More than 10 years ago, The Trust For Public Land (TPL) set out on a mission to transform an unused elevated Chicago railway into a park and trail system that would unite four communities, 24 acres and 80,000 people who live within walking distance. “We were excited to connect the neighborhood communities in the area, including Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park and Bucktown,” says Ken Modzelewski, senior campaign strategist for TPL. In June of 2015, it was finally unveiled. Called The 606, it recalls New York’s Highline and has similarly become a beacon for the City of Chicago, which celebrated it in grand fashion at the Above the Rails Inaugural Gala on opening weekend.
With 18 months to plan the elaborate event, Hanna Thomson and Jenny Jacobs stepped into the roles of co-chairs to lead TPL’s Gala Committee. They started by sending out both digital and printed invites to the organization’s mailing list and neighbors of the park, with a variety of options to register to attend the event. Soon, Boeing stepped in as title sponsor while TPL began to secure more event partners, such as Revel Global Events, which was selected to provide professional design and production services.
“The biggest challenge was that the trail was a construction site leading up to the event, so it was hard to plan where things were actually going to go,” says Britt Whitfield, CEO of Revel Global Events. Using experience to foresee past the multitude of blind-spots, the Revel team began to orchestrate logistics by scouting locations for the dinner, securing permits, contracting suppliers and ironing out a master schedule and run of show.
Load-in began nine days prior to the event. The centerpiece, a 20,000-square-foot tent provided by Arena Americas, was set up at the nearby McCormick Tribune Y.M.C.A.’s lawn, where the night’s finale dinner was to be held.
On event night, a street team directed traffic and VIP Valet provided parking, as 600 VIP guests arrived at the Western Trail Head for check-in to be among the first to see the new park. For the first hour, guests mingled on the 10-foot-wide elevated trail and enjoyed cocktails donated by award-winning Crafthouse Cocktails and small bites served up by celebrity chefs Molly Brewe, Rick Bayless, Bill Kim, Sean Pharr and Shaun Connolly.
When the time came to transition guests to the tent for dinner, the Lowdown Brass Band led the way by marching towards the Y.M.C.A. lawn, acting as a processional to mobilize the large crowd. “It was my favorite part of the entire evening,” says Modzelewski, “one of those moments when you look out on months of planning to see it all happening.”
Reception guests entered the tent to find a design that served as an extension of the park’s natural beauty. Reclaimed woods and metals filled the space, while custom-built bridges connected a combination of round, square and rectangular farm and gray linen-dressed tables filled with moss and various wild blooms. The lighting system, by Sound Investment LTD, was programmed to resemble a sunset that progressed throughout the meal, and additional wireless LED uplighting was used throughout the entire design to minimize power draws. As guests were seated, family-style service mixed with French service began. The menu, prepared by Limelight Catering, consisted of ingredients sourced from local farms that took 19 cooks three days to prepare.
The tent also featured live music by local string players, including cellist Tahirah Whittington. A live art installation by Shala was auctioned off, along with destination packages to other TPL locations. The evening progressed with stage presentations, including remarks by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The night then transitioned into an after-party, with DJ Lani Love, Megan Taylor and guest appearance by DJ Alderman Moreno, with a total attendance of 950 throughout the night.
Four days later, all event materials were gone, but the evening’s memories and the $1 million raised will last and be put forth into new efforts to protect and nurture land across urban environments.