Backyard Shakespeare

This third in a trio will complete my short series of blog posts on discovering your own backyard. It is another way of highlighting the marvelous joys that are sometimes well within our grasp, if only we find the time and the opportunity to enjoy them.

Shakespeare in the Parks is completing its second summer of visits to area parks all around Chicago, with a well-practiced troupe from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater that this year has been performing The Comedy of Errors in 18 different locations, bringing the treasures of Shakespeare to every single neighborhood in the city. I just watched their performance tonight in Washington Park, on the city’s South Side. The play was an excellent choice for a diverse audience, favoring one of Shakespeare’s comedies, an absurd twist on the concept of mistaken identity, using the story of twins separated at sea only to be reunited under outrageous circumstances in the port city of Ephesus. Shakespeare fans can surely fill in the blanks, and for the uninitiated, I suggest actually reading the play or seeing it.

“The Comedy of Errors” at Washington Park, Chicago

What is so wonderful about this expression of culture is that it is free to all comers. No expensive tickets—just pull up your lawn chair or your blanket on the park lawn and watch the action. The stage is set up in an open space, and you can test your affinity for Shakespeare at no cost other than about two hours of your time to follow the plot. Who pays for it? Look on the program to find the corporate sponsors—Boeing, BlueCross BlueShield, BMO Harris Bank, etc. They get some good advertising, the people get a play, and the play’s the thing to renew an acquaintance most people lost after their high school English classes. It’s well worth renewing. In the process, a whole group of young actors gets valuable experience in a live setting in front of a friendly audience on a warm summer evening.

Most importantly, the Chicago Park District helps the city expand its position as a hub of culture that unites its citizens with unique artistic opportunities. Everybody wins, and you don’t even need a car. Bring your bicycle; bring your two feet, just get there. I look forward to seeing this program’s third year.

Jim Schwab

The High View of Chicago

The Bloomingdale Trail (awaiting improvements) viewed from our backyard

In my last blog post, I extolled some of the virtues of staying put, at least for a vacation, as opposed to roaming the world, a charge to which I plead guilty on a regular basis, though more in connection with work than pleasure. That was a teaser to my real goal of introducing readers to one of the most intriguing projects in Chicago in recent years. The wonderful thing is that my wife and I live just 50 feet from the Bloomingdale Trail. I can even overcome my dislike for the name the larger project surrounding the trail has acquired: The 606. Intended to convey the idea that this is everyone’s project in Chicago by using the first three digits of the city’s many ZIP codes, I find it as unappealing as most things numerical when a real name using words could have been found. But this decision has been made, and it does not necessarily harm anything. The idea seems to have been that the simple name, “Bloomingdale Trail,” which we started out with, and which simply parallels the name of the narrow street beneath it, would confuse people. There are towns named Bloomingdale, after all, and somehow we would not understand, or people elsewhere in the city would think the trail is not theirs because it is ours. I don’t follow all that, but I’ll live with it. The project is still worthwhile. And Bloomingdale remains the name of the trail itself.

What we are discussing here is a public amenity born of an old railroad spur line. Beginning in 1873, the Chicago and Pacific Railroad operated this 2.7-mile span through some dense neighborhoods, serving  various small factories. Despite these economic merits, the line caused a good deal of consternation when its trains tied up traffic, blocked fire trucks, and otherwise displeased the neighbors in Logan Square, West Town, and Humboldt Park, the three North Side neighborhoods in Chicago that it traversed. The residents pleaded and demanded with City Hall that the tracks be raised above street level to minimize conflict, and over several years, beginning in 1910, the city did just that. Instead of the railroad continuing to run down the center of Bloomingdale Avenue, it was raised 20 feet with the construction of two concrete triangles into which dirt was poured, with the tracks laid on top. A total of 38 viaducts then allowed street traffic to cross beneath the railroad. However, by 1994, when we built our house on Campbell Avenue, the railroad was barely operational, and the question was what would become of it. Tearing it down would have been very expensive.

The Campbell Avenue viaduct.

So the question arose: Why not turn it into linear public open space?

And so the Bloomingdale Trail began to emerge as a conceivable alternative. By 2004, the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail had emerged as leading advocates in the community for such a course. Plans began to be laid, and by the time Rahm Emanuel became mayor in 2011, efforts were underway through the city to use federal transportation enhancement funds to develop such a park, including bicycle and pedestrian trails as well as street furniture and trees, all within a design that would allow people in this elevated space to enjoy magnificent views of the city below while finding peace and quiet, and maybe even some wildlife, in a high place.

Of course, as with any such project, there were issues to be addressed, problems to be solved. How would the city protect the privacy of homeowners and condominium dwellers adjacent to the trail? How would it provide adequate access to the trail not only for the physically fit, including bicyclists, but for the disabled? A system of winding ramps emerging from existing public park spaces throughout the span of the trail showed up on diagrams and maps at public meetings. Chicago responded as Chicago does, and hundreds of us showed up at neighborhood sessions to discuss, debate, suggest alternatives, and ask questions of the Chicago Department of Transportation, the lead agency in the project, the Chicago Park District, and the staff of the Trust for Public Land, which was representing the Park District in the process of acquiring public input. This transpired throughout the last two years, and finally, the 606 Project, which includes all the accessory amenities to the trail, was inaugurated, and work on the trail began this summer. The mayor wants to be able to ride the trail by the end of next year; certainly, it is likely to be finished before the next municipal elections in the spring of 2015, however ambitious that schedule may seem. This is, after all, the City of Broad Shoulders. Things get done. One of those broad shoulders is about to become a trail—and only the second elevated rail-trail in the U.S., after the High Line in Manhattan.


Work underway on access point at Milwaukee Ave.


It is also likely to become a source of joy, exercise, and exposure to urban nature for thousands of nearby residents and those throughout the city who are willing to find their way to this combination of concrete, dirt, trails, and trees that towers just beyond our property line.


Jim Schwab

Ode to Vacations

There is a great deal to be said for vacations, even when you don’t vacate the premises. In fact, I am smack in the middle of enjoying just such a vacation right now. I am away from the office for two weeks, and I am at home.

Not that I have always stayed at home. I have taken vacations with my wife and, when they were younger, with our children in a number of fine places. The mountains in Colorado. A resort in the Dominican Republic. A weeklong tour of California. All were wonderful exercises in concentrating on something other than one’s livelihood, kicking back (or forward), trying out new scenery.

But when people asked where I was going this year, I explained that, having completed no fewer than 14 business trips so far this year, I felt no impulse to go anywhere. A staycation is a chance to explore your own backyard, not necessarily taken entirely literally but including your own neighborhood, your own community, and noticing many of the things that escape your attention on a day-to-day basis.

Various writers have extolled the merits of sinking deeper roots in the places where we already live, some perhaps taking it to extremes, others simply recognizing that in a world where travel has become progressively faster and easier, we too quickly breeze by the things we ought to notice on a daily basis. Ray Bradbury once wrote of his annoyance at a Los Angeles police officer who questioned why he was taking a walk late at night. For Bradbury, such walks were a chance to observe the community and space around him. Ralph Waldo Emerson commented on how he had traveled widely, “and all of it in Concord,” the town he called home. He was plying a theme also familiar to his close friend, Henry David Thoreau. And about 20 years ago, in Staying Put, Indiana author Scott Russell Sanders described the value of learning about one’s immediate surroundings.

It is all wonderful advice, I am sure, and for two weeks I am adhering to it, somewhat. But it has also not escaped my attention that some people can be closely tied to their own neighborhood or immediate surroundings and gain no more understanding of them than if they had flown around the world. It takes a certain dedication to observing, querying, wanting to understand, to learn anew, to probe details, in order to gain the value from what Emerson, Bradbury, and Sanders are advocating, each in his own unique way. In my own hurried life of late, I cannot claim to notice nearly as much about my immediate community of interest as I might like, despite trying. But maybe that is why one more trip did not appeal to me.

Staying put has its merits. I may find out what sort of crabapple tree sits in my own front yard, so that my wife, after all these years, can turn its fruit into some sort of pie. I’ll let you know when I find out.


Jim Schwab