The Island section of Austin is just south of the Eisenhower Expressway. Its name is fitting.
Rather than being separated by water, the southwest Austin neighborhood is detached from the rest of the community by the expressway (Columbus Park is just on the other side due north). And just along the Eisenhower is a long patch of mostly shabby grass, weeds and gravel stretching from Austin heading east toward Menard.
Island neighbors would like to convert that Eisenhower strip of land next to Railroad Avenue where their homes are located into a bike path and walkway. They also envision seating areas and a garden there.
“It definitely connects you to the city,” said Jeff Panall of the area. He’s lived in the neighborhood for five years. And unlike other islands, this is one that people live in, rather than on.
“It’s like a perfect view of the skyline and then you see the train connecting the city and the highway; so it’s a real conduit to the city,” Panall said.
Last year the city repaved Railroad Avenue and planted a row of trees at the edge of the Eisenhower strip. Workers also got rid of a lot of large weeds and shrubbery that had grown there.
“The people who lived here before over the years, I think, built it up as a buffer,” said Island neighbor Mark Henning. “There were a lot of weeds, of course. They planted stuff and it was just a hodgepodge of various things. It was kind of impenetrable.”
Since the road redo, the expressway is clearly visible. Also are the unused railroad tracks located along the strip, probably from the old Garfield L line that ceased operation in the late 1950s, the neighbors suspect. The skyline view of downtown from the strip is a favorite of Panall’s and other Island neighbors. Other than the noise of the occasional passing Blue Line train heading downtown, the neighbors don’t have many complaints.
The residents come out sometimes to watch the sunset and walk their kids along the strip, which is often a dumping ground of trash from passing cars.
“When I first moved in, I thought wouldn’t it be great to get some kind of a fence-wall thing and block it off a little more, but the more I lived here the more I came to enjoy this spot,” said Henning, who’s lived in the Island for four years.
Even before the city repaved the street, the neighbors have wanted to redo the strip. Henning, a building and interior designer, has access to large amounts of compost from a project he launched a couple of years ago that could be used for landscaping.
Panall said the walkway could be easily accessible from Austin Boulevard, with the path right next to the embankment and fence along the expressway. That wall, he noted, could also be upgraded. The neighbors have discussed their ideas at their monthly community meetings. They’d like to reach out to the city about their idea. As for how it would be funded, that’s something the neighbors are still brainstorming about.
Panall said he likes living in the Island because it’s a quite neighborhood, has easy access to the Austin L, and because of its skyline view.
“I work for the Art Institute downtown so it’s a really quick trip down, and also, me and my wife love the bungalows. And it’s just kind of a nice quiet area. It’s like part of the city, but a lot quieter than most of the neighborhoods,” Panall said.
Henning and his wife lived in New York before moving to Chicago.
“I looked for a couple years, trying to find out where I wanted to move and this had everything,” he said.