Trail Blazer

The co-founder of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail gives us a sneak peek of Chicago’s next great park: The 606.

Ben Helphand observes The 606 elevated park site, to be unveiled fall 2014.

We don’t need a crystal ball to predict where you’ll be spending your free time next fall. All signs point to The 606—an abandoned train track turned elevated park and trail network—planned along the 3-mile-long Bloomingdale Trail running west to Logan Square and east to Bucktown. 

When the trail opens in 2014, people will inevitably compare it to the High Line, the uberpopular elevated park in New York City. But Ben Helphand, one person responsible for helping make the project a reality (he co-founded the volunteer-run Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail), points out some key differences. For one, you can ride bikes on the trail, and it also connects five ground-level neighborhood parks along the line. “Think of it as a charm bracelet that links to other green spaces and parks,” he says. 

Helphand, who, during the day, is the executive director at nonprofit NeighborSpace, first encountered the impromptu nature trail in 2001 and immediately fell in love with it. After operations ceased on the railroad in the early 1990s, “nature pretty much reclaimed the site,” he says. “Flowers and animals came back, and people, though they were trespassing, went up there seeking a little oasis.”

Though definitely a group effort (Helphand credits his team and the Trust for Public Land’s Beth White for spearheading fundraising and managing construction), The 606 represents the completion of a decadelong dream for Helphand. “I can’t even imagine what that’s going to feel like when I take my first bike ride up there,” he says. “When I started this project, I wasn’t married and didn’t have a child. Now, I’m going to be able to have my daughter learn how to ride her bike up there. It’s a pretty incredible feeling.”

Helphand’s Hots  
Homemade berry popsicles, front-mounted child’s bike seats, Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Starved Rock State Park, Koval Distillery’s Lion’s Pride Organic Whiskey

Helphand’s Nots
Cupcakes, snowless winters, “screen time” pretending to be “face time,” pointy shoes, the honey-bee crisis