About a dozen of us met at the Aldi on Milwaukee near Leavitt last Saturday night. We quietly walked under the Blue Line tracks across the street, pushed aside some weedy overgrowth, and shimmied through a homeless sanctuary of shopping carts and dirty blankets that smelled like a zoo. I didn't get the memo that said to wear long pants and sneakers--I was in coochie-cutter shorts and platform sandals. Tramping up a dirt trail in the dark, losing traction, I wondered what, exactly, I'd gotten myself into.
Artists Max Reinhardt and Simon Slater, who call themselves Earthscraper--a play on skyscraper--led their friends and hangers-on like me down a mile-long stretch of the old Bloomingdale line, a three-mile strip of elevated track owned by Canadian Pacific Railway. Running from Ashland to Ridgeway on Bloomingdale, it hasn't carried a train since 2000, and it's become overgrown and clotted with garbage, but it's still pretty. Reinhardt and Slater want the route to be turned into a park. The city seems to want that as well. In 2004 the planning commission adopted the Logan Square Open Space Plan, which includes a proposal for the Bloomingdale Trail, an elevated park and car-free route. The city has been bandying this about for years, but concerns over cost (an estimated $30 million) and crime--the racist notion that ne'er-do-wells will use the trail to travel from Humboldt Park to Bucktown, fear that people will throw bricks into buildings along the route, because of course there's no other place from which to throw a brick into a building if that's your thing--kept getting in the way.
But last month the City Council resolved to purchase 15,000 square feet of land along the trail, between Whipple and Albany, from the Trust for Public Land.
"The fact that the city is agreeing to acquire property on the trail means that they are thinking long-term about this," says Ben Helphand, cofounder of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail.
Jeff Greenspan, a senior project manager with the Trust for Public Land, hopes "there will be funds in a year or so to develop the park. For the full line, we're looking at several years down the road."
Reinhardt and Slater were taking us to their first official project as Earthscraper: a bodega they constructed mostly from materials found on and around the trail. Both Art Institute graduates, they met on a school-sponsored trip to Prague last year and have worked together loosely before, setting up swings in unused spaces such as beneath el tracks and on a rusted bridge over the Chicago River. Reinhardt told me he's curious about such beautiful, decayed "autonomous zones." When I asked him what questions, exactly, he has about these spaces, he spewed out the same nonsense that artists always spew when you ask them to explain their work: "What kind of impact does it have to make art in such a space?" and "What is art in this space?" and "What's the cultural weight or void thereof?"
We were mostly silent in the micronetherworld of secret wilderness, stumbling over rotted ties and rusted rails, unsure if we were trespassing. We stalked through ghostly gardens of Queen Anne's lace and smooth, skinny trees, following the skeleton of the railroad. White grass like fine hair poked through patches of chunky gravel; winged insects congregated in the fluorescent glow of the streetlights.
It felt disconcertingly like critter territory, but the only things I spotted in the brush were discarded T-shirts, a sneaker, and bike tires. We passed one generic brick condo after another, flat-faced except for the stubby balconies holding expensive-looking propane grills. About half a mile later we saw satellite dishes attached to crumbling buildings, and an open hydrant barfing water into an alley.
Called El Luchador Hambriento ("the hungry wrestler"), the Earthscraper bodega was a shanty with tarpaper walls and a corrugated steel ceiling built between two ties the guys had salvaged and stuck back on the rails. On the outside walls they tacked up homemade, brightly painted canvas signs advertising condoms, chewing gum, ice, porn, pots, cigars, Lotto tickets, and hot dogs. The inside was illuminated with floodlights, but they won't reveal how they got electricity up there.
It looked like a carnival game stand with junk food prizes, Capri Suns, cinnamon applesauce, chocolate pudding cups and mini boxes of cereal stuck in slots of wire fencing, Cheez-Its and Air Heads stapled to the rafters. Boxes of Irish Spring lined support beams. A Styrofoam cooler chilled cans of Kirkland soda and cheap beer. All the goods came from Costco. We were free to take what we liked but were asked to leave money on a stack of empty plastic pallets. I grabbed a grape soda and left a dollar.
I'd gotten wind of this little excursion from a friend of mine who knows the Earthscraper guys. She described it as an art walk that would lead to the bodega, which she guessed would somehow comment on gentrification. By Saturday Reinhardt and Slater had spent every night for a week humping materials to the locale and constructing the bodega--which is coming down this week--so they were too exhausted to expand on my friend's explanation. But Reinhardt told me he viewed the Bloomingdale Trail as a "sort of no-man's land, negative space that acts as a threshold between neighborhoods." Later I got the press release that said the bodega was built to highlight the bridge between Bucktown and Humboldt Park, "through which one may see the consumer variation as represented by 7-11 and Starbucks in stark contrast to bodegas and shaved ice stands."
Their message would've been clearer had they simply made use of abandoned materials and abandoned space. When I think reclamation I think happy, hippyish thoughts: love the earth, leave no trace, etc. But these guys were generating more trash, and real trashy trash at that.
I enjoyed the naturalist-excursion portion of the walk and appreciated the chance to see the city from a new perspective, and I especially liked the shock of coming upon this little junk-food oasis at the end of it. But if El Luchador Hambriento were in a gallery--and come November it will be, at the Betty Rymer Gallery at the SAIC, as part of the "Negotiated Landscapes" exhibit--it wouldn't have the same dreamy effect. Without context, it'll be even harder to figure out exactly what these guys are getting at.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.