The elevated rails-to-trails project will bring green space to Chicago’s South Side
By Audrey Henderson
The Englewood Nature Trail for Environmental Sustainability (ENTES)—commonly known as the Englewood Line—is a proposed rails-to-trails project on the South Side of Chicago, spanning two miles of railway between 58th and 59th Streets westward from Wallace Avenue to Seeley Avenue. (The Englewood Village Plaza, which serves as the main gateway, was one of the neighborhood venues featured in the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial.)
The Englewood Line represents an ambitious, ongoing project to create an elevated green trail within the community. The individuals and organizations involved in its development are undaunted in their efforts, despite challenges and barriers that often stand in their way. News reports often paint Englewood, located on Chicago’s South Side, as a desperate, troubled community—but municipal and grassroots-level initiatives are working to change the narrative. Greater Englewood, which includes both Englewood and West Englewood, was selected as one of ten priority areas for the initial stage of the Invest South/West corridor improvement plan under development by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development.
Recommendations to transform the abandoned railway line to a green space date back to the 2005 Green Healthy Neighborhoods Plan developed by Chicago DPD. In 2007, Sustainable Englewood identified the recreational potential for the property. The Englewood Line was also included in the 2009 New Englewood Remaking America (ERA) Community Vision Plan developed by nonprofit open space preservationist organization Openlands and landscape architecture firm Hitchcock Design Group. The proposed trail was also the subject of a 2016 Health Impact Report which noted that the trail, once completed, could produce profound health benefits for Englewood residents.
The proposed Englewood Line was originally part of the Norfolk Southern Railway Line. Although the railway initially reached an agreement to cede the abandoned railway to the city in 2013, ownership of the property did not change hands until 2018, according to Anton Seals, lead steward of Grow Greater Englewood, and a major advocate for the Englewood Line.
At present, the trail remains undeveloped, overgrown with wooden segments of the tracks visible along many segments. Plans for the development of the trail are still under consideration, and the timeline for completion has not been determined, according to Peter Strazzabosco, Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Development for the City of Chicago (Chicago DPD).“ The Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) owns the elevated rail right-of-way and is exploring ways to work with community stakeholders to further develop the trail concept and eventually implement the trail.” Strazzabosco said in an email. “One of those steps is to identify an agency or entity to manage the trail once it’s complete.”
However, the trail is presently not included in the inventory of the Chicago Park District. The Department of Planning and Development is coordinating with the Chicago Department of Planning, which owns most of the bridge structures along the right-of-way, according to Strazzabosco. “There have been multiple community discussions with local and regional stakeholders over the last ten years as DPD worked with CDOT and a consultant team to perform preliminary planning and design work. The goal is to work with local stakeholders to develop and implement a project that meets the needs of the residents of Englewood and West Englewood. Preliminary visions see its function as a ‘spine’ that connects multiple current and future urban agriculture sites that are located along its length,” Strazzabosco said by email.
The proposed trail shares one important characteristic with the 606, located on Chicago’s Northwest Side, as well as the more famous High Line in New York City. All three follow the path of abandoned elevated rail lines. But that is where the similarities end. And Anton Seals, wants it to largely stay that way. “I think people want to be able to participate; building new spaces that they actually participate in so it’s not a bunch of just more of the same. That’s what we’re trying to break out of. A lot of our urban ag stuff is interconnected with that because we see that as a main catalyst for bringing agritourism to the area, but also trying to update this vision around some of the lots that are dispersed across this trail. So, we’re trying to create these little pocket parks throughout the trail. They could be kind of like edible farms,” Seals said.
The 606 has been slammed as a driving force behind the rapid gentrification of the surrounding area and displacement of many of its Latinx residents. Seals is determined to avoid a similar outcome with the Englewood Line, while recognizing that the 606 has its positive aspects. ”There are elements of the 606 that I think are really cool,” Seals said. “ What I think our process is in terms of just the aesthetic. I think that there’s a real opportunity to uplift the indigenous narratives that existed, interweaving the European immigration that happened and then stamping that with Black culture that has existed there for the last fifty years. The land itself is the land, this railroad, this history. We want to see it interwoven where we have this urban ag zone, but that includes this [history and culture].”
This vision of the Englewood Line as a “spine” for a holistic development of Englewood falls in line with how Seals views its development. “There’s the assumption that we build this farm or we build this garden and people will love it, but I think that a certain element of the community will love it. We’ve got to push even beyond that. Being really intentional around the design element. Just thinking outside of the traditional boxes. That’s how we’re looking at it. I think that [there should be] places where people can dance and move. Thinking of our spaces in multidimensional ways would be really the best way to activate things around this trail.
“Why don’t we have big open spaces that’s dedicated for music and culture? Not a huge amphitheater, but (something) integrated into the community where they can go and have stepping under the tent when they want to, or where they can go and go roller skating outside. The things that we enjoy as humans, as Black people,” Seals said.
The trail could potentially support a number of functions, including tranquil spaces for peace and quiet, but also open spaces for music and physical recreation, Seals said. “The level of beauty is for us the achievement. It should be as beautiful and reflect the beauty of our people,” Seals said. “There is no money limit on that. You know what I mean? That beauty is not disconnected from poverty. You can have beautiful spaces and not necessarily have a million dollars. Why do you need that? Why do you need to have a million dollars to live in a space that’s beautiful?” ■
This is this the final installment of a series about green spaces on Chicago’s South Side, supported by the Fund for Environmental Journalism from the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Audrey Henderson is a freelance writer based in the greater Chicago area. Her work has been featured in Next City, Chicago Architect magazine, Global Traveler, and Transitions Abroad, along with trade and consumer print and online publications worldwide.
Cover image courtesy Anton Seals.
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