On the fence, under the El

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 16, 2011 at 9:38 am

Blair Kamin on a proposal for Lakeview, the Chicago neighborhood, revealed last Tuesday:

“You’ve undoubtedly heard of the High Line, the much-praised Manhattan public space built atop a dormant elevated line. Well, Chicago is thinking about a low line, a pedestrian path that would be built beneath the CTA’s Brown Line elevated tracks between Southport and Paulina Avenues. It would have native landscaping and would aim to connect the Southport and Lincoln Avenue business districts.”

At first, I thought it was interesting that anyone would think that a ground-level pathway, no matter how well designed, could be as attractive as walking through Manhattan’s West Side 30 feet off the ground—the former is something Chicagoans experience on a semi-regular basis; the latter is a totally new pedestrian experience. Plus, the Brown Line isn’t an abandoned track; the roar of the train will frighten away people looking to escape the abrasive, everyday sights and sounds of the city.

But I do enjoy the tunnel-like shape created by the tracks, a highly iconic element of Chicago’s built environment. And reading more about the project on a WBEZ blog, I like the ideas of dedicated bike lines and permanent space for farmers markets, as well as the long-term plan to encourage businesses to locate closer to public transportation.

And then I stumbled upon the blog of one of the architecture firms actually doing the design work. It turns out they weren’t imagining some bucolic leisure park. They simply saw an opportunity to connect two areas of the city in a fresh and innovative way:

“While out on a photo shoot in November we had to get from the Southport Brown line station to the Paulina station on foot.  Instead of walking down to the next street we walked under the El tracks, and only after that did it occur to us that this is space we [could] use.”

Continuing, they highlight the fact that despite its placement beneath the El tracks, the walkway would be a pleasant alternative to they typical grid of sidewalk routes—a shortcut of sorts offering new vantage points.

“The proposed path would connect the once dissociated shopping streets of Lincoln and Southport Avenues, while increasing available open space to residents…and above all, [be] a space for the local community to interact away from traffic.”

Whether people would truly “interact” here, I have my doubts. But in reality, the use of public space is an end in itself, as it represents a public interacting with its city, which is the beginning of people interacting with other people. My friend Phil can talk about such interactions all day.

I do have to say, after reading about people textures, I can’t look at architectural renderings the same way. Note the butterfly and the bright colors and the basic lack of grit or grime. It’s understandable; renderings are essentially advertisements. But it’s still fantastical enough to be disconcerting in an odd way.

Time will tell the future of the potential path through Lakeview. If you live in the area or are interested in this, you can go here to subscribe to updates or lend your voice to the discussion. Also feel free to lend your thoughts here.


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