On the trail of art

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."

If you doubt the beauty of untended spaces, you haven't sat fixated before the History Channel's "Life After People." Or recognized that the best part of a post-Earth film like "Elysium" — or NBC's post-electricity series "Revolution," with its ruin-porn vision of Wrigley Field — is its unfussed-with landscapes, simultaneously reminding us of who we were and what we screwed up. Edward McClelland, a former Chicago Reader staff writer and author of a new book on the industrial Midwest, "Nothin' But Blue Skies," said: "It's fascinating to see how the organic eventually reclaims the inorganic. Nature always bats last."

In its own way, even the prairie grasses, hills of sunflowers and wild flora of the Burnham Centennial Prairie just south of McCormick Place along Lake Shore Drive — to name one of the many artfully-tended-yet-seemingly-untended landscapes around Chicago — is a recognition of this aesthetic. If, as has been proposed in Congress recently, the historic Pullman neighborhood and its 19th century industrial park ruins ever becomes a national park, it likely would have to strike a similar balance between its artful landscape and revitalization.

Perhaps the ultimate example, the often-cited standard of how to transform industrial refuse into an art object with its rawness intact, is the High Line in New York City, a 1.4 mile-long, rusted former freight line on the city's West Side that had a $152 million reconstruction and re-opened in 2009 as a kind of city park/contemplative space/walking path, set 30 feet above the street. It's wildly popular, a major tourist attraction, which Catherine Marron, who becomes the chairman of the High Line's board of directors this winter, chalked up to "retaining the abandoned quality of the elevated track, giving people a sense of discovering a place — and a chance to slow down and admire its artfulness."

White is quick to say the 606 is not a rip-off of the High Line — indeed, both the High Line and 606 were proposed about a decade ago, the 606 only gathering steam after it became a priority of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's. And she's right: The High Line, which doesn't offer much more than itself, has the courage to be art. Meanwhile, the 606, being a dutifully Midwestern project, is more practical.

Adam Schwerner, director of natural and cultural resources for the Chicago Park District, said the 606 "will build on the history of the place and what's there now," incorporating native plants, a poplar grove and general "prairie-esqueness." He said that "there will be moments on the Bloomingdale where (quiet contemplation) can and should happen."

But then Rob Rejman, the park district's director of planning and construction, added: 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. "Besides," he said, "the High Line seems like it's just there to be beautiful."

Which is one definition of art.

When I explained the 606 to Rachael DeLue, an associate professor of American art at Princeton University and expert on landscape art, she replied with a mini-lecture on artful decay, the gist of which was: "This Bloomingdale Trail is commodifying an industrial ruin, much the way the High Line did. Which is interesting because this fascination with post-industrial landscape, imagining it having a beauty and wanting to retain that ruinous beauty, is a long tradition. It's played out in garden design, landscape architecture, visual arts, and dates to the 18th century, to seeing things as 'picturesque,' as neither sublime nor calming. But it's not just seeing nature. A landscape isn't art, or 'picturesque,' until we do something to it — like, we look at it."

Then put a frame around it.

As I walked the picturesque trail with White, she mentioned the 606 is often described by its stewards — including herself — as "'Chicago's Roman Coliseum,' and I know how that sounds, but it's no overstatement." We passed over an old bridge lousy with cracks, its garish yellow paint chipping to oblivion, wavy red lines of rust bisecting its walls as though a great flood had passed through Bucktown.

Some of this will go.

Some will stay.

I said to White: You know, to some extent, just having this conversation at all, about artful landscape decay, arguing how much to clean up and how much to retain, is condescending — that as much as I might argue for retaining the rawness of industrial ruins, as much as I might consider crumbling infrastructure a kind of work of art in itself, I'm not the one who has to live next to it or walk home from school alongside it. Which is why bankrupt Detroit tends to get its back up over ruin-porn artists swooning over neglect and dilapidation.

She nodded.

She said that when she asks families along the 606 what they want, "we often hear 'color would be nice.'"

I said that I didn't envy her job, that the line between restoration and gentrification is mighty thin. But also, what's artful about an industrial urban landscape can get trampled in the rush to point out that artfulness.

"Yes! It's a tough balance!" she groaned, loud enough for me to notice how quiet it was on the trail on a weekday morning, no one there but a few joggers and a handful of 606 surveyors. She said the project was taking pains to avoid making the landscape "too cute or precious." And certainly Whitehead sounded anything but cutesy: She said the 606 designers ruled out incorporating "inauthentic ruins" to avoid any Disneyfication, and that there would be "moments of densely planted areas on the trail, tunnels of plants," and that there is "such desire for urban wild, people want areas that don't look like manicured golf courses."

Whitehead left me less worried about the project's willingness to retain the trail's rough edges. On the other hand, one thing is certain: When the trail opens next fall, this natural art installation will be louder.

It started raining. White left for a meeting. On my way back to the car, I ran into Bruce Thorn and his son Toby. They had been photographing the trail. "It's so rustic and odd, like a free space not subject to the rest of the city," Toby said. Bruce nodded, then asked me: Did I know anything? Would it be like the High Line?

Less art-like, I said.

"Oh," he said. "But they know they shouldn't do a lot to it, right? It's a different reality there. It's so nice."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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