After 15 years of advocacy and collaboration with the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the Department of Planning and Development, a coalition of neighborhood-based organizations, advocates and allies has secured $20 million in federal funding for an underutilized railroad corridor into the Englewood Nature Trail.
Grow Greater Englewood (GGE) is a social enterprise that works in partnership with community stakeholders to develop local food economies and land sovereignty.
The project is the result of the citywide “Green Healthy Neighborhoods Plan,” launched in 2014.
“Today is a glorious day for Englewood and West Englewood,” said L. Anton Seals, Jr., GGE executive director. “The Englewood Nature Trail will not only revitalize a railway corridor that has been unused since the 1960s, but also serve as the spine of an urban agriculture district that occupies adjacent land, along with other productive uses.”
“This equity-focused investment in the Englewood community will serve as a major catalyst for revitalization,” Mayor Lightfoot said.
“The Englewood Nature Trail is both a physical connector and pathway to community connectivity and opportunity. The trail, which was importantly developed as part of a community-led process, will benefit Englewood residents for years to come.”
The rail corridor dates to 1917, when the Pennsylvania Railroad created an elevated railway to serve industrial businesses located near 59th Street, also to connect with other area rail lines and facilities. It runs east-west along an elevated berm, crossing 26 viaducts and terminating on the east near Wallace Street and on the west near Hoyne Avenue. The corridor’s width ranges from 50 to 100 feet and encompasses more than 17 acres.
In 2018, the city acquired the corridor land from its most recent owner, the Norfolk Southern Railroad. In spring 2022, the city allocated $6 million in phase one design funding toward the proposed trail project. The long-term goals for the trail include connecting the surrounding area with safe and inviting park space and multi-use paths.
“We are excited that the needle to move the Englewood Nature Trail forward has gained real momentum. So, we are celebrating with the Grow Greater Englewood team and are excited to see this project come to fruition,” said Felicia Slanton-Young, executive director of the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce.
“This trail will serve a different purpose for different people who will walk, bike or skate along its path. Most importantly, the rich health benefits, both mental and physical, will be a huge boost to a community that is dealing with a number of health-related ailments.
“Having a safe, beautiful and culturally rich space for a short or long walk certainly creates the opportunity for better health and life expectancy outcomes for Englewood residents,” she said.
Englewood, like other predominantly Black communities on Chicago’s South and West sides, is in need of investment opportunities. And Seals said the project lay dormant for years, even as the greater Englewood community continued to be burdened by poverty, decreases in housing and widespread economic disinvestment.
The predominantly Black community, where the average median household income is $22,000 and 45 percent of households live below the poverty line, recently saw the closure of two major grocery stores.
Organizers say the funding will advance more green spaces and provide areas for a growing local food system. The funding is part of the group’s Community Benefits Framework that calls for increased funding, community input, control and ownership, and measures to block displacement due to gentrification and other mitigating factors.
“This has been a local campaign that, for us, cements the vision of residents and community stakeholders,” Seals said.
“We want to build spaces that unapologetically reflect the dynamics of Black culture, development without displacement, to protect the legacy of those that have been divested and harmed by practices in this city.
“We believe the Englewood Nature Trail can lead to job opportunities across multiple disciplines, community investment vehicles for residents, and attract Black and other businesses to light manufacturing, arts, and agriculture district as it develops,” he said.
“We have done extensive work over the last 15 years to get this asset into productive reuse. We appreciate the support of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and 16th Ward Alderman Stephanie Coleman for supporting our efforts.”
Grow Greater Englewood indicated the project remains in the design phase and the group will host a community meeting on September 8 at 6 p.m. to discuss next steps.
This report is supported in part by the Inland Press Foundation.