On the trail of art

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Bloomingdale Trail

A bicyclist rides on Milwaukee Avenue under the elevated Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / June 14, 2013)

If you doubt the beauty of untended spaces, you haven't sat fixated before the History Channel's "Life After People." Or recognized that the best part of a post-Earth film like "Elysium" — or NBC's post-electricity series "Revolution," with its ruin-porn vision of Wrigley Field — is its unfussed-with landscapes, simultaneously reminding us of who we were and what we screwed up. Edward McClelland, a former Chicago Reader staff writer and author of a new book on the industrial Midwest, "Nothin' But Blue Skies," said: "It's fascinating to see how the organic eventually reclaims the inorganic. Nature always bats last."

In its own way, even the prairie grasses, hills of sunflowers and wild flora of the Burnham Centennial Prairie just south of McCormick Place along Lake Shore Drive — to name one of the many artfully-tended-yet-seemingly-untended landscapes around Chicago — is a recognition of this aesthetic. If, as has been proposed in Congress recently, the historic Pullman neighborhood and its 19th century industrial park ruins ever becomes a national park, it likely would have to strike a similar balance between its artful landscape and revitalization.

Perhaps the ultimate example, the often-cited standard of how to transform industrial refuse into an art object with its rawness intact, is the High Line in New York City, a 1.4 mile-long, rusted former freight line on the city's West Side that had a $152 million reconstruction and re-opened in 2009 as a kind of city park/contemplative space/walking path, set 30 feet above the street. It's wildly popular, a major tourist attraction, which Catherine Marron, who becomes the chairman of the High Line's board of directors this winter, chalked up to "retaining the abandoned quality of the elevated track, giving people a sense of discovering a place — and a chance to slow down and admire its artfulness."

White is quick to say the 606 is not a rip-off of the High Line — indeed, both the High Line and 606 were proposed about a decade ago, the 606 only gathering steam after it became a priority of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's. And she's right: The High Line, which doesn't offer much more than itself, has the courage to be art. Meanwhile, the 606, being a dutifully Midwestern project, is more practical.

Adam Schwerner, director of natural and cultural resources for the Chicago Park District, said the 606 "will build on the history of the place and what's there now," incorporating native plants, a poplar grove and general "prairie-esqueness." He said that "there will be moments on the Bloomingdale where (quiet contemplation) can and should happen."

But then Rob Rejman, the park district's director of planning and construction, added: The 606 would not exist — or have landed $39 million in federal funds — if it weren't primarily a transportation project, a way of easing commuter congestion. "Besides," he said, "the High Line seems like it's just there to be beautiful."

Which is one definition of art.

When I explained the 606 to Rachael DeLue, an associate professor of American art at Princeton University and expert on landscape art, she replied with a mini-lecture on artful decay, the gist of which was: "This Bloomingdale Trail is commodifying an industrial ruin, much the way the High Line did. Which is interesting because this fascination with post-industrial landscape, imagining it having a beauty and wanting to retain that ruinous beauty, is a long tradition. It's played out in garden design, landscape architecture, visual arts, and dates to the 18th century, to seeing things as 'picturesque,' as neither sublime nor calming. But it's not just seeing nature. A landscape isn't art, or 'picturesque,' until we do something to it — like, we look at it."

Then put a frame around it.

As I walked the picturesque trail with White, she mentioned the 606 is often described by its stewards — including herself — as "'Chicago's Roman Coliseum,' and I know how that sounds, but it's no overstatement." We passed over an old bridge lousy with cracks, its garish yellow paint chipping to oblivion, wavy red lines of rust bisecting its walls as though a great flood had passed through Bucktown.

Some of this will go.

Some will stay.

I said to White: You know, to some extent, just having this conversation at all, about artful landscape decay, arguing how much to clean up and how much to retain, is condescending — that as much as I might argue for retaining the rawness of industrial ruins, as much as I might consider crumbling infrastructure a kind of work of art in itself, I'm not the one who has to live next to it or walk home from school alongside it. Which is why bankrupt Detroit tends to get its back up over ruin-porn artists swooning over neglect and dilapidation.

She nodded.

She said that when she asks families along the 606 what they want, "we often hear 'color would be nice.'"

I said that I didn't envy her job, that the line between restoration and gentrification is mighty thin. But also, what's artful about an industrial urban landscape can get trampled in the rush to point out that artfulness.

"Yes! It's a tough balance!" she groaned, loud enough for me to notice how quiet it was on the trail on a weekday morning, no one there but a few joggers and a handful of 606 surveyors. She said the project was taking pains to avoid making the landscape "too cute or precious." And certainly Whitehead sounded anything but cutesy: She said the 606 designers ruled out incorporating "inauthentic ruins" to avoid any Disneyfication, and that there would be "moments of densely planted areas on the trail, tunnels of plants," and that there is "such desire for urban wild, people want areas that don't look like manicured golf courses."

Whitehead left me less worried about the project's willingness to retain the trail's rough edges. On the other hand, one thing is certain: When the trail opens next fall, this natural art installation will be louder.

It started raining. White left for a meeting. On my way back to the car, I ran into Bruce Thorn and his son Toby. They had been photographing the trail. "It's so rustic and odd, like a free space not subject to the rest of the city," Toby said. Bruce nodded, then asked me: Did I know anything? Would it be like the High Line?

Less art-like, I said.

"Oh," he said. "But they know they shouldn't do a lot to it, right? It's a different reality there. It's so nice."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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