Monday, September 1, 2008

Biking the Bensenville Dead Zone

by John Greenfield

One of the more surreal bicycle rides you can take in Chicagoland is a late-night tour of the “Dead Zone,” a spooky swath of the northwest suburb of Bensenville. But you’d better move fast – all the buildings in the area are likely to be razed soon for the O’Hare airport expansion.

As detailed by Ben Joravsky in the July 3 Chicago Reader, the City of Chicago has already bought up most of houses and businesses in this section, about 15% of the area of the town, located just southwest of the airport. Mayor Daley wants to tear down the buildings to make room for more runways at America’s second-busiest airport.

But about 40 homeowners are refusing to sell and are fighting the land grab in the courts. Last year a DuPage County judge blocked Daley from demolishing any of the buildings until an environmental impact study could be completed.

Now the City of Chicago says it has jumped through this hoop and is asking the judge to lift the injunction, so the bulldozers may be fired up any day now. In the meantime hundreds of abandoned, boarded-up buildings are still standing, a modern-day ghost town.

Last Saturday night I recruited a bunch of guys from a barbecue at West Town Bikes community cycle center to ride out to this city of the damned. After briefly crashing a bachelorette party in Logan Square, the ten of us pedaled west on bike-friendly Addison St. to the city limits then took Irving Park Rd. out to O’Hare. Cycling on sections of this high-speed four-lane as a solo rider might be pretty harrowing but our numbers allowed us to take a lane when necessary.

One of the crew, wearing an ill-gotten City of Chicago safety vest, suggested we detour to Bensenville’s Saint Johannes Cemetery, just across a fence from the airport. Daley will be digging up skeletal remains dating back as far as the 1820s and relocating them elsewhere to make room for the runways.

Turning onto an access road for the offices of freight carriers like Luftansa and Korean Air, we found a rutted dirt road that took us to the boneyard. The old tombstones and obelisk monuments looked eerie in the moonlight, a strange contrast to the FedEx jumbo jets on the other side of the chain link.

photo by Kevin Monahan

Leaving the cemetery we took a wrong turn and wound up slogging through a construction zone that was carpeted with thick, sticky clay. I tried to bushwack my way back to the right road but was blocked by an impassable creek. We finally made it back to the highway with our fenders jammed with mud.

Half a mile later we came upon some of the vacant businesses: an auto repair shop, a dry cleaners and Tasty 2 Gyros, its windows boarded and half of its backlit, plastic sign torn down. As Ben Joravsky recommended, we then cruised around the loop formed north of Irving Park by Orchard, Hillside and Garden, just east of York Rd. The streets were completely silent as we passed house after house with empty driveways and windows covered with plywood. A smashed mailbox suggested that teens had driven by with a baseball bat.

As we stopped to snap a picture in front of one of the homes, security guard John Reeves drove up to give us a friendly warning. We were welcome to view the homes from the street, still owned by Bensenville, but needed to stay off the properties, owned by the City of Chicago.

Reeves reminisced about his youth when he used to commute on a Fuji road bike from 75th Street on Chicago’s South Side to Kedzie and Madison on the West Side. “Once I got that 10-speed I could keep up with the girls,” he said. “You know, fixing flat tires is a better way to meet women than walking around with a puppy.”

We went to explore the neighborhood on the south side of Irving Park and saw that a few of the houses were still occupied. It must be very strange to live on a block where all the other homes are empty.

Soon a couple of security guards began to follow us around in their Chevys and my companions didn’t like having headlights shined on them. They tried to ditch the cars by detouring across yards and through a townhouse development but one of the guards chased us back onto the highway, briefly driving into oncoming traffic before telling us he’d called the Bensenville cops.

We decided to return to the big city, taking Green St. and Franklin Ave. as recommended by the Chicagoland Bike Map. These potholed streets headed southeast for a few miles through silent industrial areas. Riding after 2 am we encountered zero cars until we reached downtown Franklin Park, its business district filled with taverns and taquerias.

At 2:30 am the boys and I stopped at the Paradise Club, 7068 W. Belmont in Chicago’s Schorsch Village neighborhood, for a nightcap. I’d read about the place in James Teitelbaum’s excellent guide Tiki Road Trip. The joint used to be purely a tiki bar but in recent years Eastern European immigrants took it over so now the vibe is a delightful mix of Polynesian and Polish.

There was a bit of confusion as our gang of sweaty cyclists entered the bar full of Slavic regulars. After some concerned discussion in Polish between the attractive young barmaids and the owner, a lady with a spiky, blond hairdo and a shiny, green jacket, they studied our IDs carefully and ushered us away from the bar to a table.

Deciding that we weren’t with the Liquor Control Board, they warmed up to us and brought rounds of Okocim beer and a couple of tasty tiki drinks: a Mai Tai and a Banana Spider made with fresh fruit. As Eurodisco played on the sound system I surveyed the décor: bamboo walls, tanks of tropical fish, Tahitian carvings, and a flamingo-filled fountain and a large Buddha sculpture behind the bar. This festive setting was a pleasing antidote to the desolation of the Dead Zone.


Anonymous said...

great post john.

as this is becoming a historical area that will be demolished, how about you take your Perimeter Ride out there this year instead of the boring north-west side of the city?

T.C. O'Rourke said...

And later your "companions" crashed the L.A.T.E. Ride and were turned away from three separate 4am taverns.

Oh, but you are far too classy for that.


P.S. My city vest was obtained legally which lends a lovely irony to my crimes.

bob jensen said...

anonymous mentions the perimeter ride - what day is it this year?

Annie said...

Ahha! So *that's* what you were up to!

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