ENGLEWOOD — As the city reignites its efforts to bring a nature trail to Englewood, community organizers want to ensure the project they’ve tried to make a reality for years becomes an equitable space for neighbors, not an engineer for gentrification.
Englewood Nature Trail, a 1.5-mile park, is moving forward thanks to $6 million in city funding and “pending” federal assistance, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office announced earlier this month. The trail will run along a long-abandoned, city-owned rail embankment between 58th and 59th streets between Wallace and Hoyne avenues.
The funding will support the first phase of the design work for the project, city officials said. The Chicago Department of Transportation is also applying for a federal grant which could funnel up to $45 million to the trail.
The Englewood project was one of 12 trails and corridors getting a $15 million boost from City Hall to take a step closer to reality, and officials vowed to work with the community as the work ramps up.
Anton Seals, lead steward at Grow Greater Englewood, will assist in spearheading the work.
Seals has lobbied city officials, Englewood residents, community organizers and stakeholders to create a trail like this for more than a decade, he said. Now that the “city is finally paying attention,” Seals said he wants to guarantee the project benefits neighbors without pushing them out of their community.
“What we’ve heard from residents is that they want a safe space and a space for respite,” Seals said. “This nature trail will be a place where we can take and create memories. It will be us writing our narrative around what our hood should look like.”
The city obtained the abandoned railroad line in 2014 from Norfolk Southern Railway, a company that in recent years has gained attention for its role in tearing down homes in Englewood to create more tracks in the community.
Seals and other community partners began the quest to create the trail in 2009, he said. It’s a relief to finally have the city’s backing, he said.
“They ask what the community wants, but we’ve told them so many times,” Seals said. “We’re not happy with the way the city has done business, but this administration has made a difference. There is finally a willingness to say, ‘We need to look at this process and push to transform it.’ It’s not just words.”
Seals said one mission has been the same since conceptualizing the project in 2009: to make neighbors feel at home, not displaced.
“Black people are afraid when things improve because, in this country, it always comes with some heavy strings attached to it,” Seals said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s for us because that’s the way things in our culture have worked. But we’re interested in trying to figure out how our community can feel safe. We have to make sure we’re implementing protections.”
Seals said the community will work with the city to create anti-displacement and resiliency agreements. Organizers will work with neighbors to host community discussions and find out what the health, economic and food needs are in the community, he said.
“Englewood has lost a lot of people,” Seals said. “This is an opportunity to bring Englewood and West Englewood together. We think that’s important.”
Maurice Cox, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, echoed Seals’ promise.
“DPD will work with the Department of Housing to incorporate anti-displacement strategies along each corridor as we develop framework plans of trails projects across the City,” Cox said. “We will ensure that community needs are front and center of these investments and that we put guardrails in place to curb gentrification forces.”
The trail is still in the early stages. But Seals envisions an “agrihood” where business owners and homeowners can find a moment of peace during the day.
“We want to do this project not only for Chicago but for the country,” Seals said. “We want to create a space that’s designed with Black people at the center of it in a real, intentional way. We’re bringing joy. We need that joy, and our young people need to see and feel that.”
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