Down the street from my apartment there’s a community garden on a vacant lot owned by my landlord — although, of course, “vacant” is a bit misleading. It’s home to a dozen raised beds of flowers and vegetables. There are hoses and a rain barrel and two rotating compost bins and a mess of stakes and tomato cages under the porch of the house next door. In the spring mushrooms push up through the dandelions
In the first warm weeks of May I sowed buttercrunch lettuce and mesclun and red romaine, along with beets and chard and kale and carrots in the plots I’d claimed as my own. I had the best intentions, I had carefully ordered an array of exotics from the heirloom seed catalog – Chantenay red core carrots; bull’s blood and golden beets. I amended the soil with compost and an extravagant layer of topsoil. I even drew a map in a little spiral notebook. But, perhaps dizzy with the sudden onset of spring, when I got down in the dirt itself I quickly abandoned any attempt to impose structure on nature and began sprinkling seeds with abandon. I figured I’d thin them out once they’d germinated, after I saw what stuck.
One month later the lettuces are coming up thick in nice straight rows. But the bok choy and the chard are sketchy, their sprouts emerging from the soil in curves and clumps, if at all. Only four of dozens of golden beets have germinated, and cilantro has invaded the carrot patch. Samaras from the maple towering to the east have rained down on the garden, blanketing it with little brown propellers and every morning I crouch over the beds, contemplating clusters of inch-high shoots, wondering, are you kale or crabgrass? Are you seed or are you weed?
I live half a block north of this garden, on Humboldt Boulevard practically on top of the Bloomingdale Trail. That’s the colloquial name given to the elevated tracks stretching 2.7 miles west across Chicago from Ashland all the way to Ridgeway, along Bloomingdale Avenue, about midway between Armitage and North. Once it was a spur line for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, but regular transit stopped on the line in 2001 and in the years that followed the tracks were reclaimed by fast-growing plants. Bull thistles and pokeweed grew thick along the railings while pineapple weed choked the tracks – as did broken glass, beer cans, dead rats, abandoned shoes, needles, condoms, and yards upon yards of VHS tape, scenes from Ghostbusters unspooling on the breeze. Catalpa and gingko stretched their branches overhead. Wildflowers rioted in July.
From the ground the trail didn’t look like much – a few miles of dank, crumbling cement held together by graffiti. But from above it was a magic highway. A thin strip of rough scrubby green easily accessed at strategic points along a poorly maintained fence line, the Bloomingdale Trail gave sanctuary to drinkers, dog walkers, joggers, junkies, and anyone seeking shelter from the streets below. It was an interstitial wilderness, opportunistic plants holding tight to rocky soil, and for much of the 00s it was the city’s best-kept open secret.
These days the weeds are gone. Last August the city broke ground on construction of a long-planned network of parks and trails along the railway that’s now called The 606. In the works for more than ten years, it’s set to open in its first phase this fall, and I’ve watched over the last six months as small trucks and front-end loaders zip back and forth along the viaduct past my second-story windows. On the ground, the bright murals that marked the passage from Humboldt Park to Logan Square – whose neighborhood boundary the trail passively polices – have been sandblasted away in the name of lead abatement. The quiet man who lived underneath the overpass all last summer has moved on. If you trespass on the tracks these days you’ll get a ticket.
Almost exactly 19 years ago I was homeless in Chicago, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s loft at Grand and Wood. I spent hours each day, those first weeks, adrift in a strange town, drinking coffee at the old Wishbone on Grand and poring over the Reader classifieds looking for a job, an apartment, a map, a clue.
In the afternoons I walked the streets of greater Wicker Park – Grand to North; Ashland to Western — building a muscle memory of Chicago’s geography with every step. I didn’t go west of Western on my own back then. In 1995, to the new in town, west of Western was the wild unknown, best approached only with a trusted guide.
One night we threw a party. My friends were moving out of the loft, moving on, and I needed to as well. We posted a sign in the kitchen, bold black Sharpie on butcher paper: “Martha needs a place to live.” It was a party with intention, at which I had to introduce myself to strangers over and over until, by accident, one of them stuck. I moved into Carla’s apartment at Augusta and Damen two weeks later.
Accident or intention.
Seed or weed?
For as long as there’ve been gardens, gardeners have pondered the epistemology of weeds.
Because a weed famously is defined by what it’s not. A weed is just a plant growing where it’s not wanted, right? A hardy plant with the tenacity to thrive, neglected, in inhospitable turf.
A weed competes for resources – for space, sunlight, and water — with more desirable, intentional plants. It provides shelter where pests can overwinter. Early-season weeds offer sustenance to sap-sucking aphids and other insects, enabling them to grow strong enough to attack your tomatoes when the time is right.
In the proper context a weed can be a tincture, or a tea, or the main ingredient in your pasta with wild ramp pesto. If it roots in the right place it can fix nitrogen in the soil or anchor unstable ground. In fact there’s a famous story that the first life to return to east London after the devastation of the Blitz came in the form of weeds. According to Richard Mabey, author of the book Weeds, by the end of the war braken carpeted the nave of St. James Cathedral and ragwort scrambled up London Wall. The spread of the lowly rosebay willowherb was so thick and rapid it was welcomed with the nickname “bombweed.”
But what’s a weed on land no one cares about? In the loose taxonomy of common weeds, railway weeds are their own low category: tenacious, craven plants that have staked a claim to the roughest most embattled turf around. Yarrow and curly dock. Pigweeds prostrate, Russian, rough, and smooth. Spotted knapweed, hoary cress, Western goatsbeard, and toothed spurge. They all have names and properties, but in the ledger of urban improvement count for nothing.
Last summer I walked the Bloomingdale Trail a lot, climbing the fence at Julia DeBurgos Park over on Whipple and more often than not heading east. To the west, near where the tracks split at Ridgeway, vegetation gave way to a ground cover of small hostile rocks, and long-abandoned freight cars offered privacy for all manner of illicit human activities.
To the east, though, the path grew soft and lush and where, from the street, the tracks seemed a dark mass of decaying concrete, from above they vibrated with the full flower of midsummer.
Accident or intention?
Seed or weed?
Which is better in the long run? Is it even possible to quantify their relative good? Intention builds bridges; accident coats them with rust. Intention drops bombs; accident turns the rubble green. Intention sows spinach; accident raises lamb’s quarters instead.
But, wait a minute. Weeds grow from seeds, same as radishes. Lamb’s quarters are just wild spinach. You can eat them too, just as well.
My friend Amy used to live on Monticello, just south of the Bloomingdale tracks, and she swore for months that from her garden she could see trains passing along the tracks overhead. We scoffed. Those tracks haven’t been used for years! She was seeing ghosts, we teased, and Amy’s ghost train was a running refrain until, one day, I saw it too – a freight train, real as steel, moving smoothly west.
I did some poking around and the most likely explanation for this is that the trains were delivering flour to a nearby industrial bakery that, though warned of the imminent redevelopment of the trail, waited until the very last possible minute to make alternate shipping arrangements. The least likely, though most lovely, explanation is the legend told by longtime trail neighbors, who swear that the circus used to use those tracks, sending carloads of animals towards the United Center, giraffes poking their necks out the top and nodding to condo dwellers as they passed.
This, of course, is a fairytale. No record of such a train exists with either the railway or the city. It turns out, in fact, that Amy’s ghost train may have been delivering neither bread nor beasts. Rather, in order for Canadian Pacific to hold onto the air rights above the tracks all these years, they were required by law to keep them in use. And so every once in a while, for no reason, they’d run a train bearing nothing slowly by.
In April the Chicago Department of Transportation removed the old railway bridge at the Ashland Avenue end of the Bloomingdale Trail. It was taken to a work yard, scrubbed clean of rust, repainted, and then driven slowly, at dawn, one mile west to Western, where it was reinstalled, and now connects Humboldt Park to Bucktown. The video of the bridge’s transit reminds me of footage of the journey of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, the 350-ton granite boulder Heizer – a reclusive land artist perhaps best known for his 1970 earthwork Double Negative — had excavated from a Southern California quarry in 2012 and trucked over ten nights, at a stately 2 miles per hour, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Over those ten nights crowds of thousands gathered to marvel and clap, and others to mock and jeer. It’s just a rock, the skeptics scoffed. Why waste all this time and money staking a claim to art? But like “Double Negative” – which is basically two big gashes cut into the earth atop a remote Nevada mesa – the appeal of the big rock, which now sits suspended above a deep trench cut into the LACMA plaza, is as much about what’s not there as what is.
Weed or seed?
Can’t a plant – a rock, a trail, a home — be both at once?
For weeks now city crews have been working on the viaduct over Humboldt Boulevard, spitting distance from my door, jackhammering away every morning at the unhappy hour of 7 am. When this phase of construction is done, there’ll be a new access ramp over on Whipple and bleacher seating installed along the Humboldt overpass that will give visitors a place to sit and rest, and look down at traffic on the boulevard, and in my front yard.
It’s a long arc to this yard from that first apartment I stumbled into, the one that anchored me in Chicago. I was only there a year, but in the 18 years since I haven’t strayed far from that central square, even as its perimeter has expanded, pushing past Western to California and beyond, and north to the edge of the Bloomingdale Trail, whose rocks and weeds inscribed new memories into my muscles as recently as last year.
According to the plan recently unveiled by the landscape architect for the site, the trail will be home to an elaborate new ecosystem of native plants, with hanging gardens of forsythia, thickets of poplars and maidenhair ferns, and meadows of blue flax and bee balm, goatsbeard and yellow mullien — desirable, intentional, weeds no more. A spiraling observatory – an earthwork built from soil and rubble — will anchor the western trailhead, its access points marked by evergreen spires. A tunnel of paper bark maples will open onto a public arts space at Ashland, and magnolias will bloom over Julia De Burgos Park.
Like the circus train, it will soon be a fairytale that once upon a time in the city you could climb a fence and take a long walk through nothing, along a trail of beautiful weeds.