Though it is set to become the pearl brooch of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s public park legacy, the Bloomingdale Trail has a gritty backstory.
For years it was an unregulated getaway for the homeless, drug users, urban curiosity seekers, joggers and teenagers — some carrying backpacks full of beer, spraypaint and fireworks.
Pretty much anyone willing to do some climbing or slip through a break in a chain-link fence could trespass on the trail.
Such details aren’t on the official bio of the abandoned elevated rail line that has been transformed and rebranded into the “606″ — a nearly 3-mile paved trail and park system that cost nearly $100 million.
And the warts-and-all history probably won’t be shared when officials gather June 6 to cut a ribbon, ushering in a new era of strollers, rollerblades, bikes and gel-heeled running shoes.
“It was literally a quiet place to go and hang out with your friends and not get caught doing illegal stuff when you’re under 18 or 21,” said Maria Puschmann, 30.
“You’d go drink a few beers, smoke some weed and do your paint, do your graffiti on some of the old rail cars that were on the tracks,” she said, recalling her teenage years growing up in Bucktown and attending Lincoln Park High School.
Puschmann works as a hostess at a downtown steakhouse and lives a few yards from the trail in Logan Square with her sons, ages 13 and 6 months. Her tagging crew was not part of a gang, she notes.
“That was like 15 years ago. I was up there doing the wrong thing; now I’m going to go up there with a stroller. And if I ever see one of my sons with a paint can . . . ” Puschmann said in a don’t-mess-with-me tone.
Heavy-duty rail travel dwindled on the line in the ’90s and ended completely in the early 2000s, said Beth White, Chicago Area Office director of The Trust for Public Land, which headed up the transformation project. “But people just couldn’t resist going up there even when it was live train tracks,” said White, who has encountered people from all sorts of backgrounds with personal stories about the trail. “It was really a no man’s land.”
Lalo Saavedra, 28, would hang out with pals from Foreman High School near the western end of the trail, which ends at Ridgeway Avenue, when he was teenager.
“You did see a couple of gang-bangers up there, but they wouldn’t really mess with you,” he said. “Everyone pretty much minded their own business.”
Saavedra, who lives in the Irving Park neighborhood and works as a valet at a car dealership, said he was more leery of the homeless men who’d gather on the trail.
“Sometimes it was pretty scary,” he said. “You’d be walking and then be like ‘Oh, what the f— are they doing? But you just keep walking, eyes forward.”
The eastern portion of the trail runs through Ald. Scott Waguespack’s 32nd Ward, ending at Ashland Avenue. Waguespack and hundreds of others, including off-duty cops, regularly ventured up to the trail for a jog.
News spread by word of mouth and more people started hanging out on the trail’s east end around 2010.
“During the day, we never really cared too much,” Waguespack said. “We were more concerned about the nighttime stuff where people were having campfires and there’d be like 10 or 15 people partying.”
Crowds mostly consisted of high-schoolers and people in their 20s who would head up to the trail after a night out.
“Before, the partying was hidden and more quiet, then it became sort of party central. People who lived along the trail started calling 911 and then they’d call my office,” he said.
Additional fences along the trail were erected in 2011 by Canadian Pacific, the railroad company that formerly owned the land, Waguespack said.
“The issue was that they only had one or two guys patrolling literally like 100 miles of rail through the region,” Waguespack said. And the 3-mile stretch of defunct track along Bloomingdale was not a high priority for the railroad company, he said.
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For Josh Deth, who owns Revolution Brewery in Logan Square and first stumbled onto the trail in the 1990s, the trail wasn’t a party spot. He liked to bike or cross-country ski on it.
In 2003, Deth co-founded Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a group that lobbied for it to become a park. Deth led the first cleanup effort.
“There were lots of hypodermic needles up there and beer cans and broken bottles,” Deth said. “There was a homeless encampment at Kimball. One homeless guy at Leavitt hooked up electrical wires to the local power grid and had a TV in there.”
“When you’d cross paths with these guys up there, reactions ranged from them freaking out, to them trying to freak you out,” Deth said. “Part of it is that you’re in this space where there’s no rules, because the cops didn’t really go up there.”
“It was just a different sort of space. Sometimes you could look into people’s second-floor windows. Or you’d see people on the street level, and you’d have a different engagement with people because you’re not on the same plane. You couldn’t get to them and they couldn’t get to you.”
Some things up there were just weird.
“There was an old piano up there at one point,” Deth said. “I don’t know how the hell someone got a piano up there, but they sure did.”
Another unforgettable memory: “Someone had collected a bunch of fire hydrant caps and stacked them to make a fire pit.”
Deth said the concept of developing the trail stoked fears on the eastern end that a paved path would become a “gang highway.” Some folks on the western end feared it would bring gentrification.
The trail struck Ben Helphand, 40, board president and co-founder of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, as a wild place, but not because of the people.
“Nature had reclaimed it,” said Helphand. “It was really beautiful. Tall prairie grasses, trees, flowers — a place to get away. A solitary place.”
“I saw lovers holding hands out for a stroll, people with their kids.”