Chicago’s ‘606’ remains a (public) work in progress

In advance of its opening in 2015, the advertising signage around Chicago promoting The 606 – the ballyhooed new elevated park winding 2.7 miles through the city’s Northwest Side atop a defunct freight line – promised to “Raise More Than Your Heart Rate.”

But two years later, I find it still fails to make my pulse quicken.

This past Tuesday – 6/06, get it? – was the anniversary of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $95 million public works project named for Chicago’s ZIP Code prefix. Built atop the abandoned tracks that follow the path of the Bloomingdale Trail, The 606 slices through the Bucktown, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods traditionally filled with middle- and working-class families, and in more recent years an influx of hipsters.

It was originally sold as Chicago’s version of New York’s High Line, which transformed dilapidated train tracks on Manhattan’s West Side into a spectacular outdoor space built for long strolls and filled with great people-watching and breathtaking city views. Having visited the High Line, I was excited about that type of venue opening within two miles of my condo in West Lakeview. But when I first visited The 606 shortly after its debut, I was disappointed to discover just how stark it was. Trees and plants along the trail were still spindly and squat. Sedges and prairie grasses weren’t yet planted in many spaces. And the path felt a lot more paved than it did plush.

In fact, so underwhelming was The 606 that Crain’s Chicago Business asked, “Is that all there is?” I had a similar reaction, as the path held none of the magic of Chicago’s new Riverwalk, let alone NYC’s High Line. I wanted, however, to show some patience with the park’s young landscaping, keeping in mind the notion that Matthew Urbanski, a principal with Brooklyn-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates which designed The 606, expressed to the Chicago Tribune this week. He said when a new building opens, “it will never look that good again. The day of the opening of a landscape, it will never look worse — unless it’s abused.”

On its anniversary, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin reviewed The 606 and wrote that, “Trees and shrubs are growing. Grasses are spreading. A pleasing variety of textures and colors combines with a consistent palette of soothing green. The amount of enclosure is increasing, courtesy of trembling aspens, thin oaks and smoke trees that pop up from the planter boxes on the trail’s expansive Humboldt Boulevard overlook.”

That left me curious about whether The 606 had really changed that much since I last visited it a year ago. So I went for a jog there on Tuesday evening. But my take afterwards? Well, despite its popularity – the park drew 1.3 million visitors last year, according to the Chicago Park District – The 606 still underwhelms. While the 14-foot-wide trail makes for a solid, albeit slightly cramped, place to take a jog or bike ride, the scenery is still largely a snooze.

The landscape featuring 224 species of trees, shrubs, grasses, vines, bulbs and flowering plants remain far from magical. And while experiencing an elevated view of nearby residential buildings is interesting, there are no towering architectural delights like those seen on the High Line, nor are there any beer gardens or food stands on the path itself. Says Urbanski, “You really should give a landscape five years before you get to discerning whether you like it or not. I think it will get better with age.”

Perhaps. But as it stands now, The 606 is a decent spot for neighborhood locals to utilize, but it’s not a worthy destination for Chicago visitors.

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