to the entire community without removing the raw beauty that makes the place so unusual and memorable? Is it possible to build a slick bike path through the middle of a contemplative art gallery without losing a little something? For instance, the rusted rail, which lends a lovely directional to this impromptu gallery, will be removed (partly because Canadian Pacific wants its steel).

Also, the amateur murals along the embankment walls, many of which are neighborhood fixtures? "That's a robust discussion," White said.

Meaning, most of those murals are as good as gone (partly for construction reasons), expected to be pulled down and replaced with new, 606-approved artworks. Angel Ysaguirre, the city's deputy commissioner of cultural affairs and special events, told me: "There are a lot of stake-holders in this, communities with deep histories of putting up work there, painting over that work, putting up new work … So (everyone involved is) spending a lot of time looking at opportunities for (new) murals along the trail, and there are five schools adjacent to the trail and we will involve them (on the new murals). But also remember, there will be a sculpture park at Western (Avenue), places for a rotating series of artworks, a billboard (overlooking Milwaukee Avenue, at Leavitt) used for different artworks — the Trust for Public land kept calling this 'a living work of art,' so much so we have an artist on the design team."

That's Frances Whitehead, a sculpture professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who, in addition to working with the landscape architects of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (also designing the new Maggie Daley Park, adjacent to Millennium Park), has been working with Ysaguirre on commissioning artists for the 606, none of whom they will reveal yet. She told me: "The central polemic of the design team has been exactly what you're asking me: How do you treat the artful heritage already in place? How do you work with the industrial look of this place, this strange cultural heritage we inherited, without losing its heritage? I've worked on questions like this for Cleveland steel mills, the crumbling historical center of Lima, Peru. What we've come to understand is it's not about the past or the now. It's about the future of a place."

Where the Bloomingdale Trail hits Ashland, White and I came upon a man squatting barefoot on the rusted overpass, running through a series of yoga poses, concentrating hard so he wouldn't topple and step on glass. I asked why he was up here and if knew he was trespassing. He smiled sheepishly and said: "Everybody comes up here. It's like an unseen universe up here, like a merger of the street and the prairie."

So you like it the way it is?

"I could do without the glass, but yes," he said.

White jumped in, assuring him: "It's going to get cleaned up — but not too clean. You'll see."

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