Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: If It Ain’t Fixed…

Checkerboard City, Green, Pilsen No Comments »

Anderson, Mendez, and Lopez. Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

The amount of biking in the U.S. more than doubled during the Oughts, from 1.7 billion trips in 2001 to four billion in 2009, according to the League of American Bicyclists, a national advocacy group. One of the great things about this boom is that it has created a broader demographic of people who ride bikes because they want to, not just because they have to.

In a report published last year, the League found that cycling saw the fastest growth over the last decade among Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans. The study also found that 89 percent of people aged 18 to 29 have a positive view of cyclists, and 75 percent of them feel that better conditions for biking would make their community a nicer place to live.

The recent trend towards fixed-gear bicycles and single-speed bikes with freewheels has also helped fuel the growth of cycling among youth in Chicago and other big cities. These sleek, minimalist rides are affordable, fast, and easy to customize, which makes them an appealing gateway to cycling for young people who, a decade ago, might have been more interested in buying four wheels than two.

Fixies have helped change the face of Chicago’s Critical Mass bike parade. For most of the years since it launched in the Nineties, the huge ride has drawn relatively few teens and people of color. Recently, the Mass has become more diverse in general, but nowhere is that more obvious than in back of the Picasso, where dozens of youth, of all races, hang out and do tricks on their single-speeds before the ride gets rolling.

Nowadays, young single-speed riders, many of them black and Latino, are also a fixture at Logan Square’s eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument. The bikes have become so popular in Chicago that there are now at least two shops that sell almost nothing but fixies. One of these is Phixx 606 Cycles, located at 4075 North Elston in the Irving Park neighborhood (, 773-969-1148.)

The other is Wheel of Time Bikes, 1518 West 18th in Pilsen (, 312-246-2453.) I dropped by last week to find out more about why fixies resonate so much with Chicago youth.

Owned by artist Vianey Valdez and her mechanic husband Angel, this shop in a largely Mexican-American community has a bit of an Aztec theme. The name refers to the Aztec calendar wheel, which makes up the front wheel of the fixie in the logo – the other one is a Native American dreamcatcher. Valdez also painted a phrase in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, across a wall of the store.

A disco ball and dozens of silver CDs stuck to the recessed ceiling of the shop are leftovers from its previous life as a record store. Bike frames, rims, tires, chains, and other parts and accessories in a galaxy of colors hang from the walls. The shop only stocks one bike brand: Los Angeles-based Pure Fix Cycles.

Tony Patlan at Wheel of Time. Photo: John Greenfield

Tony Patlan at Wheel of Time. Photo: John Greenfield

Manager Tony Patlan says the shop’s clientele is about 50 percent Latino, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood, and largely youth. “We get a lot of teenagers coming in with their parents,” he says. “Instead wanting to buy a car, like when I was a kid, they’re interested in buying a bike as their first vehicle so they can go hang out with their friends.”

Patlan, who’s middle aged like me, says young people dig single-speeds because they’re simpler to operate than a bike with derailleurs and multiple gears. Since its possible to stop a fixed-gear by slowing your pedal stroke or skidding to a stop, some fixies don’t even have hand brakes. Fewer components on a bike makes it lighter and easier to maintain.

Wheel of Time specializes in custom builds, and many people choose unique color combos. “It can look like a rainbow if you want, and people really like that,” Patlan said. Customers are encouraged to name their steeds, and the shop posts photos of each new creation on its Facebook page. Recent additions include “Earth and Sky,” a green-and-blue model, “El Che,” with a red-and-black color scheme, and “The Hulk” – a grey frame with neon green parts.

Three guys hanging around outside the shop tell me they roll with a fixie crew called the Chicago Task Force, which sounds badass, and also would make a good name for an urban planning think tank. Joey Lopez, 20, works at a grocery store in the South Loop. He tells me he got interested in riding into riding single-speeds after a friend bought a nice ride. “It sounded a lot better and faster than the CTA,” he says. “Nowadays, I don’t even walk no more.”

Michael Anderson, 17, goes to school at nearby Juarez High and works at a Middle Eastern restaurant. He says he likes fixies for their simplicity. “I don’t have to mess with a derailleur, so I can fix repair my bike myself.”

Anderson’s coworker Iban Mendez, 21, agrees. “You can’t change the transmission of a car overnight,” he says. “But you can change the gear ratio of your bike quickly, if you want more comfort or speed.”

They turn their attention to Mendez’s Pure Fix, which features a yellow frame, a green front wheel, an orange back wheel, and blue handlebars, plus parts in a few other hues. “What colors do you want to put on here?” Lopez asks. “I don’t know what other colors I can put on here,” Mendez replies.

Dime Stories: Welcome to Dystopia!

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

It isn’t hard to figure out where all of the dystopian entertainment is coming from lately. “The Leftovers”—based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name and about a Rapture-like occurrence  that disappears about two percent of the population and leaves a befuddled, confused populace in its wake—is probably the smartest of them, but they are abundant. “The Strain,” “Lottery,” “The Last Ship”… it goes on and on. It seems there is some jack to be made on the end of the world, the end of times, the apocalypse—pick one. It seems everyone is ready to write our obit as a world. Hell, it’s a bumper industry.

It was the same thing with the end of the millennium—the Y2K idiocy—the first Rapture, comets, la-la-la. The Mayan calendar wanted to rip up our ticket in 2012 and Nostradamus is forever inspiring idiots to fashion their doom-and-gloom gibberish to be mouthed by the same gullible drool-cases who buy into the “Illuminati” wolf tickets. Hell when my daughter was talking about this in eighth grade, I thought she said the Lou Malnati’s was coming and I was going to get pizza. I was thrilled. Read the rest of this entry »

Free Will Astrology: Week of August 28, 2014

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By Rob Brezsny

ARIES (March 21-April 19): In the coming weeks it will be important for you to bestow blessings and disseminate gifts and dole out helpful feedback. Maybe you already do a pretty good job at all that, but I urge you to go even further. Through acts of will and surges of compassion, you can and should raise your levels of generosity. Why? Your allies and loved ones need more from you than usual. They have pressing issues that you have special power to address. Moreover, boosting your largesse will heal a little glitch in your mental health. It’s just what the soul doctor ordered. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: You’re A Good Man, Dan Brown

Bicycling, Checkerboard City 1 Comment »
Dan Brown with Chainlink founder Leah Neaderthal. Photo: Steven E. Grossman

Brown with Chainlink founder Leah Neaderthal at the site’s 10,000th member party last March/Photo: Steven E. Gross

By John Greenfield

In the second week of August, two funny men who loved bicycles passed away. One was comedian Robin Williams, who once said cycling saved his life by helping him quit drugs in the wake of his friend John Belushi’s overdose. The other was Dan Brown, a mainstay of the Chicago bike advocacy community, who died after falling off a sailboat near Diversey Harbor.

“I am taking the position that a higher power looking at our world decided that she needed music, smiling faces, and laughter so she took Dan and Robin Williams this week,” said Lisa Curcio, a friend of Brown’s from the bike scene. “It is such a loss to we mere mortals.” Read the rest of this entry »

Free Will Astrology: Week of August 21, 2014

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By  Rob Brezsny

ARIES (March 21-April 19): An American named Kevin Shelley accomplished a feat worthy of inclusion in the “Guinness Book of World Records.” While wearing a blue satin martial arts outfit, he smashed forty-six wooden toilet seats over his head in just one minute. Some observers may be inclined to dismiss his efforts as frivolous and ridiculous. But I admire how he playfully mocked his own competitiveness while fully expressing his competitiveness. He satirized his ego’s drive to be first and best even as he achieved the goal of being first and best. I recommend you try something similar. You’re entering a phase when you’ll be wise to add a bit of humility to your bold self-presentation. Read the rest of this entry »

Linework: Patrol

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By Raziel Puma. Edited by Ivan Brunetti and Aaron Renier. (Click on image to enlarge.)


The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride: A 300-Mile Pedal Around the Edge of Chicagoland

Bicycling, Transit 1 Comment »

Stopping for provisions in west-suburban Elburn/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

I confess that I’m obsessed with pedaling the perimeters of things. For years, I led the Chicago Perimeter Ride, a hundred-mile bicycle tour of the rim of the city, stopping to admire goofy commercial architecture landmarks, from the Eyecare Indian in Westlawn, to the giant fiberglass wieners of Superdawg in Norwood Park. I’ve cycled the circumference of Lake Michigan and the state of Illinois, and I’ve got a Land of Lincoln tattoo on my scrawny left shoulder as proof of the latter. I’ve biked three sides of the continental U.S., and some day I hope to complete the circuit by cycling from Key West, Florida, to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Since my journalistic wheelhouse is local transportation issues, it recently occurred to me that I should pedal the perimeter of Chicagoland, as a way to wrap my head around our vast region, and meditate on the urban planning challenges we face. But how best to define the Chicago metro area? There are a number of different definitions of the region, with one of the broadest being the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area, originally designated by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1950. Along with Cook and the collar counties, it includes swaths of southeast Wisconsin and northwest Indiana, for a total population of 9,522,434, making this the third-largest MSA by population in the nation.

Somewhat arbitrarily, I opted to define the perimeter of the region as being a route connecting the endpoints of the Metra commuter rail system’s eleven lines. This would allow me to skip the nastier industrial sections of the Hoosier State, since Metra doesn’t serve Indiana, while justifying an excursion across the Cheddar Curtain to quirky Kenosha, Wisconsin, one of my favorite nearby cities. Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: The Nation of Facebook, The Pornography of Grief

Dime Stories 2 Comments »
Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

Something odd often happens in the toneless and contrarian public square of Facebook. In fact I shouldn’t say “odd” because it always happens. Express an opinion, a thought, an observation and the trolls come out—like gremlins barreling out of a psychic clown car, they come rolling out full of indignation and venom and the kind of puffery one can work up from behind the safety of a locked door and a computer screen. And they are ready to stack asses.

I’d been watching the sad, brutal footage from Gaza over the weekend and like everyone else was horrified at the sight of shroud after bloody shroud of Palestinian children being lined up like so much lumber. A skip down to CNN and I caught Benjamin Netanyahu admonishing Secretary of State John Kerry, “Not to ever second guess him again.”

This pissed me off. Kerry merely urged restraint and rightly criticized the brutality inflicted upon Palestinian non-combatants—mainly children. He was suggesting that Israel had made its point and called for a cease-fire. Netanyahu was offended and decided to bitch-slap Kerry on the world stage. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: No Longer Marooned

Checkerboard City, Green, Hyde Park No Comments »

The new promenade on 58th, across the street from Robie House/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

I’ve long thought that the gray, Gothic confines of the University of Chicago were designed as a fortress against the outside world. However, in recent years, the school has made an effort to physically open up its grounds to the rest of the Hyde Park community, as well as to connect various parts of the campus that had previously seemed remote, by creating better spaces for pedestrians.

Several construction projects have improved connectivity and made it safer and more pleasant to walk across the 211-acre campus. Meanwhile, sections of roadway have been converted into attractive walkways and plazas, which encourage spontaneous interactions between students, employees and neighborhood folks. Read the rest of this entry »

Free Will Astrology: Week of August 14, 2014

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By Rob Brezsny

ARIES (March 21-April 19): Researchers in Peru have recently tracked down many previously unknown varieties of wild cacao plants. What that means is that there are exotic kinds of chocolate that you and I have never dreamed of, and they will be commercially available within a few years. As delicious as your Chocolove XOXOX Extra Strong Dark candy bar may taste to you now, you will eventually journey further into a new frontier of ecstatic delectability. I propose that we use this theme as a metaphor for the work you have ahead of you right now. It is time for you to make good things even better—to take fun diversions and transform them into experiences that engender transcendent bliss. Turn “yes” into “YESSSS!!!!” Read the rest of this entry »