In 1931, construction began to elevate a section of railway in Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood, providing a connection between the Fort Wayne and Panhandle branches of the Pennsylvania railroad.1 An ordinance had been passed by Chicago City Council in 1912 approving the project intended to lessen the danger of surface level rails to pedestrians, but disagreements regarding which streets and alleys would open, and how the elevated branch would cross existing railroads delayed the project for nearly twenty years. The delay did not stop industries such as ice and coal from scooping up land along the yet-to-be-built elevated lines and building connecting infrastructure between their factories and the elevated rail line. Englewood would become a national hub for intermodal commerce.
By the 1970s, the line had become the property of Norfolk Southern Railway and put out of service. The abandonment of the line caused any remaining industries along it to move elsewhere or close. Over the next fifty years, nature would reclaim the embankment. There, and between the rail lines, native trees such as Cottonwoods and Silver Maples would grow some over sixty feet tall. False Aster and Goldenrod bloomed each summer.
“There are native plants but there is also an issue with soil pollution,” says Maria Villalobos, cofounding artist creator at Botanical City, a landscape architecture firm working on the redevelopment of the rail line. “All of that manufacturing left polluted soils. We are addressing that with trees that serve as biohealing mechanisms but also honoring the urban morphology of the community.”
In 2014, the 1.7-mile rail line was acquired by the City of Chicago under a land swap with Norfolk Southern that included nine parcels of city-owned land adjacent to the railroad’s 63rd street intermodal yard. Norfolk Southern would add that land to the yard while the city would redevelop the line into a linear park: the Englewood Nature Trail.
The Englewood Nature Trail is one of several proposed rail to trail conversions in Chicago, including the El Paseo Trail, the renovation of a 4.2-mile rail line belonging to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line in Pilsen and Little Village; the Bronzeville Trail, the reuse of land on an embankment that once carried a section of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Kenwood branch in Bronzeville; and the Altenheim Line in Homan Square and North Lawndale.
These proposed conversions would join The 606, a completed transformative project on Chicago’s Northwest Side whose centerpiece is the Bloomingdale Trail, a repurposed 2.7-mile stretch of former Canadian Pacific rail line running through Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and into Bucktown and West Town. Completed in 2015, the 606 has become a distinctive amenity, and a driver of gentrification. The Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University reported in 2020 that housing prices of the western half of the 606, the part most vulnerable to displacement pressure, went up 344 percent in only eight years.2
The 606 fundamentally altered the nature of the neighborhoods it runs through, particularly within the blocks that run parallel to the trail. The housing changed in affordability and scale, and the businesses that once served the area’s working class and Latino residents no longer had the same customer base. The trail itself is an amenity but also a transportation corridor, accommodating a multimodal array of bicyclists, walkers, runners, and casual visitors, some of which jockey for power over which use is the 606’s most ideal. Those involved in the planning of the Englewood Nature Trail insist that the end result will be very different, from the functionality of the trail to the effect that the project will have on the neighborhood at large.
Planning for the 606 focused on trail design and features externally from their context. The potential for the project to raise the cost of housing in the area was viewed as a positive effect, one that had been already observed in New York’s High Line. In a 2015 article in the Chicago Tribune, then-mayor Rahm Emanuel boasted that the 606 would unite neighborhoods that have been historically divided by the rail corridor. When asked about property values, which were already identified as rising, he told the Tribune: “Increased housing values are not a bad thing.” City officials told the Tribune at the time that the mayor’s office was working on a strategy to help prevent residents from being displaced but did not comment on whether the mayor would support ordinances to do so.3 Local elected officials introduced a pilot ordinance in 2017 to level fees on demolitions of buildings that were not designated at least fifty percent affordable, but it did not pass. Critics at the time believed the proposed fees, $300,000 for demolishing a single-family home and $450,000 for a two flat, for example, were too high and would dissuade development completely.
The conditions in Englewood are very different from those along the 606 prior to the trail’s groundbreaking. In 2015, development was already surging in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Bucktown, and West Town, while Englewood has experienced vacancy and population loss since the 1960s as a direct result of public and private sector disinvestment, as well as predatory lending practices.
According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), Englewood’s population decreased by thirty nine percent between 2000 and 2020, and thirty two percent of housing units were vacant.4 The embankment overlooks the former Arna Bontemps Elementary School, closed in 2014 as a part of the largest mass-public school closure in US history. It sits empty and without plans for redevelopment nearly ten years later. Buildings that once housed machine shops and manufacturing sit abandoned along arterial streets. While the 606 and the Englewood Nature Trail are both rails to trails projects, that is where the similarities between them end.
Unlike the 606, the Englewood Nature Trail is not being developed in isolation of the area around it. The Englewood Agro-Eco District Land Use Plan formalizes the existing urban farming operations on the site while encouraging new uses for available land to follow an agroecology-based approach. With the trail as the centerpiece, the blocks to its north and south will be prioritized for open space and for business uses that center on urban farming and agriculture. This land use plan is the first of its type in the nation, made possible in part by the prevalence of city-owned land within the district.
Both the trail and the land use plans are the product of the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development with Gensler, PRI, and Botanical City, with Grow Greater Englewood working as both community partner and collaborator on equal ground. Transportation aspects of the project will be designed by the Chicago Department of Transportation. The trail itself will act as the spine of an urban agriculture district, an aspect of the overall project that, according to Grow Greater Englewood Executive Director Anton Seals, “comes from an idea that has been percolating through the community” for over twenty years.
“As people of African descent in America, our role as earth keepers and stewards, our knowledge, has to be told. That narrative was pulled from us. Part of our work is addressing that through the approach we are taking,” says Seals.
In 2002, Growing Home established a high-producing urban farm directly north of the rail line. The only USDA-Certified Urban farm in Chicago, Growing Home has expanded into workforce development programs while growing produce like kale, beets, patty pan squash, and cayenne peppers. Sixty-eight percent of that food is distributed in Englewood, while sixty-four percent of workforce participants are from the neighborhood. In 2011, the City of Chicago introduced changes to the citywide Zoning Ordinance to allow uses like community gardens and urban farms in many parts of the city. The City of Chicago’s Large Lot Program, which ran from 2014 to 2018, allowed property owners, block clubs, and nonprofit groups the opportunity to purchase city-owned land for one dollar a parcel, while the Cook County Land Bank, established in 2014, provided similar low-cost opportunities for purchasing county-owned land. Urban farms like Sistas In the Village expanded into Englewood from Urban Growers Collective, a larger operator of urban farms, during the pandemic. NeighborSpace, a nonprofit urban land trust, assists gardeners and farmers on a smaller scale with resources, technical assistance, and insurance.
“We were doing a lot of work around the codification of food deserts and trying to connect that to a larger urban crisis,” says Anton Seals about Grow Greater Englewood. “What we saw all over was the saturation of highly processed foods—high in salt and sugar—so we began organizing around agricultural work and the social determinants of health, and it grew from there.”
The Englewood Nature Trail will cross twenty-six viaducts and will be realized through a number of funding sources, including six million in local funds for design, twenty million in Rebuilding America Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RISE) grant funds, and an Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development Grant from the State of Illinois Department of Natural Resources, with a total projected cost of $72 million.
The trail will have eleven access points from South Damen Avenue to the west and to South Halsted Street to the east. Those access points, according to Maria Villalobos, were developed using historic research. The trail’s landscape looks to draw inspiration from the compression occurring when the forests of the Midwest meet the Great Lakes and looks to perform more like a linear botanical garden than a bikeway akin to the 606. “It’s not just a bike lane or designing a cool bench. We are here to deliver a cultural project,” adds Maria. “We want spaces where people can explore a spectrum of experiences.”
As Chicago has evolved out of its “Hog Butcher for the World” reputation, the city has had to grapple with what to do with the infrastructure that once supported the erstwhile industries that originally developed its economy. While the rough-edged Chicago that poet Carl Sandberg wrote of in the early twentieth century might have smoothed its corners, the evidence is still there, in nearly every neighborhood. Since Chicago’s founding in the 1830s, lines of railroad track have radiated out from the city center. Heavily subsidized during their industrial lifetimes, these resources are increasingly viewed as paths forward to improve quality of life, transportation access, with a cumulative benefit of mitigating climate change. These new uses are often in contrast with the original uses, ones that have caused displacement and have exploited natural resources.
Norfolk Southern is one of six Class 1 railroad carriers in the United States, a distinction based on a railroad’s gross revenue. American freight railroad companies like Norfolk Southern are the result of decades of rail industry expansion—with the help of land grants from federal and state governments—and then contraction—with the acquisition and merger of smaller, regional railroads by larger ones. Norfolk Southern operates in the Midwest, South, and East, and has had a presence in Chicago for over a hundred years, and Chicago is where the nation’s rail lines both converge and spread. The presence of the railroad industry has molded and influenced other choices regarding Chicago’s land use, including the ultimate location of freeways and public transportation systems.
Norfolk Southern made national headlines in February 2023 when a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, damaging rail cars carrying hazardous materials that subsequently ignited, causing toxic chemicals to be released into the air, water, and soil.5While residents of East Palestine worry about the long-term effects of the derailment on their health, the environment, and property values, Norfolk Southern has funded a $25 million dollar municipal park renovations and has donated a historic train depot to be renovated into a family assistance center.
The influence of the rail industry has caused contemporary issues amongst residents of Englewood. In 2011, Norfolk Southern began acquiring properties on the east side of the neighborhood, just steps from what will be the eastern edge of the Englewood Nature Trail. The 2018 film The Area, directed by David Schalliol and coproduced by Englewood activist Deborah Payne, chronicles the expansion of Norfolk Southern’s intermodal depot through the experiences of homeowners that are fighting for fair-value buyouts and in cases, the right to remain in their homes. The duplexity that Norfolk Southern has created is conveyed by their donation of the trail, an ecological amenity, and the environmental justice issues they have exacerbated by expanding its rail yard. In January 2023, Block Club Chicago reported that Norfolk Southern was not delivering on the jobs they promised as part of a 2013 Redevelopment Agreement with the City of Chicago to hire within the community.6
Englewood was identified as one of the priority areas in the initial phase of Chicago’s INVEST South/West commercial corridor improvement strategy. Englewood Connect, a three-phase project that includes the restoration of a historic firehouse at 63rd Street and Halsted Street, broke ground last fall, but remains the only project in Englewood to be developed by the initiative—a signature of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox. The development received six million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) assistance and received the firehouse and two acres of city-owned land for a dollar. Mixed-use, phased development projects like Englewood Connect are intended to inspire smaller-scale investments, yet the trickle-down effect of public private partnerships at the INVEST South/West scale will take time and targeted attention to reach the individuals that have been harmed by the decades of disinvestment they look to reverse. Per WBEZ, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is currently evaluating how to proceed with INVEST South/West projects in process and will shed the name.7
The Englewood Agro-Eco District Land Use Plan looks to identify how properties should be used based on guiding principles developed through meetings organized by Grow Greater Englewood and Gensler, which gathered feedback from hundreds of participants. Those principles focus on the accountability and sustainability of the district and trail projects as they develop, but the land use plan has no regulatory authority. The Agro-Eco District Land Use Plan also does not address the effects that the district and trail may have on the existing vernacular built environment or the people that it serves in terms of how maintenance, affordability, or displacement is to be addressed while the surrounding area changes, nor does it address how existing businesses—some of which may not fit within the concept of the Agro-Eco District—might coexist or be rendered incompatible. As the first biohealing trees are introduced to the district, mitigating the effects of industry on the environment, there may yet still be time for proactive measures, regulation and most importantly, resources.
The Cook County Land Bank Authority slashed prices on vacant residencies in Englewood on properties ready for rehabilitation, looking to increase the percent of households in Englewood that own their own residence, which, according to CMAP, is hovering at twenty-four percent, where Chicago sits at forty-five percent. Yet, it is critical to have structures in place that guarantee that an initiative will benefit existing residents in the long term, which often means holding private sector investors, particularly those that take advantage of economic support, accountable long after a development breaks ground. In 2016, a Whole Foods Market opened in Englewood with the help of $10.7 million in Tax Increment Financing upgrades, and $13.5 million in federal tax credits, only to close in 2022. The store was replaced with a Save-A-Lot, with neighbors furious to learn that an original lease agreement, obtained by WTTW News, allowed Save-A-Lot to operate in the space if Whole Foods chose to vacate.8
While the prevalence of vacant land does not render viable existing buildings less vulnerable to demolition, Englewood has a lot of vacant buildings and vacant land on arterial streets, residential blocks, and commercial corners, an aspect of the community that Seals and Villalobos both acknowledge. Seals notes that the biggest difference between the 606 and the Englewood Nature Trail is not only the pervasiveness of vacant land, but that the City of Chicago owns it and can assert control on its ultimate use. The pre-groundbreaking conditions in Englewood vary significantly from where Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and even West Town were prior to the same point in the timeline of the 606. Yet, as amenities and services rise, so do housing prices. What might have been unthinkable in Logan Square twenty years ago, when homes were selling as little as $80,000, is now a multi-million-dollar reality. That reality led to the 606-Pilsen Demolition Permit Surcharge Ordinance, an initiative that required applicants seeking demolition permits along the 606 and the Near South Side neighborhood of Pilsen, which is also struggling with displacement, to pay a $15,000 or $5,000 charge per residential unit demolished. Funds from the ordinance support the Chicago Community Land Trust (CCLT), which provides opportunities for working individuals and families to purchase homes at affordable prices. Passed in 2021, the ordinance has proved effective at preventing further displacement, but it could have been an even more powerful tool had it been developed as the 606 was under construction.
Back in Englewood, “there is a lot going on in this zip code,” says Asiaha Butler, Executive Director of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, or R.A.G.E. R.A.G.E. was founded in 2010 and has fought for the residents displaced by Norfolk Southern, the repurposing of vacant schools, and mobilized neighbors to participate in the City of Chicago’s Large Lot Program. While Butler recognized the potential for urban agriculture, she remains skeptical of its ability to benefit existing residents when many are struggling with more immediate challenges, such as job loss, housing insecurity, and violence, with the pandemic and the civil unrest of 2020 exacerbating those issues.
“It’s a weird conundrum,” says Butler. “When I first started to do volunteer work and I was meeting agriculture professionals, they were talking about an urban agricultural district and a trail and greenspace, and how the rail line could be turned into something beautiful. Back then I was optimistic. Then, things changed and priorities changed. People are not working. The fluffy, flowery optimistic way I felt about this changed. Now I’m hearing real issues from homeowners. When I see resources and public dollars go to a trail and I hear the lack of public dollars to sustain existing businesses in the community, this doesn’t seem like a priority. “I haven’t heard regular residents say, ‘I can’t wait until the trail comes,’ but there is announcement after announcement of public funds.”
According to Maria Villalobos, that optimism might also depend on how the Englewood Nature Trail and the district moves forward without Maurice Cox, who was the trail’s biggest champion. “With Maurice Cox leaving, we lost our biggest advocate. It is going to take our collective vigilantism so that the project remains avant-garde and culturally meaningful instead of watered down by government agencies and corporations only interested in profit, concrete, and asphalt, which translate into contracts going to the same old capitalistic patrons.”
The author and publisher would like to thank Maria Villalobos of Botanical City; Julie Bujnowski O’Brochta, AIA, urban designer at Gensler; Asiaha Butler, cofounder and CEO of R.A.G.E. Englewood; L. Anton Seals Jr., lead steward and executive director of Grow Greater Englewood; and sociologist and photographer David Schalliol for their time and assistance.