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Bloomingdale Trail: Off limits, illegal, under construction — and enjoyed by many

A runner jogs Bloomingdale Trail near Bucktown Chicago Friday.  |  Michael Jarecki~For Sun-Times Media

A runner jogs on the Bloomingdale Trail near Bucktown in Chicago on Friday. | Michael Jarecki~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 4, 2013 6:06AM

The city’s makeover and rebranding of the Bloomingdale Trail may have kicked off last week, but the Northwest Side’s nearly three-mile stretch of elevated, abandoned train tracks, now part of a park network named “The 606”, has been used by hikers, bikers and more for more than a decade.

Until the city completes the $54 million project to turn the tracks into an elevated park, with five ground-level parks serving as access points, it remains illegal trespassing to clamber up there, according to a police spokesman. After Tuesday’s groundbreaking, the park won’t be done until fall 2014. But so far, the risk of arrest hasn’t stopped many of Chicago’s outdoors enthusiasts from discovering the open space and using it year round.

“I have never trespassed on the Bloomingdale Trail. Just kidding,” said Josh Deth, a regular visitor who parlayed his love for the undeveloped trail into the formation of a group dedicated to its preservation and renovation. Deth co-founded the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail with neighbors of the trail before stepping down in 2008.

“Personally, I’ve been a big fan of cross country skiing up there over the years,” Deth said, adding that a friend showed him the place as a great route for mountain biking in the late ’90s. “When fresh snow falls, there are few places that are left unplowed or undisturbed in the city and none with such great views.”

Now that the city park district will be officially caring for the park, “they’ll probably plow it,” Deth said. “But I’m thinking that there will still be a chance to get up there in the middle of the night before they do.”

Ben Helphand, current president of the organization’s board, said he first discovered the trail about 10 years ago. The land belonged to the Canadian Pacific Railway (which stopped using it in 2001) until January, when the city bought it for $1. Helphand and the Friends have worked to get the city to develop the park since 2003.

People aren’t discouraged by the legality of visiting the trail, Helphand said.

“I know I’ve seen people biking, people cross-country skiing, families with ice cream cones crawling up,” Helphand said. “It was and will be again a convenient way to get around your community.”

Helphand, who took engagement photos with his wife on the trail, talked about a family in Humboldt Park who has planted wildflowers and vegetables in a garden near a particularly wide embankment up there.

Some activities have prompted arrests.

Four people in their 20s were arrested Aug. 14 near the Milwaukee Avenue and Leavitt Street access point after someone called police about the group starting a fire on the trail. The four were charged with misdemeanor trespassing on city property, according to a police spokesman.

The Chicago Police Department does occasionally remind people it is illegal to be on the trail, and now that it is under construction, they will increase enforcement for safety reasons, a police spokesman said.

Many people have taken to social media to express their love for the trail in its current incarnation and excitement for its future. The increase of usable, legal green space is a boon to the area, many people said.

Steve Trimble, an advertising executive for the Wall Street Journal, said he has run, often home from work, on the trail for 10 years or more. Now that “No Trespassing” signs are going up, marking the beginning of construction, Trimble said it is probably time for him to run his last time until the park reopens.

While he said he will miss the post-apocalyptic landscape, Trimble said the design for the new park looks really lovely.

“[With] great things you miss them, you feel nostalgia when they change, kind of like when your kids grow up.” Trimble said.

“But ultimately, of course, you want your children to grow up.”


Twitter: @dhnovak

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