Friday, November 27, 2009

A Most Fortunate Confluence of Time and Place

Now is the time of year to be thankful, and thankful I am. I struggle at times with envy, self-doubt and anger, but beneath it all is a baseline of gratitude that usually carries me through. I thank my slightly neurotic imagination for that.

You see, I have a very easy time imagining what my life would be like were it not for many lucky breaks--starting with the biggest break of all. The sperm that was to become me was the fastest, strongest one in the swarm (school?). Not the second fastest. Second place doesn't matter in conception. But it fought its way to the front, it did what it was made to do, and the greatest stroke of fortune in the universe befell me. I was to be born.

I do not take this for granted. In fact, I've spent many a sleepless night contemplating--I would call it worrying, because that's what it feels like, but you can't worry about a danger that's already been avoided, can you?--no, contemplating, with great dread, what would have happened if the me sperm had lost the race. Hence, I am grateful that, for once in my life, I was the speedy one.

So I was given life. But not just any life. I have a life that started in 1982 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. A liberal place, a progressive time, an affluent society. Everyone should be so lucky. What if I had been born a mere hundred years earlier? My life would be governed by the whims of the men who controlled me. I would not be free to exercise my creativity, except perhaps through needlepoint. Life would be a painful, messy prospect; I may very well die young of a now curable disease, or bury several children in my lifetime. I would be a slave to the home, with no opportunity to travel, to choose my own partner, to make my mark on the world. And when my stifled intellect bubbled over in fits of rage, bouts of depression, I would be hospitalized for "hysteria." No, give me the modern world, please, for even if women aren't treated equally always, at least we're considered people. In some countries.

And what if I had been born in another country? Well, when I'm in a foul mood I think, yes, what if I'd been born in Rome? The artistic mecca of the last 2,000-some years, that glorious, sun-speckled paradise where the beauty of the architecture is only rivaled by the impeccable good taste of its citizens, where life is an experience to be savored in all its myriad pleasures, where love is exalted and people are frank. Sigh.

When I'm being realistic, though, there are a great many worse places to be born than Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I could just as easily have been born in Darfur. Bosnia. Iraq. A slum in Rio. A slum anywhere. What if I were born in any number of countries controlled by despots, consigned to a life of hard labor, the fruits of which would not even allow me to feed my children? What would it be like to live in constant fear of my own government, never certain when a band of militias might pillage my home, slaughter my family? I might be raped and murdered myself, or just left to die a slow and degrading death from malnutrition and squalor.

Instead I was born in a stable democracy. One of the world's only stable democracies. Here we raise a fuss when the grocery store runs out of our favorite cereal brand. Our biggest concern is remembering to feed the parking meter. We can blog about our wretched leaders and still sleep soundly, without fear of retribution. I was blessed to be born here. I was blessed to be born into a family so solid and loving that I've never once had to question their support, no matter how badly I feel I've let them down.

I was blessed to be born into financial stability. I was blessed to be born to open-minded parents who trusted me to find my own path. And finally, I was blessed to be given an education that allowed me--encouraged me--to think about things like this.

So, from the bottom of my heart, I say thank you. Thank you, Mom and Dad, thank you Grandma Katie and Papa, Grandma Marnie and Grandpa Puss, Joe and Nina, all my cousins, aunts and uncles, all my friends, past and present, Atwater School, Shorewood High School, The University of Wisconsin, Magpie Media, Kartemquin, Daily Planet, Shorewood, Madison, Rome, Chicago, Doug, Doug's family, Taffy and Poppy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Twelve Reasons to Be Happy It's Getting Colder

12. That amazing smell in the air the heralds the fall. Also other good smells, like the aromas from restaurants, seem sharper, while gross ones, like body odor, are minimized.

11. It's easier to be productive when the weather's dismal. You might as well finish that work you've been putting off, it's not like you're gonna go to the beach or anything.

10. Hot chocolate, hot Toddies, hot apple cider, egg nog, soup, turkey with gravy, and all the other delightful foods that would make you gag on an 80 degree day.

9. Without the miseries of winter, we'd have none of the great German philosophers or Russian novelists.

8. It makes spring's arrival that much sweeter.

7. I've never seen any studies on this, but I have a theory that crime goes down when it's cold because everyone's at home.

6. Halloween. The world's greatest holiday just wouldn't be the same without the bare, skeletal tree branches and wailing winds.

5. New beginnings. One season ends, another begins, and it always feels like a fresh start. And nothing marks seasonal change like a shift in the weather.

4. Layering. Takes fashion to new heights.

3. Let's face it, most of us enjoy hibernating a couple months out of the year. It's restorative.

2. While millions are nestled in their homes watching football, the streets are quieter, the grocery stores emptier, and the lines for everything significantly shorter.

1. Coziness. One of the nicest feelings possible wouldn't exist if it weren't for the cold.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chicago, Post-Olympic Letdown

It's been quite some time since I wrote my last post. I'll call it a summer hiatus to make it sound like it was planned.

Anyway, as you've probably heard, an emotional bomb was dropped on the fair land of Chicago last week. Depending which side you're on, it was either a catastrophic failure or the best thing that's ever happened to us. We lost the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janiero.

It was an embarrassment, to be sure, compounded by the fact that we were eliminated first. My immediate reaction was, "eliminated first?" Who else was there to eliminate? According to all the press I'd been hearing--and I was paying moderately close attention--there were only two cities still in the running. Rio and us.

Madrid? Tokyo? I hadn't heard any word on either of them since derivatives were just a benign high school algebra concept. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that these cities were not only still in the running, they had in fact beat us out!

My second wave of emotions, after the shock and confusion wore off, was a mix of loss, anger and regret. A mourning of sorts. This reaction was baffling to me, since I've been campaigning against having the Olympics in Chicago since the bid was announced.

Think of the cost to the taxpayers! Think of the rampant destruction of the South Side as shoddy, temporary stadiums are thrown up on beautiful parkland, only to decay, unused, like the famous "White City" of the 1893 Columbian Exposition! Think of the deceitfulness of Daley, and the fast one he will be fully permitted to play on us Chicagoans yet again (Yes, part of the reason I didn't want the Olympics was that Daley really, really did, and I just hate to see Daley get what he wants. I recognize that this is not unlike what some Republicans feel towards Obama, but I have good reason.). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, think of what our commutes will be like! [Pause to shudder]

Yes, I had plenty of reasons not to want the Olympics here, and only one reason to want them--vanity. The pride of being an Olympic city, the apple of the world's eye for two whirlwind weeks. And though vanity is one vice I've never been short on, it didn't seem a compelling enough reason to root for "Chicago 2016."

But it wasn't my vanity alone that was hurt when we lost the Olympic bid last week. Having been spared the daily burdens of the games on city infrastructure and funds, I was left to ponder the grass-is-greener long-term significance of playing host city to the world's oldest and most venerated sporting event.

As a colleague pointed out, the Olympics would have been the fifth star on Chicago's flag--one of which is the famed Columbian Exposition, another the Great Chicago Fire. To live through something as monumental to the city as those events, now that would have been an experience. And yes, it was preposterous of Daley to commit money we don't have to an event that most of us didn't want.

But whenever a show of this scale is staged, it always seems a little preposterous. Certainly the idea of creating an entirely new city-within-a-city in two years for the 1893 Exposition--let alone in a city drowning in crime and soot--seemed foolhardy at the time. Without ample quantities of hubris, daring and insanity, the famed "White City" would never have come to be. But few people today would argue that it was a mistake for the city.

Money can always be better spent than on pomp and spectacle. Busby Berkley, a name synonymous with spectacle, made a lot of his films during the Depression. Maybe people needed some glitz in their lives. Fantasy is, by nature, over the top. And for the chance to live through history, maybe it would have been worth it to suffer two weeks of horrendous commutes.

Still, Chicago didn't need the Olympics. And after having gotten over the momentary disappointment, I'm overwhelmingly glad we've been spared. Life will continue as before for us, South America will celebrate its first Olympic games, and in about a week no one in Chicago will even be talking about this anymore.

The money that would have been spent on the Olympics won't be spent on schools or crime prevention, as detractors like myself suggested it should--because those expenditures won't get us any solos on the world stage. Obama probably shouldn't have wasted his time flying to Europe to make the sales pitch in person, but what's done is done. And for now, at least, our parks and pocketbooks are safe.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Thoughts on Gentrification

A few years ago, I wrote a short piece about gentrification, which I then cast into the No Man's Land of MySpace blogdom. In it I identified a few early signs of neighborhood change:

Stage number one: Starbucks infiltration. Starbucks might be called the great urban pioneer, since it bravely spreads its tentacles into even the most economically shaky territories of the city, with nothing to bank on but the hope of yuppies to come. Somehow, its other-worldy ability to sniff out upscalification is almost always dead on.

Stage number two: Joggers. Nothing spells gentrification like young, fit white people running around in tight pants with the purpose of becoming "fit." Once these types of runners replace the types who run around in street clothes with the purpose of evading cops, your neighborhood's authentic culture has sounded its death rattle.

The final insult: Restaurants with vague, one-word names. Read: Think, Toast, Piece, Smoque...the list goes on. If you spot one of these near your house, it's all over.

Yes, much has certainly changed since I wrote that, giving some of my words a sour tinge of irony. Who would have guessed that a mere three years later, the once great "urban pioneer" Starbucks, their sales plummeting, would be reduced to hawking instant coffee?

So I've decided to revisit the topic of gentrification. What does that word mean now, when whole condo buildings stand vacant in what were once deemed "up and coming neighborhoods?"

Essentially, my views on the topic haven't changed. I poked fun at it in 2006 because I saw it as absurd but not wholly malignant. I am not and never have been opposed to economic growth. It's hard to argue for the presence of large swaths of city land that are economically depressed and crime ridden. And yet, I see a danger in the unchecked onslaught of development, which I'll get to in a moment. But first, I'd like to talk about the often under-emphasized positive side of gentrification.

Something that blew my mind as a new Chicago resident coming from Milwaukee was the break-neck pace of change here. As with much of big city life, urban development--at least during boom times--waits for no one.

There are streets in the city that resemble fairground midways--businesses set up shop seemingly overnight, and perhaps stay in business or are perhaps replaced by more upscale businesses several months down the road. Or they expand with rapidity into neighboring lots, if those aren't already taken by condo-in-a-box developments.

The result of such rapid transformation is that you find luxury condos across the street from housing projects--which can be seen as integration, albeit a very odd-looking form of it (but in my opinion, any form of integration is a step forward).

In Milwaukee, by contrast, change is slow. Neighborhoods do shift, but they stay "in transition" much longer--sometimes decades. There are clear boundaries between "good" and "bad" areas of the city, and these boundaries are more or less fixed. Of course there are always a few brave developers building in impoverished areas, but even years after such gentrification projects begin, the neighborhoods sometimes remain rife with muggings and gun violence.

The ultimate results of this are a depressed downtown and white flight. To which I say, "Rubbish!" Call me a Socialist, but I am a city bird to my core, and I dream of the day when every American city will enjoy the safe, vibrant, metro-centric atmospheres so common in Europe, where city centers are the safest places you can be.

It isn't that Milwaukee, or any other mid-sized American city, couldn't make it happen, it's simply harder without extreme population density. A lot of what works in Europe works because the countries are so much smaller, and people have no choice but to compete for space, or find solutions to the lack of it. Chicago, ever-growing major urban center that it is, shares many of the challenges and advantages of European metropoli.

In short, the city's been growing for awhile, and there's only so much space in the city proper. As more people move in, they have no choice but to live further and further from downtown, and even outlying neighborhoods start to look trendy. It's the reverse of white flight. And more people living in the city means more money coming in, more jobs, safer streets, etc.

Still, there is a sizable downside to gentrification that's turned it into a curse word among the liberal-minded. Namely, that it often displaces the original residents of a neighborhood when they are priced out of their homes and converts human-faced commercial districts to elitist strip malls.

Since I live in a "neighborhood in transition," I've had the chance to witness this transformation first-hand. There was already a Starbucks near my house when I moved in--that was how one former neighbor knew it was a "safe" neighborhood.

Then a few hipster bars cropped up. The next year the first gym opened in the vicinity (or rather the first corporate gym, we've always had those storefront, dudes-only muscle factories). In the same year the Cub Foods was replaced by an expensive specialty grocery store. And finally, in the midst of the financial meltdown, my favorite corner bar closed its doors.

We're still not over the gentrification hump, thank goodness, and now that times are tough we may all be able to hold out from becoming the next Wicker Park for a few more years. But one day I will very likely be priced out of my neighborhood, and that makes me sad.

I like my neighborhood the way it is. I like that there aren't that many bars to choose from because it means the streets are quieter. I like that artists can afford to live here not only because I am one but also because it means I get to meet a lot of interesting people. I like that there's still a grocery store that doesn't give me a thousand choices when all I'm looking for is tortilla chips. I like that not all my neighbors are white. And I like that elderly people on fixed incomes can still afford their homes, because I believe in age diversity as well as racial diversity.

But I also like having a gym near my house, and I like the fact that it was built in an abandoned factory building that once stood as an eyesore, collecting garbage in its doorway.

Is it possible to have it both ways? Is it possible to retain the character of a neighborhood and respect its current residents without standing in the way of that shining American ideal, the all-powerful "progress"? These are hard questions. And I think the answers depend largely on the motivations, ethics and strategies of developers.

Development done well adds to, rather than tramples on, its local community. Smart developers realize that the character of a community is what draws people there so they strive to maintain that character.

The problem is that the gentrification process has a tendency to snowball into something uncontrollable when trendiness reaches the high water mark and the scent of money grows too strong to keep the pirhanas at bay.

That's when you get a Bank of America replacing a beloved independent coffee shop on a pedestrian-heavy corner in the heart of Wicker Park. Or something really special created by and for middle- and lower-income people, like Maxwell Street, is destroyed and then co-opted as a brand name for the city. And depending on your perspective, the neighborhood, at this point, is either highly desirable or a hollow shell of its former self. (I think my perspective is pretty clear, but I'm striving to be balanced.)

The thing about the city is, though, it belongs to all of us. To the artists and the old ladies and the developers and the people buying Starbucks lattes. It's not a static thing, but something we create together, that changes as we do. So if there are more artists in the city, you're gonna have more Pilsens, and if there's an influx of young professionals, your Pilsens are gonna become Lincoln Parks.

I don't believe any of us own any part of the city. Even if you live in a neighborhood for thirty years and it doesn't change, that's no guarantee it never will. And that's a good thing, because stagnation means death for a city.

And look on the bright side, if we stay in this recession long enough, the gentrification might start to reverse itself! Just a joke. But I do believe we can gain some perspective from this economic slump if we realize that the aspects of our neighborhoods that we value should not be taken for granted. If you're worried about losing your neighborhoods to the yuppies, support independent business. Every dollar we spend is a political act, especially when the dollars are scarce.

We can't stand in the way of change, and as much as we might want to, we can't stand in the way of people with bad taste. But we can lend our collective buying muscle to the independent, the authentic, the human. Let's support the hardworking people who give our city its wonderful character and maybe our neighborhoods won't turn into something we dread.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Emerald of the Loop

As the weather warms, it's a lot easier to love Chicago. So I thought I'd devote this entry to something in the city that is, to me, absolutely perfect: an art deco masterpiece known as the Carbon and Carbide Building.

You might know it as the home of the Hard Rock Hotel, or the green building (as in the color, not the building technique) but if you've walked the stretch of Michigan Avenue just south of the river you've probably noticed it.

A bold, streamlined emerald of art deco excellence, it's smaller than many of the boxy glass behemoths that surround it, but it's far from diminutive. Its neighbors up the road include some of the most beautiful buildings in the city--the Wrigley building, the Tribune Tower, the Crain Communications building--but its striking green and gold exterior never fails to draw the eye.

Built in 1929, it's a perfect example of what deco does best--transmits beauty in an efficient, understated way. Somehow both lavish and restrained, its imposing form was rendered in forest green terra cotta and polished black granite, while its abundant details were painstakingly coated with 24 karat gold. The building reaches the pinnacle of its height and its beauty in an elaborate, gilded tower.

As the story goes, the Carbon and Carbide was made to resemble a champagne bottle, with the tower representing the gold foil over the cork. I usually don't put much stock in these types of stories, since buildings never look anything like the objects they're supposed to represent (really, it's modeled after a Peruvian hairless dog riding in an over-sized purse?) but in this case, the resemblance is fairly obvious. And how fitting that this audacious creation of the Roaring Twenties should call to mind the ultimate symbol of decadence.

No less fitting to the spirit of the building is the Hard Rock Hotel, which fills the space with that perfect mix of self-destruction and playboy swagger that only rock and roll can these days. Though the Hard Rock enterprise did not exist when Hubert and Daniel Burnham, Jr., sons of legendary Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, designed the building, they must have had some sense of prescience regarding its future inhabitants, because the design they drew up was far too sexy for a chemical company.

Yet it's the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation (UCC) whose name is carved above the bronze grillwork over the entrances on both Michigan and South Water streets, and it's the UCC who commissioned the building and set up shop there initially. And even though the company no longer exists as such, the name "Carbon and Carbide" is intrinsically linked to the building in the same way a song title which has nothing to do with the lyrics still forms the mental shell of that song as no other words could.

Maybe it's because I'm a language lover, but that name, for me, has a poetry deserving of the building's beauty--the way the syllables feel in the mouth, the rolling alliteration and toothy, Germanic consonants--it doesn't even matter to me that, for awhile, I had no idea what carbide was, or that when I finally looked it up, the answer was pretty boring ("a binary compound of carbon with a more electropositive element" according to Webster). In fact, I think the mystery was part of the charm; it made the building seem more old-fashioned since no one I know ever talks about carbide.

But the company behind the name had a dark history. As you might have guessed, they dealt in carbon, and carbide, both used for making various old-fashioned lamps and furnaces, and later made certain gases and metal alloys. They had some notable successes, including inventing the dry-cell battery and originating the Eveready brand name, but they also played a big roll in developing the atomic bomb.

Decades later, in 1984, a poisonous gas leak at a site co-owned by the UCC and the Indian government killed 2,800 people in the Indian city of Bhopal, seriously harming thousands more. The famous tragedy has been called the worst industrial accident in history, and the company never rebounded from it, eventually being bought out by Dow Chemical.

It's unfortunate that such a dark shadow now stands over the building and its former inhabitants, especially since those who envisioned it seemed to do so with the brightest of hopes. In a lovely example of the power great architecture once held for people, a UCC promotional pamphlet describing the building noted that "the effect of such beauty in a building upon the morale of the people employed in it is unquestionably beneficial and inspiring; and to clients, business associates, and visitors, it is a constant assurance that the organization they are dealing with are [sic] of the highest calibre."

Certainly this sentiment is still felt by some today, but one would be hard-pressed to find such an eloquent testament to beauty in most media, let alone a chemical company brochure. Such writing rustles my nostalgia for an era when buildings were art pieces, the aesthetics of a workplace were seen as vital to employee output, and even chemical companies held beauty in high esteem.

Some helpful resources:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Chicago's Love-Hate Relationship with the Bicyclist

This is the first in the two-part "Is Chicago Really What Mayor Daley Says It Is?" series. The second part will deal with recycling.

One lovely summer day, I was biking up Milwaukee Avenue towards the busy "Six Corners" intersection, where Milwaukee, Damen, North and Ironic Mustache Avenues meet. I was doing my best to enjoy the sun on my back while furtively navigating the treacherous alley ‘twixt parked and moving vehicles--the modern city dweller's Scylla and Charybdis.

My technique was to drive as far as possible from the parked cars while glancing over my shoulder every 30 seconds to make sure there were no crazy drivers coming from the rear.

Just ahead of me was another biker who didn't seem quite as concerned. A middle-aged man with a long ponytail, he rode an old junker with no helmet and a relaxed, upright posture, flanked by three full-sized Collies. Two on his right and one on his left, all trotting in perfect step with the rolling bike tires. I almost forgot my safety precautions as I gaped in disbelief.

Man and dog team together occupied about 5 feet of road space in width, the outermost dog grazing the traffic lane. They seemed oblivious to the taxis that whizzed by them with mere inches to spare. To the buses that plowed through the intersection, taking red lights as suggestions. To the hordes of distracted pedestrians dumping into the street every time the light changed. How could this biker possibly think that what he was doing was a good idea?

I open with this story partially to acknowledge that there are some silly bicyclists out there. Not foolish, foolish is giving them too much credit. Just silly. It's silly to ride your bike through one of the busiest intersections on the north side flanked by three dogs. Just like it's silly to ride a bike that's got another bike frame welded on top of it so you're cruising double-decker with no way of getting off but to fall or jump. It's silly to ride a fixed gear bike that has no brakes. And it's foolish to ride any kind of bike while drunk or helmet-less.

I won’t defend the actions of bicyclists who needlessly put themselves or others in danger by practicing various forms of “extreme biking” that should really be relegated to the skate park. But it’s important to note that these fearless few are not the majority of the bikers in the city. Most of the bikers you see around town are responsible, law-abiding people who aren’t out to beat a world record or prove their masculinity but to get some exercise or get somewhere quickly. It's these bikers I'm concerned with when I ask the question, are Chicago's streets safe for biking?

As Mayor Daley puts it, we live in a "bike-friendly" city, but what does that mean exactly? As far as I can tell, it means white parallel lines next to the parking lanes on some roads and a (sort of) bikes-only path along the lakefront. Then there are all the extras that don't make biking any safer but certainly make it more pleasant--abundant bike racks in some areas, a bike center in Millenium Park that offers lockers and showers for a fee, and numerous biking organizations. Not all cities have these amenities, it’s true. And Daley isn't the only one impressed by Chicago's biking potential. "Forbes Traveler" named Chicago one of the top ten most bike-friendly cities in North America last June. Everywhere you look in the city, you see bikers, and it seems their numbers grow by the month.

And yet, something seems amiss. I live in Logan Square, where, last spring, cars killed two bicyclists in the same week (and a third was killed earlier in the year). I personally know two people who've been "doored," or struck by the doors of parked cars when people getting out didn't look to see who was coming. One of these young women was thrown into a bus, the other flipped over her handlebars. Last year, in a bitterly ironic twist, the city's effort to promote more and safer biking, "Bike to Work Week," resulted in the death of one person from dooring and the injury of another. A quick Google search will turn up scores of similar incidents.*

Bike injuries and fatalities in Chicago occur all over town and span the demographics, from older professionals who ride their bikes to work or for leisure to the most experienced of city cyclists, bike messengers. Any big city poses certain unavoidable risks to bikers. But every few months, I hear about another biker killed or seriously injured here. It was incredibly hard finding official statistics on this, but an article on the "Commute by Bike" blog ( claimed that there were 6,000 bike/motor vehicle crashes between 2001 and 2005, with 30 of those killing the bicyclist.

It's important to note that biking in the city has increased dramatically since 2005, meaning deaths and injuries are now even more prevalent--such as the three bike fatalities in my neighborhood alone last year. I don't care how safe biking is here relative to other big cities, if bicycle deaths are a common occurrence then it’s not safe enough. Surely there's more that all of us--bikers, drivers, pedestrians, and city officials--could be doing to keep biking accidents from happening and ensure that even casual bikers feel safe riding in the city.

So, going back to Daley's common bike-related bragging points, how effective are the bike lanes, truly? Well, if you're lucky enough to be using a road that has one, you may feel an illusory sense of safety, as long as drivers are respecting the white lines. But the real danger is not usually drivers, it's people getting into and out of parked cars.

Because bike lanes are drawn right up to the edge of the parking lane, bikers are at the mercy of people in parked cars, and lots of people, when they're exiting cars, seem to have their heads buried in a warm safe cavern south of the Equator. I couldn’t find any statistics on the percentage of bicycle deaths related to dooring, but in all of the articles I read that described the cause of a biker’s death in Chicago, there was only one that did not mention it.

Furthermore, let's be realistic. Many drivers in the city don't respect bicyclists or bike lanes. I can't count the number of times I've felt the wind of a speeding car brush past me so closely I could touch it if I leaned a little to the side. I was blatantly cut off by a pick-up truck blasting into a gas station who must have heard the brakes screeching on my weathered bike but didn't have the courtesy to even turn around. I nearly avoided being doored once by swerving into the driving lane--good thing there was no car next to me at the time. And I was once terrified into swerving when an SUV blared its horn two feet behind me so the girls in the front seat could mockingly inform me that my underwear was showing. And I'm someone who rides infrequently, and cautiously.

Then there are the pedestrians who dart out from between parked cars, or stand indignantly in the bike lane, refusing to move for an oncoming biker, and are thus just as guilty of making the roads unsafe as poor drivers. So bike lanes are nice, but without cooperation from drivers and pedestrians, they're not enough.

Another thing that's supposed to make the city "bike-friendly" is the Lakeshore Path. The Lakeshore Path can be great, if you live near it—and if you avoid it during all rush periods, weekend days and temperate seasons. If not, you'll find yourself dodging speeding bike racers at one extreme and wobbly training-wheeled toddlers at the other. And just as varied are the approaches to sharing the path. Some bikers are experienced and polite, signaling with the proper "on your left!" before they pass you, while others weave dangerously in and out of the crowds.

Even if everyone followed the same rules, though, the sheer volume of bikers, roller bladers and walkers (yes, some people use the bike path for meandering strolls, despite the presence of a walking path right next to it) is often too much for the path to accommodate. I'm not sure if what we need is a four-lane freeway of a bike path, clearer rules or more such paths throughout the city, but the current arrangement is frustrating and dangerous. And yet it's your best option if you don't want to get hit by a car.

So, if Chicago is such an imperfect city for biking, why do you still see so many bikes on the street, even in the dead of winter? The only explanation I can come up with is the sheer tenacity of Chicago's biking population. A lesser group would surely give up as temperatures plummeted below zero, but Chicago bikers just put on their ski masks and hit the road. Though I don't know much about organizations like the Active Transportation Alliance (, I know that they're there to help bicyclists and from what I hear, the biking community here is tightly-knit and supportive one.

It seems like, even though biking is a dangerous, often difficult task in the city, people love it enough that they're willing to take on the hardships and risks to do it. And, with a little effort, these determined riders could have a city that's truly friendly to them.

Chicago has great potential for bicycling--many of the roads are wide and traffic isn't yet as horrendous as in some of the coastal cities. And the city has obviously made efforts. What we could use from them now is more bikes-only paths throughout the city. The main barrier to this could be finding the space, but how about next to train lines, old or existing?

Another thing the city could do, and should be doing already, is to impose harsher penalties on drivers who hit bicyclists. Daley deserves credit for pushing through a fine penalty to punish drivers who endanger bicyclist's safety. And I will be the first to admit that accidents are not always the drivers' fault. But if aggressive or negligent driving is at fault in an accident that kills someone, a fine of $500--also Daley's idea, and one he was lauded for--is not enough. In my opinion this is manslaughter, or at the very least reckless endangerment, and should be charged as such. Being lenient on drivers who cause fatal accidents is not only unfair to the victims’ families. It also sends the message that the road belongs to cars, not bikes, and if a bike gets in the way of a car it's probably the biker’s fault--an opinion that was shockingly widespread in a Chicago Tribune forum on the topic.

Drivers and pedestrians need to realize that bikers have just as much claim to the roads as they do. Just acting on this assumption would greatly increase the safety of all involved. And it goes without saying that bikers should reciprocate by treating pedestrians and drivers with respect.

Until things change, I may take my bike out every now and then, but if there is room on the sidewalk I plan to share it with the walkers. I realize this may anger a lot of people, and I know it's against the law here. But in a lesser of two evils scenario, a pedestrian who’s hit by a bicycle has a much better chance of surviving the accident than a biker who’s hit by a car. And there are plenty of sidewalks that are wide enough for both pedestrians and bicyclists.

Maybe if all bikers started riding on the sidewalk, the city would finally get the message that, despite all its pretty-looking amenities, bicyclists in Chicago take their lives in their hands every time they go for a ride. And despite the size and traffic volume of the city, it doesn’t have to be that way.

If biking here were truly encouraged, were truly easy and just a little less stressful, more people might try it, and traffic volume would go down a bit, making it even safer for bikers. Nothing would make me happier than to see every able-bodied person use their bikes for transportation even 10 percent of the time. Until my hippie pipe dream is realized, however, I just hope drivers, bikers and pedestrians can learn to share the roads with one another. Because, ultimately, the city can only do so much towards making our roads safer. Then it's up to us.


Friday, March 13, 2009

City of Neighborhoods

I don't think I'm gonna move for awhile--move cities, that is. Why go to the trouble of relocating to a new city when a move across town could accomplish much the same thing?

I'm not just talking about the obvious cultural, racial, and sociopolitical differences between wards. I'm talking about the way, if you ask any Chicagoan where in the city they live, they'll name a certain neighborhood--not side of town, not an intersection. Chicago is a city of many tiny cities. And because winters are cold and long, commutes seemingly endless, and because each neighborhood is fully capable of self-sufficiency, it's very tempting to stake out a corner in one of these tiny cities and never leave, except if you're unlucky enough to work elsewhere.

Perhaps, if your friends live in the next neighborhood over, you might pay them a visit one weekend a month. But more likely, you'll move to the neighborhood where your friends already live, or make new friends in your chosen 'hood, because, like it or not, geographic distance is the largest determining factor in who you see most often, especially if you don't own a car.

Think about it. Whether or not you're friends with he or she, your roommate is probably the person you see most. Followed by the clerk at your nearest corner store. Followed by the bar tenders at your corner bar. Followed by your neighbor friends. Followed by everyone else.

There are pros and cons to this kind of lifestyle. On one hand, every neighborhood in Chicago offers something unique and attractive, and it often takes getting to know your area pretty well before its best features are revealed. And hanging around your own 'hood makes you feel like part of a community, a precious feeling in a giant, sometimes impersonal city.

It's one of the reasons Chicago is considered so "liveable" compared to some major cities (soulless L.A., cutthroat New York), and also why nobody but Oprah Winfrey lives in the Loop. A friend of mine used to live in a beautiful condo near Millenium Park--a location some might consider ideal--but hated it. Almost nobody chooses to live downtown.

Yes, it's pricey, but a bigger reason the streets within the Loop empty after 7 pm is that it's not a neighborhood in the same way that Logan Square, or Lincoln Square, or Pilsen are neighborhoods. It's more a destination than a home base. And everybody needs a home base. So being a neighborhoodie is easy, and it's nice. Most of the time.

The major downside to getting too comfortable in your area at the expense of seeing what the rest of the city has to offer? The answer is in the question. If what you want is comfort, familiarity, and a small scope, there are plenty of mid-sized cities that can offer that, minus the crime, grime and exorbitant sales tax.

A city, at its best, is endless opportunity. The price we pay for these multitude opportunities to see, taste and experience is inconvenience. For that quirky slice of life you can't find anywhere but fill-in-the-blank, you have to be willing to wait for the bus for 15 minutes, ride it for 20, transfer to a train and then wait half an hour outside once you get to your destination. Some people would consider all that a waste of time. City life probably isn't for them.

We could all stand to travel a little farther, explore a new part of town every now and then. Winter makes most of us want to hibernate, at least if our survival instincts are still in tact, but now that warm weather is coyly toying with a reappearance, it seems the right time for me to make my yearly pledge. This summer, I pledge to see more of the city than I did last summer, to milk every penny from my monthly CTA pass, to dust off my "Not for Tourists" guide once again and to learn the city so well that I will finally be able to tell you where Back of the Yards is.