Transforming an abandoned Englewood rail line is important step to reinvigorating the community
A neighborhood that’s been the poster child for urban abandonment, disinvestment is now in line for a project that’ll likely be the talk of the town when it’s done.
It’s encouraging to see Englewood and West Englewood — two neighborhoods that have gone so long with so little — receive $20 million toward turning an abandoned railroad line into a public nature trail.
The federal grant will be used to convert the elevated former rail right-of-way that runs parallel to 59th Street into an accessible, active pathway called the Englewood Nature Trail.
The two communities have been pushing for the trail for 15 years.
“We are excited,” L. Anton Seals Jr., executive director of Grow Greater Englewood, told the Sun-Times last week after the grant was announced.
So are we. For years, the two South Side neighborhoods have been the poster children for urban abandonment, disinvestment — and all the ills that come with it.
Now they’re in line for a project that’ll likely be the talk of the town when it’s done.
‘Benefit for years to come’
The $20 million grant, announced by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Chicago, is a key early step in turning the abandoned 1.75 mile rail line into an asset.
The cash will fund the design and construction of the trail, which will run from Wallace Street west to Hoyne Avenue, with 26 viaducts in between.
The project also includes the construction of nine entrances to the trail.
Money for all this comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant program, a fund set aside for infrastructure and transportation projects with either local or regional impact.
The former industrial rail line was built in 1917 for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Unused since the 1960s, the embankment runs through an area that’s been virtually laid flat by decades of disinvestment and building demolition.
But community leaders and city officials hope the trail can help the Englewood and West Englewood neighborhoods get back on their feet.
“This equity-focused investment in the Englewood community will serve as a major catalyst for revitalization,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “The trail, which was importantly developed as part of a community-led process, will benefit Englewood residents for years to come.”
A unique urban space?
These “rails-to-trails” projects can be remarkably transformative, as seen with the North Side’s 606 trail and New York City’s High Line.
They are expensive, however. The 2.7-mile 606, which runs from Bucktown and Wicker Park westward and south to Humboldt Park, cost $95 million.
The $20 million allocated for the Englewood Nature Trail is significant, but no doubt more money will be needed.
Yet the result, if done correctly, could be worth the expense, creating a spectacular urban space: an active, 17-acre elevated linear park between 50 and 100 feet wide.
That’s a canvas roomy enough to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, runners, nature, art and cultural activities.
And right alongside the trail has to be thoughtful urban planning and critical investments to physically bring back the areas neighboring the path.
Englewood and West Englewood had a combined population of 160,000 when the freight trains on that old rail line stopped rumbling through in the 1960s. About 50,000 people live there today.
But as this editorial board has said time and again, it will take large projects like this to help jump start the portions of the South and West sides, such as Englewood and West Englewood, that have been left adrift for the past 50 or 60 years with the barest of public or private investment.
Whether it’s revitalizing fallen retail districts, investing in affordable housing or turning a rail line into a nature trail, it’s time to right those wrongs.
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