By John Greenfield
I must be a glutton for punishment. That’s the only way to explain my decision to scout out a new “stealth route” bicycle itinerary from Bridgeport to the ‘burbs along the Sanitary and Ship Canal last week, in ninety-five-degree heat. This was to be the continuation of a route I reconnoitered last year from the Loop to the Daleys’ ancestral home, hugging the South Branch of the Chicago River—you can read that writeup at tinyurl.com/SouthBranchRoute.
Completed in 1900, the canal was dug in order to reverse the flow of the river, to keep sewage from entering Chicago’s water supply. It still carries our treated wastewater to the Des Plaines River, and it serves as the only shipping link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.
Since industry occupies both sides of the canal, and the Stevenson Expressway runs parallel to the south bank, about a block away, it was clear that if I wanted to closely follow the waterway, I’d have to do a ridiculous amount of trespassing. Instead, I punted, using Google Maps to pick out a zigzagging itinerary of neighborhood back streets, following the canal as closely as possible, but I still got an interesting ride out of it. Check out the route at tinyurl.com/SouthwestRide.
Dripping with sweat after cruising south in the blast-furnace heat from Logan Square, I officially start my trip at 5:40pm near Throop and 34th. Just west is the South Fork of the South Branch, better known as Bubbly Creek, because stockyard workers used to dump blood and guts into the water, which decomposed and caused gas to bubble to the surface. Upton Sinclair noted this phenomenon in his stomach-turning exposé of the meatpacking industry, “The Jungle.”
Nowadays there’s a quaint, wavy little redbrick path here, lined with evergreens, prairie grass and flowers, which parallels the creek for a few blocks. I roll north on the trail, cross the creek on Archer, then head south along the west bank on a road behind the Riverside Park Mall shopping center. A shirtless homeless guy suns himself on a grassy spot near the water.
Continuing west, I’m at 32nd and Ashland, where Google Maps says there’s an establishment called The Erotic Bakery, but all I see is the empty storefront that formerly housed Mama B’s Pizzeria and Baked Goods. When I call the toll-free number on the Erotic Bakery’s website, which features cakes with whimsical images of private parts sculpted in marzipan, I reach a salesman with a thick New York accent. He explains that Mama B’s was a contractor with the company, which sells its naughty pastries by special order only. “It’s not like you can just walk in and pick up a dick cake.”
Continuing into the blue-collar McKinley Park neighborhood, I come upon La Verdad Que Liberta (“The Truth That Sets You Free”) Pentecostal church at Paulina and 33rd Place. “If you are not as close to God as you used to be, who moved?” asks its sign. Crossing Western, I’m in the Brighton Park neighborhood, the fiefdom of powerful 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke, who’s held office since 1969 and was one of the leaders of the white opposition to Mayor Harold Washington. The sun is dropping fast and it’s cooling to a pleasant temperature as I wind through the leafy side streets, perfumed by a nearby baked goods factory. A group of boys are playing a leisurely game of basketball in the neighborhood’s eponymous park. Heading south on Kedzie for a mile, I pass a number of Mexican businesses, like La Iguanita taqueria and Supermercado Gloria.
Returning to residential streets, I see several men fixing cars on the street, and plenty of cute kids. Now that the red ball of the sun is almost below the horizon, people have their sprinklers on and I’m tempted to pedal through one to cool off, but don’t want to get my notepad wet.
When I turn onto Archer for a few blocks, I pass a few Polish establishments. The Polish Highlanders of America center, 4808 South Archer, has a beautiful bar lined with blond woodwork and old-world knickknacks, a great place to sip a mug of Okocim beer.
I’m in the middle-class Archer Heights neighborhood now, and as I cruise down 48th, the houses are a little larger and the lawns more manicured. Outside St. Bruno’s Catholic Church, 4751 South Harding, I stop and gaze at a shrine with a golden mosaic of the Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I feel myself being hypnotized by the image, as when Ferris Bueller’s friend Cameron got sucked into the famous Seurat painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” when they played hooky at the Art Institute.
It’s the violet hour now, and the punishing heat has been replaced with a wonderfully languid atmosphere. At Archer Park, two dads kick soccer balls with their little boys under the light of the crescent moon.
I detour north on Knox to check out the Sleepy Hollow subdivision, and then my feeling of relaxation disappears once I roll west on 44th past Cicero into an eerie zone of vacant lots with tall trees, cordoned off by chain-link fences. This dark, abandoned area is the former site of the LeClaire Courts housing project, which was shut down as part of the CHA’s euphemistically named Plan for Transformation, which displaced tens of thousands of Chicagoans during the last decade. When I notice a Jeep parked in the middle of nowhere with its lights on, I decide it’s time to get out of this no man’s land ASAP.
The chill subsides when I reach nearby LeClaire-Hearst Park, where families and teenage girls are walking laps around the track. I continue stair-stepping southwest through the quiet residential streets in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood, plus a small patch of the suburban village of Stickney. In numerous open garages that double as man caves, I see guys tinkering with machinery or watching sports on TV. My journey ends at Stars and Stripes Park, a forlorn green space located just east of the city limits, in the armpit of the Stevenson.
I head back east on 55th, stopping at the Korner Shrimp House, 6530 West Archer, to refuel with some textbook Chicago-style fried prawns before pedaling fourteen miles home up Archer and Kedzie with a sweet, sultry tailwind. As I sit at a picnic table outside munching a box of the delectable crustaceans, the discomforts of the day are forgotten. I think to myself, I really need to visit the South Side more often.