#486: Shantytown on the 606

June 5th, 2015

It was a birthday party years ago, one that hadn’t gone too well.

He was a local boy turning 26, an old friend who had quit a downtown ad job where he was popular and loved to start a new, yet-to-be-defined new life. He was in the process of losing touch with his old friend workmates. His new ones were transient and weird, also filling a lifting-and-hauling job while we figured our own next steps.

None of his old friends showed up at the bar that cold, wet night in an otherwise glorious summer. Only three of his new ones came. So in the wordless way young men have, the three of us decided to make it a night the birthday boy would remember.

Oh we drank. We drank and we talked and we yelled and we bought. The sole married one of the party soon headed home, leaving three men in their 20s spilling out into the night.

I don’t remember who decided to climb up onto the Bloomingdale Trail.

The old rail line cutting through Goose Island, Bucktown, Logan Square and Humboldt Park once hauled the tools of industry when Chicago had some of that. The city approved the rail line in June 1872, just nine months after the Great Chicago Fire.

Two years later, to beat a mandated deadline and get around community protests, the Chicago & Pacific Railroad Company snuck in work in the dead of night at Goose Island. Goose Island residents rioted, tearing up the new-planted ties and setting them on fire.

They argued it would endanger their community. Nobody lives on Goose Island anymore.

The rail line spurred growth and industry. Nobody lives on Goose Island anymore.

Two drunks and a birthday boy wandered the trail’s length years later.

The then-abandoned line — it hadn’t seen a train since the 1990s — was rocky and dim, cold sprinkles turning to showers that did anything but sober us up. We joked and sang, leapt onto nearby garage roofs to skitter about like squirrels just to prove we were agile enough to do that in the rain.

We did what young men do. Until we came upon the shantytown.

In 1893, the city ruled all trains must be elevated within six years. The railroad company, now called the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company, complied more than 20 years later, finishing raising the Bloomingdale Line in 1913 or 1915. Sources vary.

From there it followed the path of the rest of America’s trains. Boom-times until the highways made car and truck hauling a thing. Sputtering in the ‘70s and a choking, lingering death in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Talk of the Bloomingdale Trail as a park and bike path started in the 1990s, as the last trains slugged over the aging tracks.

That park opens tomorrow. It’s called the 606.

It’s going to price people out of their homes. It will be glorious and I’ll use it and I’ll love it and it will price people out of the homes they’ve had for decades. My luxuries will mean their displacement.

Poor people don’t get to have nice things.

Nice means it’ll cost more to live by. Opportunity and the middle finger flashed by Adam Smith’s invisible hand means scavenging developers will charge people for fancy spots in brand new condos by the new pretty park.

Developers have already started to sniff around, several residents told the Chicago Reader.

But the park will be wonderful. Its wonder makes it dangerous. The way to keep a place affordable is to keep it terrible.

The shantytown we came across that cold, drunken night was by where the tracks leapt Ashland. It was a collection of pup tents and of tarps lashed, propped and duct taped into acting as tents. A Depression-era Hooverville in the reign of George W. Bush.

None of the homeless who lived in the town of tents were there that night. One of them had tied a radio to a bit of stone and iron sticking from the overpass. It was left running on AM talk radio, an eerie, tinny soundtrack to the dark and cold rain.

We turned back silently and walked along the Bloomingdale Trail, asking Schwartzie if he had had a nice birthday.

The shantytown’s gone now.

Gone like the Goose Islanders.

Gone like American industry.

Gone like who knows how many homeowners just scraping by in Humboldt Park.

I don’t know how to get around that. Tomorrow, when this glorious new park opens and I use it day after day after day, I’ll have to keep one fact in my heart.

It’s because of me.

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