‘The 606’: Blazing A Complex Urban Trail

Only a year old, the city promenade is energizing Chicago communities but longtime residents worry about being pushed out of their neighborhoods, according to a Rescuing Illinois report.

Sean O'Conor Productions

When Gabriel Carrasquillo, Jr. mounts his vintage bicycle for a ride along The 606 trail, he recalls the many passages of his life.

His black and white Schwinn Beach Cruiser, with its stout metal frame and white balloon tires, harkens to his youth, when Schwinn still made bikes in a sprawling factory near Carrasquillo’s boyhood home in Humboldt Park.  In honor of the bicycle-maker’s legacy, Carrasquillo, 49, and his friends often ride The 606 aboard their restored Schwinns as part of a club they call the Classic Cruisers.

The trail they ride is a sleek, 2.7-mile path on Chicago’s near Northwest Side once an abandoned railroad line. The elevated trail, which cost $95 million to complete--a combination of public and private funding--snakes through four neighborhoods, and has 12 access points, including four parks. It is decorated with artwork, lush landscaping and has free Wi-Fi.

It’s a dramatic improvement to the vacant elevated railway that Carrasquillo visited as a teen. Climbing a rusted tressle, Carrasquillo would observe drug use and criminal activity amid the broken concrete, overgrown weeds and wild trees. Carrasquillo, a graffiti artist, admits to having done some tagging on the old train viaducts.

Despite the fresh look, the trail’s growing popularity is raising some old questions and concerns about the unintended stress and strain, ranging from congestion to increased crime, that such public-private projects can foist on urban areas in Chicago and beyond, say concerned residents and advocates.

Moreover, there are other worries: The 606 is helping to drive up housing costs and rents, which if left unchecked, will assuredly shove some working class people out of the neighborhoods connected to the trail, say concerned residents and advocates.

“The trail has been a big lift for the community. When I ride the trail, I feel so happy. I don’t even feel like I’m in Chicago. But the trail is also pushing people out. They can’t afford to live here anymore,” said Carrasquillo, who has seen rent on his cramped basement apartment rise from $700 to $920.

Urban Oasis

Undoubtedly, The 606 has been a big improvement to the city’s interior landscape. The trail has provided the near Northwest Side a new recreational outlet and much-needed green space.

Starting in Wicker Park at Ashland Ave. on the east, and running west to Ridgeway Ave.in Humboldt Park, the trail has provided the West Side a new recreational outlet and much-needed green space.

Exercise enthusiasts, dog walkers and young families with strollers regularly use the trail, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month.

It also has served as a social connector, linking the hipster Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods with middle-class and working-class residents of Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

And while no one is keeping an exact head count, the crowds are healthy; the city estimated that 50,000 people came just on opening day, June 6, 2015.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, for one, is pleased with The 606 as a public works project, and he’s even making plans for a second trail, called Paseo, which would run along an abandoned rail line in Pilsen and Little Village.

“In just the first year, The 606 has become a true community corridor and one of Chicago’s great promenades,” Emanuel said in a statement. “An abandoned rail line that used to divide four neighborhoods is now uniting them and bringing residents from across Chicago to walk, bike, or simply enjoy this unique public space.”

The 606, which took its name from Chicago’s zip code prefix, began as the Bloomingdale Trail, when in the early 20th Century; freight train tracks were elevated above Bloomingdale Avenue on the West Side. Use of the freight line ended in the mid-1990s as Schwinn and other manufacturers left the city.

The Friends of Bloomingdale Trail was formed in 2004 to raise awareness, and money, to convert the rail line into a recreational trail. In recent years, the campaign received a boost after the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to preserving open space became a partner.

“Logan Square was identified as the second neediest neighborhood for open space, and Humboldt Park, No. 6, so we thought it was a grand idea,” said Beth White, former director of the Chicago office of the Trust for Public Land, who was in on the early planning.

A combination of $50 million in federal funds, $20 million in private donations and $5 million from the City of Chicago got the trail open. Another $20 million needs to be fund-raised for other improvements, including parks at both trailheads.

606 Trail Graphics

Signage from the 606 trail in Chicago | Sean O'Conor Productions

Connecting Communities

Beyond the recreational benefits, it was envisioned that the trail would connect the disparate neighborhoods along its path.

“There is an opportunity for social cohesion. It’s a community builder,” said Jamie Simone, the new director of the trust’s Chicago office.

Before The 606 opened, there were numerous points along Bloomingdale Avenue where streets dead-ended into railroad embankments, separating neighborhoods, Simone said.

“The railroad was a barrier to people,” she said. “There are people from Wicker Park who have never been to Humboldt Park. Now they can travel the trail uninterrupted. It connects people.”

That connectedness is not without its shortcomings. In Bucktown and Wicker Park, where multi-million dollar condominiums stand smack dab against The 606, residents complain about the influx of people.

Breaking Bad

Some visitors misbehave.

Homeowners abutting The 606 complain of people peering in windows and urinating in the bushes (there are no restrooms on the trail).

“I’d say most of the complaints are quality of life issues: people looking in the backyard windows; skateboarders late at night; people going in the bushes,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) whose ward includes parts of the trail in Bucktown and Wicker Park.

Further west, there were three armed robberies in early spring along the Logan Square portion of the trail. In each case, bicyclists riding the trail in the late evening were robbed by a group of men, according to an alert from Chicago Police District 14, which covers much of The 606.

In Humboldt Park, residents have been rattled by two recent shootings, including a fatal gang shooting one block from The 606, according to an announcement from Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26).  The shootings prompted Maldonado to hold a pair of public meetings.

Surveillance cameras and periodic police foot patrols serve as deterrents to crime on the trail, but Chicago police concede they don’t have the manpower to monitor the trail 24/7.

Nonetheless, the general consensus among neighboring residents contacted by the BGA is that The 606’s impact on crime has been a wash.

“When I was young, the trail was a scary place. People would go up there to do drugs and fool around. That’s all changed. Now there’s a lot of activity. It almost seems like a festival,” said Xavier Perez, 42, a lifelong resident of Humboldt Park and a criminology professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago.

“I remember as a kid, one time we were playing basketball on the school playground and gangs just randomly started shooting down at us from the old viaduct,” Perez said. “Now I walk on the trail and feel good that I can look down on that playground and feel safe…but the gangs are still there. I think the trail has just displaced things a little.”

Real Estate Boom

Another major concern along The 606 is rising real estate values and higher rents.

The vibrant housing market in Bucktown and Wicker Park is spreading west along The 606 into Logan Square and Humboldt Park, where buyers can snatch up lower-priced homes.

Over the past year, home prices have risen 19.9 percent in Bucktown, 16.6 percent in Humboldt Park, 14.3 percent in Wicker Park and 5.3 percent in Logan Square, according to recent figures from Redfin, a real estate brokerage. The median home price in Chicago is up 10 percent.

With Redfin listing the average home price in Bucktown at $509,500 and $430,950 in Wicker Park, it’s natural for the real estate market to drift west into Logan Square, where home prices average $326,500 and Humboldt Park, where the average price is $286,750.

“Before, no one wanted to live west of California (Avenue). There was nothing to do, no place to walk to, no place to eat. And there were safety concerns. The 606 changed all that,” said Mario Greco, president of MG Group, a Chicago real estate firm active in the area.

As buyers rehab old houses and developers build new properties along The 606, rents are mounting. A recent tax reassessment in the area has also prompted landlords to raise rents, as did a city property tax increased pushed through last year by Mayor Emanuel.

In Logan Square, for example, a one-bedroom apartment rents for an average of $1,660 a month, compared with $949 in 2010, a 75 percent increase, according to the Chicago Rehab Network, an affordable housing advocacy group.

“Rents are rapidly increasing. That’s putting a lot of pressure on low-income families,” said Michael Burton, asset management director with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., an affordable housing advocate.

Teardowns, Construction

Housing teardowns and new construction are occurring all along the trail, note residents and real estate experts.

In Bucktown, LG Development is asking almost $4 million for a new condominium being completed next to the trail at Wilmot Avenue. The condo features 6 bedrooms, 6 baths and an expansive outdoor deck overlooking the trail.

Nearby in Wicker Park, Centrum Partners recently demolished an aging Aldi store to build a six-story apartment building with 95 units, ranging from studios to 3 bedrooms. Rental rates aren’t yet available.

And the Twin Towers “transit-oriented” development being built by Henry Street Partners near the CTA Blue Line’s California station will feature 216 units ranging from $1,400 to $3,900.

These developments alarm some long-time residents because they symbolize gentrification. Opponents fear new developments and rehabs are displacing poor and working class people with more affluent residents, who can better afford to buy or rent in rehabbed residential buildings.

Rising home values may be welcome by homeowners in Bucktown and Wicker Park but they are feared in Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

“When it comes to recreation and connecting neighborhoods, the trail has been a home run. However, with the trail come changes. It’s driving out some lower-income families. Some families who have been here for 30-40 years can no longer afford to stay,” said Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st), whose ward encompasses much of The 606.

Moreno is a big backer of City of Chicago “forgivable loan” program that provides homeowners along The 606 up to $25,000 in a zero interest loan to make home repairs in return for staying in their homes. A portion of the loan is forgiven each month the owner stays in the home.

“Luxury developers are colonizing our community,” said the Rev. Andrew Rindfleisch, pastor of San Lucas United Church of Christ in Humboldt Park.

Rindfleisch routine leads marches along The 606 with demands for more affordable housing. He and other activists are pushing for property tax rebates for landlords that offer affordable rents, and high demolition fees on knock downs, money which would be used to subsidize affordable rents.

Deep Roots

“There is a very real concern: Who is this trail for?” Rindfleisch said. “It opened with a lot of hype. Now people with deep roots are being pushed out because they can no longer afford to live here.”

Spending much of her youth in both Humboldt Park and Logan Square, Violet Gallardo, 23, said she became desensitized to gang violence and drug use in her neighborhood. What makes her take notice now is when she walks The 606 and sees so many new faces.

“I saw an older white man in short shorts and I did a double take,” said Gallardo, a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago who has also become a community activist.

“I spent most of my life focusing on getting a degree and getting out of here,” she said. “Now I see the changes the trail is bringing and I ask myself: What are you running from? I see how gentrification is changing things, and now it makes me appreciate my culture. I want to preserve it. I want to give back to my community.”

About the Author

John T. Slania

John Slania is a regular BGA freelance contributor who often writes about policy issues.