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Kenwood-40th Street railway and embankment: alternative proposals for blighted infrastructure

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The Preservation Committee of Hyde Park Historical Society, and other preservation organizations, have been looking into preservation and restoration of many rail rights of way and embankments, especially those with limestone or other stone support or cladding, including those of Metra and Canadian National in Hyde Park and Kenwood.

Meanwhile, the long abandoned Kenwood Branch of the Illinois Central has been proposed for teardown and development, all or mostly as park or open greenspace. The issue here is complicated by its having served as one of the starting points of the urban mural movement, particularly with still-extant "Time to Unite" at 40th and Drexel Blvd.

The Branch long 40th Street was originally built in 1864 to help bring freight to the new Union Stock Yards at the height of the Civil War and as a bypass shunt, like the St. Charles at 19th St. When it started carrying bosses then workers to the stockyards in 1882, it contributed to growth of Kenwood, Egandale and Drexel Blvd. as districts of mansions and to a similar building boom in Oakland-Grand Boulevard.

It was abandoned in the 1950's, partly due to start of depopulation (hence ridership), stockyard decline, and railroad decline and, some say, to discourage African Americans from using the lakefront. Many consider it an eyesore, barrier, danger to kids, encouragement to hanging out, and discouragement to development. But, in addition to preservation questions, the line piques interest of supporters of transit-oriented development, full transit infrastructure (this looks like a possible candidate for new transit, at least on the map), and sustainability/minimalist transformation/keeping future options open.

Members of the HPHS Preservation Committee in spring 2005 presented their ideas on the structure to Alderman Toni Preckwinkle in Spring 2005. Here is a report on the question.

Local preservationists target abandoned train embankments

Hyde Park Herald, June 1, 2005. By Mike Stevens

Plans to demolish the long-abandoned elevated train embankments running along 40th Street recently received some competition. A pair of Hyde Park architecture buffs outlined a novel alternative earlier this month to 4th Ward Ald. Toni Preckwinkle's plan to create new neighborhood greenspace by demolishing the remaining concrete embankments.

Do nothing, preservationist David Schalliol said. He wants to leave the massive block-long concrete embankments standing in order to build a park using the unique structures. "If people knew the history of the place and people had an opportunity to interact with it, then [they] would think of it as really special to the South Side and see that it really has potential," Schalliol said.

Originally build in 1864 to carry freight from the Illinois Central rail road to West Side stock yards, the Kenwood Branch train began carrying passengers in 1882. That decision sparked a real estate boom that further developed Grand Boulevard, Oakland and Kenwood, said Schalliol, who spends much of his time researching history and is a Hyde Park Historical Society board member.

Schalliol modeled his idea on recent projects that envisioned urban industrial space as park space. This new style of park embraces a site's less bucolic history by incorporating industrial ruins instead of razing them.

Container walls became a climbing wall in a German park. a boardwalk meandering through wildflowers is planned for New York's High Line, an abandoned elevated train line running 22 blocks on Manhattan's west side. A Chicago group recently put a down payment on an abandoned plant related to steel-manufacturing on the city's South East side. The South East Environmental Task Force hopes to transform the dilapidated Calumet River site into a museum honoring laborers and Chicago's steel-making history.

"They have these blighted areas and made something a little unique," Schalliol said. For architectural enthusiast Sam Guard, the crumbling concrete embankments offer an opportunity for creativity and invention. Guard suggests holding an architectural contest to solicit new ideas on how to reuse an old structure that this far has proved too expensive to have removed anyway. "That whole area of Chicago we have abused terribly," Guard Said.

Guard remains dissatisfied with much of what replaced demolished buildings like the Mecca Apartments and the Sphinx Kiosk. He hopes a contest will generate creative project ideas to offset more conservative new developments sprouting along the length of the abandoned and overgrown rail embankments. For his part, Schalliol sees multiple uses for the remaining embankments.

Some could be set aside as natural areas much like Jackson Park's Bobolink Meadow, Schalliol said. Other sections of the disjointed line could be developed to host tours, he said. "Not only [would you be] in a place that has this tremendous history but it offers a refuge above the city.," Schalliol said.

While less ambitious than the 570-acre German park, reusing the 1[4]0-year-old, 1.5-mile concrete embankment as park space is far from an easy project. The idea of salvaging what many residents see as eyesores that divide the neighborhood in order to create a new and unfamiliar type of park faces an uphill battle.

Plans to demolish the embankments date back to 2000 when the city requested bids to demolish the looming concrete walls that bisect the neighborhood. After failing to receive a single bid, the initiative was mothballed because it was "extraordinarily expensive," according to Preckwinkle.

Preckwinkle said she had not heard of these alternative proposals and had no comment She did reiterate her plan to bring down the embankments to make way for greenspace. "That is what the community has expressed an interest in and that is what I am trying to find the resources to do," Preckwinkle said. She said that greenway would stretch from Lake Park Avenue to Vincennes Avenue.

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