Birchwood Avenue Metra viaduct

The Birchwood Avenue Metra viaduct is a hidden gem, encountered only by a handful of pedestrians and drivers.  Birchwood is one of the few East-West streets in the neighborhood not named for a real estate developer; instead, it memorializes the pre-European arrival landscape, when the area was a swampy birch forest.  A block south of Howard, here Birchwood runs one-way eastbound from Ridge, and a large concrete planter diverts westbound traffic off Clark into the branch bank parking lot (though a frequently run-over Do Not Enter sign suggests that perhaps some Rogers Park motorists don’t pay all that much attention to this misguided bit of urban planning). Weeds are slowly bursting through the unused pavement of what should be the westbound lane in the viaduct. 

There is nothing much to see right around here, except the urban planning travesty of “Gateway Plaza,” the half-empty suburban parking-lot hell-mall that our local political/real-estate geniuses foisted on the area just before the New Urbanism proved that giant parking lots, along with drive-through branch banks, blight rather than reinvigorate neighborhoods.  The whole emphasis in this part of Rogers Park is on cars, not pedestrians or cyclists.  The mall and the CTA bus depot/turnaround between Rogers and Howard disrupt the street grid east of Clark, and if you don’t live in the area bounded by roughly Howard, the Metra tracks, Fargo and Damen, there’d be no reason to ever pass through this viaduct. 

The construction is rusting-out steel (three rows of four columns, with the median row including a concrete divider) between the ziggurat-shaped concrete Metra tracks embankment. Both the steel and the concrete are slowly rotting away, topped with pigeon-deterrent spikes that, as the amount of guano present indicates, are remarkably ineffective.

The viaduct’s two murals could not be more different.  The north wall features lots of swirling primary colors and cartoony figures in the happy-happy-joy-joy uplift theme, with the title “Piece of Mind.” Not sure if that’s a typo or on purpose: are we supposed to have peace of mind, or does the art represent a piece of the artist’s mind?  Some things we’ll never know.  It’s from 2013, and the artist is Jeremy Pettis, who must be a Twitter guy, since he signed it #jeremypettis.  Or maybe his first name his Hashtag. Or if he’s older, “Pound Sign.”

The south mural makes this viaduct great: undated and unsigned,* it depicts “M20: Trifid Nebula,” a vision of the galaxy.  If you just cruise through the 11’10” clearance viaduct, this mural looks great, a starscape built into the cityscape, momentarily transporting one far off the planet Earth for much less than the cost of visiting the Adler Planetarium.  Up close, you can see it’s marred by pigeon shit and the paint is starting to chip.  (The pigeon shit, though, looks remarkably like the stars if you’re moving at a steady speed, as does the concrete exposed by flaking black paint.)  In July of 2014, I passed through and encountered Chicago Streets and San electricians putting in new lighting over the sidewalks, which they said the Alderman had mandated for improved pedestrian security (peace of mind?).  This work involved new electrical boxes on the south wall, and it left a blank square where the old box was, and a new one marring this wonderful mural. 

As usual in Chicago, something great and beautiful can be ruined by neglect and carelessness.  Before this new lighting, “M20: Trifid Nebula” needed only a good steam-cleaning and some touching up to be great again, and the new electrical box could have been mounted right where the old one had been.  But no, not in Rogers Park.  

*No information was available on Google as of 8/18/14 either, oddly: 

Your search - "rogers park" mural "M20: Trifid Nebula" Birchwood - did not match any documents.

A mystery to be solved?  A renegade mural done without planning permission?