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How Chicago’s South Side Is Creating the ‘Un’ High Line

Summer 2018 community events on the as-yet-undeveloped Englewood Line Trail. (Photo by Anton Seals, courtesy Grow Greater Englewood)

Englewood, in Chicago’s South Side, is only a few miles south of downtown, but in many ways, an entire world away. The city’s glittering skyscrapers are not to be found here. Large parcels of vacant land interspersed with residential, commercial and industrial buildings are indicative of the effects of decades of disinvestment and population loss.

Since hitting its peak population in 1960, the Englewood and West Englewood neighborhoods have lost approximately two-thirds of their population. More than 40 percent of the population has incomes below the poverty line, and one out of every five individuals is unemployed.

“The recession of 2007-08 decimated many of the homeowners who were left here,” says Anton Seals, lead steward of Grow Greater Englewood, an organization that works with residents in Englewood to create and maintain green business enterprises and sustainable food economies.

Besides Grow Greater Englewood’s food-focused mission, the organization is developing the Englewood Line Trail — converting a two-mile stretch of an abandoned elevated railway line into a linear park. There would be walking and biking opportunities, urban farming plots, and places for kids to play.

But unlike the most famous linear park in the country — and unlike Chicago’s own 606 trail — Grow Greater Englewood plans to create the Englewood trail for and with existing residents.

“We’re … trying to … create spaces, a black space in particular where parents can bring their children to one, return and get closer to nature and learn about food. But [the trail would also include] places where they can have fun, where technology and energy are integrated into these spaces.” says Seals.

Originally part of the Norfolk Southern Railway line, the abandoned parcel has become grassy and overgrown with trees, with small segments of track remaining visible. Plans to develop the abandoned railway line as part of a neighborhood agricultural district were described as early as 2005 in a report facilitated by LISC Chicago.

More detailed plans kept coming out. But the trail is still almost completely undeveloped.

Norfolk Southern had reached an agreement with the City of Chicago in 2013 to cede the abandoned railway line to the city. In exchange, the city approved a zoning change to provide a vital go-ahead for a rail yard expansion project located further north in Englewood. (However, holdouts within the area slated for the 84-acre rail yard compelled Norfolk Southern to resort to eminent domain to obtain the remaining parcels.) In any event, the city did not actually obtain ownership of the abandoned railway until December 2018, according to Seals.

Despite the controversy involved, securing ownership of the parcel removed a major impediment for developing the Englewood Line Trail. Once developed, the Englewood Line Trail could provide a green refuge for Englewood residents along with providing a catalyst for economic development within Englewood and a source for green jobs. The largely flat trail could also be developed for biking, according to Seals, although he emphasizes that any plans for the proposed Englewood Line Trail must incorporate the community’s African American composition and community.

“[Plans for the trail] would all reflect kind of an African American motif as our vision. Our cultural imprint in this community has to be really strong. It doesn’t need to be talked about, you just feel. I think it’s more important for black people to have that kind of design and care in really meticulous ways in the decisions and choices that we’re making. We are not going to wait for some outside entity to come in and kind of think about this. We should be doing this kind of work,” Seals says.

Assuming soil remediation is feasible, Seals envisions incorporating the embankments that rise up from street level to the elevated line as land for expanded urban farming. (Growing Home is located adjacent to a section of the elevated parcel.)

“The specific plan is to make them edible spaces where people can go and pick fruit and create different pathways down (to the urban farms). What makes this different from the 606 is with the 606 there’s a wall [separating the trail from street level]. Here the embankments pretty much go down to what were people’s homes,” Seals says.

Given the hostility demonstrated by the Trump Administration toward Chicago – and the indifference of Republicans in general toward “green” projects, obtaining federal government funding for the Englewood Line Trail seems to be unlikely. In addition, a perception exists among some potential donors that directing funds toward lower-income black communities is throwing good money after bad, according to Seals.

“I’ve heard this argument of why are we doing this for these people? That’s what’s usually thrown in the face of African Americans. Like we want something for nothing. There’s this notion that everyone else is working hard and you’re not. So that’s what we’re working against,” says Seals.

Depending on whom you ask, the 606, in the Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Park neighborhoods on the city’s Northwest Side, has either been largely credited for enhancing development, or criticized for accelerating gentrification. While gentrification is less of a concern in Englewood, Seals says that one way to forestall neighbors being priced out is to ensure management of the Englewood trail is done by Englewood residents.

“[There would be] this stewardship alliance made up of the community, not only to care for it but also to have the contractual obligations to take care of it,” Seals says. “That way you would be able to have jobs … the tree trimming and design and landscape [for people within the community].”

This story is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.

Audrey F. Henderson is a Chicagoland-based freelance writer and researcher specializing in sustainable development in the built environment, culture and arts related to social policy, socially responsible travel, and personal finance. Her work has been featured in Transitions Abroad webzine and Chicago Architect magazine, along with numerous consumer, professional and trade publications worldwide.

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