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Bloomingdale Trail Map

Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail

The Bloomingdale Trail will run from east to west across four Chicago neighborhoods, passing by schools, parks and playgrounds.

Sowing green innovation in Chicago’s empty spaces

by Gretchen Roecker
Nov 09, 2011

Bloomingdale Trail

Ben Helphand, Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail

Plants overtook the elevated railway along Bloomingdale Avenue on Chicago's Northwest Side after trains stopped running in the 1990s. Ben Helphand and the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail are working with the city and other organizations to transform the tracks into almost three miles of elevated park space.

CROP Logan Square map

Chicago Rarities Orchard Project

The Chicago Rarities Orchard Project hopes to break ground on its first location next spring.

CROP potted trees

Chicago Rarities Orchard Project

To prepare for orchard planting, Chicago Rarities Orchard Project members have grafted together 100 apple, pear and plum trees.

Upcoming Events

For more information about the innovative projects, or to meet the three Green Soapbox presenters in person, check out these upcoming events:


Thursday, Nov. 10: For a $10 donation, take a tour of the Plant at noon. Tours are offered Monday, Thursday and Saturday. For a more hands-on experience, volunteer for one of those days in exchange for a free lunch and tour.


Tuesday, Nov. 15: Learn to preserve fruit and make curry apply chutney at the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project and Slow Food Chicago’s Apple Canning Workshop. 6-8:30 p.m. at Logan Square Kitchen. 2333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $30 for Slow Food Chicago members and $40 for all others.


Saturday, Dec. 3:  Pick up some free materials and tips on how to weatherize your home from the Delta Emerging Leaders at the ReBuilding Exchange. 2160 N. Ashland Ave. 


Tuesday, Dec. 13: Take a peek at the framework plan from the Bloomingdale Trail design team. Check the website for location and time.

Picture this: a rusting railway line, a crumbling meatpacking plant and a rubble-strewn vacant lot. Now imagine this: a grassy public park, a waste-free indoor farm and an orchard of rare fruit trees.

Far from mere stretches of the imagination, those transformations are already underway in Chicago, reforming urban landscapes from the old stockyards of the South Side to the northwestern neighborhoods.

Three of the thinkers driving the metropolitan makeovers shared their progress at the Delta Emerging Leaders’ second annual Green Soapbox Tuesday night. The Leaders formed last year as an auxiliary board of the nonprofit Delta Institute to spread the mission of growing green collar jobs in the Great Lakes region to a younger crowd.

This year’s theme, “Innovators,” fit with the group’s goal to spark interest in green initiatives among people from a range of backgrounds, said board member Michael Harrington, who helped host the event.

“We want to build awareness with young professionals about ways to get engaged in the green economy,” he said. “We want people to get a taste of what’s going on, so we looked for projects in Chicago that no one else is doing.”

More than 100 people packed the newly opened second floor of Revolution Brewing restaurant and brewery in Logan Square for a taste of Chicago’s growing green scene. Some were seasoned green professionals, others were newcomers to environmental initiatives in Chicago. No matter which category you fall into, read on to meet the three innovators who took a turn on the soapbox.

The Bloomingdale Trail
Northwest Side

First up: Ben Helphand, 36, the board president of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, which formed in 2003 to advocate for the “harebrained scheme” of transforming an abandoned elevated rail line on Chicago’s densely built-up Northwest Side into a lush recreational zone.

Though the official construction schedule remains undecided, the recently selected design team will present a framework plan for the first time in December.

“Things are moving very quickly right now,” Helphand said.

The rail line along Bloomingdale Avenue had served manufacturers for nearly 40 years before it was elevated above the street in 1910. After trundling through a busy industrial area for nearly a century, train traffic on the line slowed and finally ceased in the 1990s, allowing a less industrial growth to take over.

“Nature reclaimed the space – it’s eager to do that,” Helphand said. “We got a strip of prairie growing up there.”

Trespassing isn’t allowed on the property, which is owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, according to the project’s website. But people surreptitiously seeking a green corridor in an urban environment sowed the seeds of the trail, he said.

“The birth of the trail was people like me trespassing up there and treating it as an open space, because we needed and open space,” he said.

Like the elevated High Line park in New York City, which opened in 2009, the Bloomingdale Trail will provide opportunities for recreation and relaxation high above bustling city streets. When complete, the trail will be “a place to see our city with new eyes,” Helphand said, with almost three miles of open space stretching 15 feet above four Chicago neighborhoods between Ashland and Ridgeway avenues, accessible to nearby elementary schools, playgrounds, transit hubs and other parks.

The Plant
1400 W. 46th St., Back of the Yards

Next up: John Edel, 42, director of the Plant, a vertical farm and sustainable food business hub in a repurposed meatpacking facility in the old Union Stockyards district.

In 2002, Edel’s company Bubbly Dynamics transformed a paint warehouse into the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, providing space for nine green businesses. Last year, Edel acquired another decrepit building in the neighborhood: the Peer Foods plant.

The plant used to push out bacon, but under its new director – and new name – the Plant will generate sustainably produced vegetables, mushrooms, beer, tea – and zero waste. Converting more than 30 tons of food waste a day from the building and the surrounding neighborhood to energy will power an aquaponic vertical farm, shared kitchen and tenant businesses, Edel said.

“It’s all about managing waste,” he said. “The primary piece that differentiates the Plant from other projects is the combination of agriculture with something else,” to reuse waste from manufacturing or offices to support food production in a closed-loop system.

Though it will be at least five years until the renovations are finished, Edel said, two farms and a kombucha tea brewery have already moved in. The New Chicago Beer Co. will start constructing its brewing facility in January, and the waste grains could help fertilize an on-site mushroom farm.

“Brewing is one of the most waste-intensive, energy-intensive activities there is,” Edel said. “If we can prove we can do that sustainably, we figure other industries have no excuse.”

More than 300 volunteers have donated time to cleaning up and reconstructing the Plant so far, he said.

“We’re hoping to inspire people to see that a busted up old building has a tremendous amount of energy and value in it,” Edel said.

Chicago Rarities Orchard Project
Logan Square

Last up: Megan Larmer, 30, board member of the nonprofit Chicago Rarities Orchard Project, or CROP, which started in 2008 with the goal of growing unusual fruit varieties in city neighborhoods.

“Making a place where people can connect to their food source and to the land is the driving force,” she said.

Of the 20,000 varieties of apples grown worldwide, only 12 are typically available in American markets. Bringing rare fruits to an urban environment will provide “experiential education,” she said, giving people who might never have tasted anything other than a Granny Smith or Red Delicious a chance to taste biodiversity in their city.

With the help of NeighborSpace, the Chicago initiative led by Helphand that helps communities secure land for gardens and parks, Larmer and the five other board members worked with the city to select their first site: a vacant lot at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Logan Boulevard.

Since 2009, CROP members have nurtured 100 trees representing 40 varieties of pears, plums and apples. The trees are currently stored in a nursery, but could transplant soon – CROP hopes to break ground in the lot in the spring of 2012, Larmer said.

Getting the orchard off – or into – the ground is a slow process, she said. Between the time required to obtain city and community approval and the creeping pace of fruit tree growth, the Logan Square orchard probably won’t bear fruit for another five years. But if the trees survive for centuries, Larmer said, taking time to secure the project’s roots is worth the wait.

“I hope people realize this is happening in this city, and it’s an exciting thing to be part of,” she said. “Chicago is a metropolis in the center of a huge agricultural landscape. We have a chance now to recapture that.”