Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Strolling 2200 South

Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Little Village, Pilsen, South Loop No Comments »
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A corner store on Cermak Road in Lawndale/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Cermak Road is the waistline of our hourglass-shaped metropolis. Running 6.2 miles from the border with west-suburban Cicero to the road’s eastern terminus at King Drive, it’s just about the shortest way to get across Chicago.

The road, which passes through several formerly Czech enclaves, was named in memory of Anton Cermak, a Czech immigrant who served as mayor from 1931 to 1933. On February 15, 1933, Cermak was shaking hands with Franklin Roosevelt in Miami when he was fatally shot by an assassin gunning for the president.

I’ve walked the length of a dozen or so Chicago streets in search of adventure, but I got the idea to stroll Cermak Road from writer and musician Rob Reid, who led a group excursion on the road last Saturday to mark the martyred mayor’s 141st birthday. Since I couldn’t attend, I made a solo attempt the previous Wednesday. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Exit Interview

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, News etc., Transit No Comments »
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Gabe Klein tries out Chicago’s first pedestrian scramble/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Maybe we jinxed things by naming transportation czar Gabe Klein as the city’s best department head in this magazine’s October 31 Best of Chicago issue, because the very next day he announced he was stepping down. Can’t really blame the guy since, two-and-a-half years after he took the job, his wife is still living in his previous hometown of Washington, D.C., where he’ll be returning to launch new transportation technology enterprises in the private sector. Still, it’s a shame that the poster boy for reconfiguring urban streets to serve all road users, not just drivers, is leaving the Windy City in his bicycle taillights. I caught up with him at his downtown office for a final chat.

To ask the classic annoying job interview question, what was your biggest weakness as commissioner?
Coming to town and not necessarily understanding all the history of how the city works meant there was a bigger learning curve. I came in with Mayor Emanuel and had this idea that we were going to set the world on fire and change transportation in Chicago. That’s a double-edged sword. If I didn’t think that way, we wouldn’t have been able to get as much done, but you also rub some people the wrong way. So maybe I could have been a little less boisterous? I don’t know. Read the rest of this entry »

Greaser Girls: Fixing a New Biker Identity

City Life, Ukrainian Village No Comments »
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Crystal Kimmey and Kamaca Reavis

By Charlie Puckett

Tucked away in a Ukrainian Village alley off of Bishop Street, there are two women in a garage full of horsepower attracting askance glances and stares of jealousy alike. If you are a Ukrainian Villager, chances are you’ve never seen the garage or met Kamaca Reavis and Crystal Kimmey, but you’ve probably heard the engines of their vintage vehicles splitting apart a quiet afternoon, or you’ve heard a friend say, “I saw the craziest thing today walking down Chicago Avenue.” The spectacle your friend’s talking about could have been Reavis and Kimmey and their eight-year-old son idling in one of their vintage BMW sidecar motorcycles at a stoplight.

If your friend was staring, and Kimmey saw it, she may have said this to her son: “Seamus, sweetie, ask that nice man if he doesn’t like the color of my dress or if he’s constipated.” When that eight-year-old kid in a Star Wars X-Wing helmet leaned over in the sidecar to ask the question, that’s the moment your friend probably had his constipation relieved and whispered desperate supplications for the light to turn green. That’s just the kind of neutral response Kimmey is used to throwing out there before she shifts into first and rips away. Read the rest of this entry »

Down South in North Chicago: Common Ground in a Coffeehouse

Andersonville, City Life No Comments »

By Martin Northway

It was a chance encounter that blossomed into a rare event—one of the kinds of experiences that have fueled a lifetime of frequenting coffeehouses. She was sitting alone reading, and though she was dressed down in sweats, without makeup, hair frazzled and a little flyaway, there was no hiding her ebony beauty; but there was no welcome mat out either.

We were at Kopi, A Traveler’s Cafe, in Andersonville during a pre-lunch lull. I had just sent a visiting friend back off to Indiana with a cuptigo and was contemplating a trek back down Clark Street to my spartan third-floor walk-up in north Uptown, when I noticed the title of the young woman’s large photo book, “Women of the West.”

My passion is history, so I interrupted her gently but with honest curiosity. I mentioned that for a spell my great-grandmother had been a deputy sheriff in Sedalia, Missouri. She said she was an actress absorbing background for a part in a play about former slave women on the frontier, “Flyin’ West.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Northwest Passage

Architecture, Avondale, Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Chicago History, City Life, Green No Comments »
Rob Reid, Mike Filipinski and Elisa Addlesperger on the 2900 block of North Elston.

Rob Reid, Mike Filipski and Elisa Addlesperger on the 2900 block of North Elston.

By John Greenfield

I’ve walked the whole length of eleven Chicago streets in order to experience aspects of local geography, architecture and culture that I might have overlooked using faster modes. So when Rob Reid, who writes the history blog Avondale Time Machine, invited me to join him and friends to hike all 9.5 miles of Elston Avenue last month, I couldn’t refuse.

The street’s namesake was Daniel Elston, a London merchant who immigrated to Chicago in the early 1800s. By 1830 he’d bought a 160-acre parcel in River West, located along a crooked wagon road. The multitalented settler established several businesses—making soap, candles, bricks, beer and whiskey—he also served as a school inspector and alderman.

While Elston was first living by the thoroughfare that would later bear his name, it was a plank toll road owned by Amos Snell, who charged travelers two-and-a-half cents per mile to use it. Displeased with this, local farmers staged a Boston Tea Party of sorts—they dressed up like Indians, chopped down the toll gates and burned them. Read the rest of this entry »

Monumental Error? How a Statue Honoring a Controversial Japanese Religious Leader Wound Up in a Chicago Park

City Life, South Loop, Uptown 6 Comments »

By John Greenfield

“Peace and Justice” sculpture in the Peace Garden / Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago’s Peace Garden is not a particularly peaceful place. Located in Uptown next to Lake Shore Drive, just east of the Buena Avenue underpass, its tranquility is undermined by the constant roar of traffic. The park features a rustic stone fountain, currently shut off for repairs, and a white post with inscriptions on each of its four sides: “May peace be in Chicago; May peace be in Illinois; May peace be in the United States; May peace prevail on Earth.”

In the center of the garden, almost directly below the expressway, stands the bronze sculpture “Peace and Justice” by local artist Margot McMahon, showing two young boys, one African-American and one Caucasian, holding a ball aloft. On the front of the trapezoidal granite base a plaque reads:

Erected in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Daisaku Ikeda’s life long struggle for peace, justice and human rights. Walking through Lincoln Park on October 9, 1960, the young president of the Soka Gakkai, Daisaku Ikeda witnessed a painful act of racial discrimination toward a young child, crystallizing his lasting commitment to rid the world of needless suffering and enabling the human dignity of all to shine.

The other three sides of the base feature quotations from Ikeda about the titular virtues.

When I first read the dedication, stopping on my bicycle en route from the lakefront to a nearby café, I was dumbstruck. After all, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay Buddhist movement founded in Japan with millions of members worldwide, has often been described as a cult. What was a monument to Ikeda, the organization’s enigmatic “spiritual mentor,” doing in a public park? Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Bike Share, Not White Share

Bicycling, Bronzeville, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, News etc. No Comments »

B-Cycle, a small-scale bike share system that launched here in 2010/Photo: Michael Malecki

By John Greenfield

There’s a common misconception that transportation biking is only for privileged white folks. Recently Tribune columnist John Kass expressed this attitude when he dismissed cyclists as “the One Percenters of the Commuter Class,” but in reality people from all walks of life use bikes to get around. Many of these folks are the so-called “invisible riders,” low-income individuals who ride, not because they’re looking to get exercise or save the planet, but because they need cheap, efficient transportation.

Chicago’s upcoming bike-sharing program, slated to launch next spring and grow to 4,000 vehicles by the end of the year, is a great opportunity to broaden the demographics of cycling here to include more residents from underserved neighborhoods and communities of color. By providing cycles for short-term use, to be ridden from one automated rental kiosk to another, it will function as a second public transportation system and remove some of the major obstacles to cycling: the need to purchase, store and maintain a bike, plus fear of theft. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Life in the Bus Lane

Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Humboldt Park, Loop, News etc., Politics, Transit 1 Comment »

Proposed BRT configuration/Image courtesy of CTA

By John Greenfield

“It comes down to: how do Chicagoans want their streets?” said Chris Ziemann, the city’s bus-rapid-transit project manager, as we drank coffee downstairs from the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) downtown headquarters last week. “Do they want them to be congested every day at rush hour with gridlocked vehicles? Or do they want fast, reliable bus service and nice, comfortable conditions for walking?”

As car-dominated transportation systems become increasingly dysfunctional, more U.S. cities are looking to bus rapid transit (BRT) as a solution. BRT delivers subway-like speed and efficiency at relatively low costs through upgrades to existing streets rather than new rail lines. These improvements can include dedicated bus lanes, pre-paid boarding at stations in the road median, bus-priority stoplights and more. BRT is already common in Latin America, Europe and Asia, and it’s currently being piloted in dozens of American cities. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Pavement to the People

Andersonville, Architecture, Avondale, Bicycling, Bronzeville, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Lakeview, News etc., Wicker Park 3 Comments »

People Spot and bike corral in Andersonville/Photo: Andersonville Development Corporation

By John Greenfield

Local pundits like ex-Sun-Times columnist Mark Konkol and the Tribune’s John McCarron and John Kass have trashed the city’s new protected bike lanes as a waste of space on the streets. But Chicagoans tend to overlook the massive amount of room on the public way given over to moving and parking private automobiles.

A new Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) initiative called Make Way for People is dreaming up more imaginative uses of the city’s asphalt and concrete, creating new public spaces that are energizing business strips. In partnership with local community leaders, the program is taking parking spots, roadways, alleys and under-used plazas and transforming them into People Spots, People Streets, People Alleys and People Plazas, respectively, lively neighborhood hangouts.

“It’s not a top-down program where we come in and say, ‘We think you need a People Spot or a People Street,’” says Janet Attarian, head of the department’s Streetscape and Sustainable Design section. “Instead we say, ‘We want to help you build community and culture and place and, look, we just created a whole set of tools that wasn’t available before.’” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Ride Into the Safety Zone

Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, News etc. No Comments »

Gabe Klein and Toni Foulkes/Photo: CDOT

By John Greenfield

Running late as usual, I hop on my bicycle and sprint south from Logan Square, fortunately with a sweet tailwind at my back. I’m heading to the ribbon cutting for new Children’s Safety Zone traffic-calming and pedestrian-safety treatments at Claremont Academy Elementary School, 2300 West 64th Street in West Englewood.

The city has 1,500 of these safety zones, designated areas within one-eighth mile of schools and parks. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is planning to install additional infrastructure at dangerous intersections within these sectors to discourage speeding and make crossing easier. Currently there are about 3,000 pedestrian crashes a year in the city, with about 800 involving kids. And in this era of rising obesity rates, the goal is also to encourage more children to walk to school and to play at their local park. Read the rest of this entry »