Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: If It Ain’t Fixed…

Checkerboard City, Green, Pilsen No Comments »
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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 (Phixx606Cycles.com, 773-969-1148.)

The other is Wheel of Time Bikes, 1518 West 18th in Pilsen (Facebook.com/WheelOfTimeBikes, 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.

Checkerboard City: Getting Pilsen Going

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Pilsen, Transit No Comments »
Alex Velazquez and Ray Arroyo. Photo: Active Trans

Alex Velazquez and Ray Arroyo/Photo: Active Trans

By John Greenfield

Last September, the Chicago Department of Transportation launched the Go Bronzeville transportation demand program in the historic Near South neighborhood otherwise known as the Black Metropolis. The initiative provided resources for residents interested in getting around their community and the city on foot, bike, transit and car-sharing, with the goal of reducing the number of drive-alone trips.

Many of the people who participated in the free workshops, walking tours and bike rides found that using active transportation helped save them money, improved their health and gave them new opportunities to spend time with their family, friends and neighbors. Now, CDOT plans to run TDM programs in another four neighborhoods, at a cost of about $250,000 per community, mostly funded by federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grants.

Pilsen, the largely Mexican-American community located three miles southwest of the Loop, was a logical choice for the next location, according to CDOT deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel. The area is well served by transit, including several CTA bus routes, the Pink Line and Metra’s BNSF line, and it has nearly a dozen Divvy bike-share stations. The Go Pilsen program debuted on June 4. Portland, Oregon-based Alta Planning + Design helped design the program, and the Active Transportation Alliance’s Maggie Melin is coordinating it on the local level. Read the rest of this entry »

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: Hauling Ashland

Back of the Yards, Checkerboard City, Green, Lakeview, Pilsen, Transit 1 Comment »
A southbound #9 Ashland bus / Photo: John Greenfield

A southbound #9 Ashland bus/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

“It doesn’t matter what you do to the bus! I will never take a bus! I will drive until the state won’t give me a license anymore.” So said an otherwise nice-seeming lady from the anti-bus rapid transit group the Ashland-Western Coalition at a community meeting this summer.

The CTA plans to build a BRT line on Ashland from 95th to Irving Park, providing an El-train-like experience on wheels instead of rails. Think of it as the Gray or Indigo Line. The buses will run in car-free lanes in the middle of the street, with stops located every half mile.

These traits, along with several other timesaving features, will bring speeds up to an estimated 15.9 mph, including stops, during rush hours. That’s almost twice as fast as the current #9 Ashland bus, which the CTA says averages only 8.7 mph, and it’s comparable to car speeds. That’s what’s needed if we want to make transit an attractive alternative to driving. Read the rest of this entry »

One Perfect Life: An Ode to the Real South Side

Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Chinatown, Englewood, Essays & Commentary, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Little Village, Pilsen, South Shore, Southeast Side No Comments »

By Scoop Jackson

“Pharaoh of the Sun/Lookin’ down the barrel of a gun/Y’all know where I’m from.”
—from the poem “Keep On” by famous South Sider Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. (aka Common)

We call them “pockets.” It’s the best way any of us who come from the South Side of Chicago can describe the drastic ebb and flow of the ‘hoods we live in.

“On the South Side,” real estate agent and South Side resident Chrystal Caruthers says, “you can grow up in a good neighborhood but go two blocks over and I’ll bet the people won’t feel the same.” The block-to-block change. The neighborhood-to-neighborhood shift in dynamics, living conditions and mentality. It exists in other neighborhoods in the country, but not like on the South Side in this city. The same way Chief Keef can weave tales about life on the South Side, Will Smith can come here and hang out on the lake on 31st Street and go write “Summertime.”

Growing up here gives one a perspective of range. Range in the sense of how far-reaching an area can be, how diverse and disconnected and devoted people raised on the same concrete can be. Where oftentimes the kids at Bogan were more dangerous to a young black kid than the GDs or El Rukns who went to Dunbar.

There is more beauty in the real South Side than anyone who doesn’t live here could understand. Through all of the bullshit, all of the incidents that happen on the side of Chicago that gives it the nicknames “Homicide Capital” and “Chiraq,” there exist pockets of life that bring an unmatched sense of pride and joy not found anywhere else in the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Like CLOCC Work

Brighton Park, Checkerboard City, Green, Humboldt Park, Pilsen No Comments »
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Grant Vitale leads a walkability assessment in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of CLOCC.

“The built environment plays a huge role when it comes to people being able to be physically active,” says Grant Vitale, community programs manager for the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC). The group, based out of the Lurie Children’s Hospital, is an association of many local, statewide and national organizations working to help kids maintain healthy weight levels by encouraging better nutrition, as well as walking, biking and active play.

The rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled over the last three decades, and in 2008 Chicago’s obesity rate for young kids entering school was 22 percent, more than twice the national average. In some neighborhoods, mostly low-income African-American and Latino communities, over half of all children are overweight or obese. These areas tend to have less green space and higher pedestrian crash rates than wealthier neighborhoods, which discourages active transportation and recreation.

Over the last two years, CLOCC has partnered with the Chicago Department of Public Health on a $5.8 million, federally funded anti-obesity campaign called Healthy Places. The program has focused on creating safe streets and parks, as well as creating healthier schools, eliminating food deserts and promoting breast feeding. Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: Carrera de los Muertos (November 3, 2012)

News etc., Pilsen, Running No Comments »

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown: Since 2007, the Carrera de los Muertos has been taking place in Pilsen, combining colorful Day of the Dead celebrations with a 5K supporting UNO (United Neighborhood Organization) Charter Schools. The result is a medium-large, well-organized neighborhood race that both honors the neighborhood’s heritage and draws others into the community. There were volunteers aplenty at the start and finish, as well as along the wide, closed course. Ethnic food and drinks were available at base camp (an UNO parking lot) with the purchase of Carrera Cash (food tickets). This is an outstanding local race that effectively mixes tradition, athleticism, community and plain-old fun. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Pilsen Pedaling

Checkerboard City, Pilsen No Comments »

Arturo Abel, Ricardo Ortiz, Veronica Ortiz and Angel Carabes/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

One thing I love about bicycle stores is they often double as community centers. Irv’s Bike Shop, a mom-and-pop store in Pilsen that marks its fortieth anniversary this month, is a great example. “We have a family vibe because it’s family and close friends that work here, and our customers see that,” says staffer Veronica Ortiz, whose brother-in-law Enrique “Henry” Ortiz owns the shop and husband Ricardo “Rick” Ortiz manages it. “And our shop is considered loyal to the neighborhood because we’ve been part of the community for so long.”

Original owner Irv Rout, eighty-three, grew up in Pilsen a few blocks from the store at 17th and Racine. After serving in two wars he opened a general merchandise shop with his wife Zora “Violet” Rout in the next storefront west of the present-day bike shop. In 1972 he opened the current location and began stocking bike parts. “A fellow said ‘Why don’t you sell tires and tubes,’” Irv tells me over the telephone from his home in suburban Hillside. “‘The kids will find you.’” Read the rest of this entry »

A River Runs Through It: With “Waterline,” McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum Contemplates the Future

Architecture, City Life, Loop, Pilsen No Comments »

Photo: Harrison Smith

By Harrison Smith

The new exhibit at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum occupies a similar place in the museum as the river does in the city: presented at various points scattered throughout the museum’s five tight floors, the exhibit—extensive as it is—is easy to overlook. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the museum itself, which fills the southwest tower of the DuSable Bridge on Michigan Avenue and opens onto the Chicago Riverwalk at water’s edge. There are few signs identifying the museum at street-level, and few people walking along the Riverwalk to notice its entrance, something the museum and its “Waterline” exhibition are looking to change. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Bike and Proud

Bronzeville, Checkerboard City, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Pilsen 1 Comment »

Eboni Senai Hawkins/Photo: Richard Pack

By John Greenfield

All Chicagoans should have a chance to reap the benefits of urban cycling: cheap, convenient transportation, improved physical and mental health and good times with friends and family. The proliferation of nonprofit bicycle shops and youth education programs, along with the rising popularity of fixies among inner-city teens, is starting to broaden the demographics of cycling here. But the local bike scene still doesn’t reflect our city’s ethnic and economic diversity. Eboni Senai Hawkins wants to change that. The thirty-four year old recently launched the Chicago chapter of Red Bike and Green, a nationwide group that promotes bicycling in the black community. Read the rest of this entry »