Despite a snowstorm and 15-degree temperatures, more than 50 people turned out January 11 to join in the planning for the Englewood Line Nature Trail, a 1.7-mile proposed linear park on the abandoned railroad between 58th and 59th Streets.
Crowded into the warm space provided by the social service agency Feed, Clothe, Help the Needy, at 1234 W. 59th St., participants heard details of the project from public officials, architects, and planners, then gathered around tables to discuss ideas for safe, active uses by local residents. They also learned about trail construction jobs that will be available through Greencorps and participated in a survey about health and safety.
Sixteenth Ward Ald. Toni Foulkes opened the meeting by noting that “very exciting things are going on in Englewood,” including the planned opening this year of a Whole Foods store at 63rd and Halsted. The nature trail could anchor another wave of improvements, she said, from reuse of the vacant Bontemps school building to new affordable housing.
Also promoting the trail was Sonya Harper, executive director of Grow Greater Englewood and recently appointed state representative for the 6th District. “You know we live in a food desert,” Harper said to the crowd, “and that we need more jobs and businesses in our community.” Converting the rail land could boost the local food system and economy, Harper said, by expanding urban farming and food-related businesses. Rail-to-trail conversion has been discussed in neighborhood plans for more than 10 years, Harper added, “but now we want to bring it to fruition.”
Ideas for the trail
The meeting produced a flood of ideas for the trail itself and the many vacant lots and buildings nearby. Interacting with the natural environment was a major theme, including ideas for a butterfly habitat, beekeeping, and community gardens. One participant suggested an edible garden and demonstration kitchen; another promoted African-American heritage crops like collards, yams, and beans. The vacant Bontemps school building, which is adjacent to the viaduct at 1241 W. 58th St., could become an incubator for small urban-agriculture businesses. “We’ve got all this land but aren’t doing anything with it,” said Steve Hughes, who runs OTIS Fresh Market, a healthy-food business.
Recreation was another theme, not simply biking and walking on the trail itself but for active uses nearby, such as playing fields and linking to the splash pad at Hermitage Park. Arts activities could include new murals or live performances in a natural amphitheater along the sloped embankment.
Business development and affordable housing were also discussed. “I’d love to see a coffee shop, so you could have breakfast up there,” said Zachary Armistead. Others urged creation of a marketplace where vendors could sell food, crafts, and other products. Several residents urged that affordable housing be developed, both to serve local residents and to bring more people to the trail.
Many advocated for safety improvements. “If a child doesn’t feel safe walking to the trail, it will be underutilized,” said Cynthia Hudson, who is a community liaison for the Active Transportation Alliance. Others suggested improved lighting, safety cameras and call boxes at key locations.
Timeline for development
All this information will be used by the City of Chicago and the project team, led by the planning firm Teska Associates, to develop initial plans for the trail. Check back for more developments and news. Key activities in the short term include:
• Ownership transfer – The City of Chicago is working with Norfolk Southern railroad on finalizing land transfer so that development can begin.
• Health and safety survey – The Chicago Department of Public Health and Illinois Public Health Institute are conducting a Health Impact Assessment of Englewood that includes specific questions about recreation, fitness, and safety in the trail area. Participants filled out the surveys during the January 11 meeting.
• Trail construction jobs – Greencorps Chicago will be hiring and training full-time workers who will perform landscaping, brush clearing, and light carpentry for the Englewood Trail and other Greencorps projects in Chicago and Cook County. Englewood residents are encouraged to call the recruitment hotline at 312-746-9777 after it opens at 9 a.m. on January 19.
• Share an Idea – Anyone can share ideas for the trail on the project website: click here! To receive notices of meetings and new documentation, provide your email address.