Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting a stop along The 606 for a family night organized by the Trust for Public Land. The linear park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, is work of art in its own right, a nearly three-mile-long trail for bikers, runners, and walkers, lined with prairie grasses, flowering shrubs, evergreens, and profusions of wildflowers. But what is particularly appealing about the converted freight line is the way it sews together four socially and racially diverse Chicago neighborhoods. It is not only a popular commuter route, but the site of event places, public art, and green open space.
At this particular pop-up event, a small grassy park along the route played host to children’s musician Mr. Singer, an impromptu petting zoo, loose hula hoops, books spread out on a blanket, and imaginary campfire activities. Alongside the park, on the brick wall of Ipsento Coffee, an impressionistic mural by artist Jeff Zimmerman features a brightly colored montage of plants and diverse faces Zimmerman encountered while walking in the neighborhood. My son gravitated to a set of blocks in the shapes of trees and columns. He spent much of his time planning the design of a miniature forest with a newly made friend, inspired no doubt by the park’s maturing saplings and boulders.
This was just one night, of course. Other evenings, at one of the dozens of arterial neighborhood and school parks and playgrounds connected to The 606, there are yoga gatherings, movies, theater performances, family camping nights, and star-gazing events. Some days I walk along the route to get some fresh air and peak at Rick Bayless’s vegetable garden. I might hear a cyclist breeze past playing Drake or Kanye from a radio strapped to her handlebars. Other days I hop on a bicycle, clamp my son in the rear carriage, and journey to Humboldt Park. It is only a mile or so from my house, but, like so many urban neighborhoods carved up along racial and social lines by ugly roadways and disinvestment, it had always felt much farther until there was a natural way to get there without a car. Now my son regularly plays at the park with kids of all races, and I’m glad he gets to experience that kind of diversity naturally, as part of the identity and rhythm of the neighborhood.
The wounds are still fresh from the violence in Charlottesville, where a memorial to Robert E. Lee has intensified a centuries-old cultural clash over history, race, slavery, and the considered use of public space. In this wrenching national moment, it’s worth pivoting, if only for a breath of air, at the design of The 606, a grassroots, community-driven project that is making new history, while bringing together distinct neighborhoods through art, music, and human connection. To me, at least, it is an attempt at community cohesion that feels comfortingly fresh and hopeful, against much that is not. Here are a few heartening observations from The 606 project.
Don’t Forget the Past. But Look to the Future
Prior to the opening of The 606, Frances Whitehead, a sculpture professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the lead artist, revealed her attitude toward a design question that has only become more relevant with time: “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.”
Activate the Space with Music and the Arts
For a park to build community solidarity, it needs to have events that make the space feel valued. The family night, mentioned earlier, is one event in a packed calendar that celebrates the musical and artistic traditions of the neighborhoods The 606 connects. Las Caras Lindas is a five-part outdoor celebration of Afro-Latin music and dance featuring local and touring musicians, rumbling congos and billowing dresses. A bring-your-own-sleeping-bag family camping night on an elevated freight line—with hot dogs and marshmallows provided —may not be for everyone, but its specific appeal to a neighborhood of young urbanites in the midst of a baby boom, is what makes it speak so powerfully to the character and identity of the neighborhood. Guided tours of the trail led by a volunteer docent explore the trail’s design and development and a short lesson in Chicago railroad history.
Create a Living Work of Art
In every season, The 606 landscape rewards visitors with an ever-changing display of flowering shrubs, deciduous trees, and perennial flowers and grasses. Environmental Sentinel is the trail-wide climate monitoring artwork and flowering spectacle, conceived by Whitehead. It reveals Lake Michigan’s effect on bloom times of temperature-sensitive trees and shrubs planted along the length of The 606. Cloned serviceberries, lilacs, and forsythias make up the flowering spectacle. As a visitor, you can help track the bloom dates each year to chart the city’s microclimate and how it may change over time.
Think Capillary Action
Rob Rejman, the Chicago Park District’s director of planning and construction, was once quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying The 606 would not exist — or have landed $39 million in federal funds — if it weren’t primarily a transportation project, a way of easing commuter congestion. Unlike the High Line, a more aesthetically embellished work of landscape art, The 606 is designed, above all, as a commuter route. Because it is 2.7 miles long and stops well short of downtown, its function in this regard has its limitations. Some people use it to get to the office. But more use it to exercise and journey to nearby parks, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Even if it spatially connects only a few neighborhoods, the social and racial geography it spans is significant and makes the community feel larger, more diverse, and more connected.
Make the Park Accessible to the Young
Public art is a great way to invite young people into a dialogue about the history of a place and what it means to live there. Along The 606 is a lovely untitled mural created by student artists at Marwen (an arts education non-profit working with Chicago youth in grades 6-12) in collaboration with lead artist Marta Garcia. Working out of the Humboldt Park boat house, the artists spent a week photographing the neighborhood and assembled the images into an abstract collage. Then there’s the wonderful Chakaia Booker’s Brick House 2015, at the Damen Arts Plaza, a 10 1/2′ x 26′ x 13′ sculpture made of rubber tires, rubber, and stainless steel that resembles a dragon. Children love to climb the strange creature that sits on a terraced plaza with stacked concrete seats overlooking a baseball diamond, restaurants, and passing cars. You can find skateboarders, parents with strollers, and resting joggers sharing the space and finding time to get to know their neighbors.