Wednesday, February 2, 2011
WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer on “Biking the Boulevards”
by John Greenfield
[This interview also appears in Gapers Block, www.gapersblock.com.]
“Biking the Boulevards,” premiering on WTTW on Monday, November 29, at 7:30 pm, focuses on three topics: Chicago’s 28-mile boulevard system, the often-overlooked neighborhoods and parks connected by the boulevards, and the history of cycling in Chicago.
In the show, host Geoffrey Baer, a veteran of many local travel and architecture documentaries, leads a tour of this network of tree-lined streets, first developed in the 1860s. From the seat of a Pashley Roadster Sovereign bicycle [donated by Boulevard Bikes, where I work] he showcases features you might not notice while speeding by in a car. He pedals by landmarks like Bronzeville’s Walk of Fame, Laredo Taft’s Fountain of Time sculpture on the Midway Plaissance, the golden dome of the Garfield Park field house, and Logan Square’s eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument.
"Black Doughboy Monument" on King Boulevard in Bronzeville
I recently talked to Baer about the making of the program, aspects of the boulevards and local bike history that may come as a surprise to Chicagoans, and his own ideas about how to improve cycling here.
How did you decide on the topic of the history of the Boulevard system and the history of bicycling in Chicago?
This is now the 17th show I’ve done about Chicago architecture and history. We’ve covered the city’s neighborhoods via the El and we’ve done the lakefront and the Loop and the river and basically all of the suburban regions of Chicago. This was a part of the city we had never featured before. It’s been on my radar for a long time but it didn’t get to the front burner until this past year.
In all these shows I’m always in some form of transportation, seeing neighborhoods via the El, or in the south suburbs I was in a tugboat on the Calumet River, and then I was in a 1929 Model A Ford “Woody” going down the Dixie Highway. They’re tours, so I’m always looking for a fun mode of transportation to make the show more entertaining.
The bicycle seemed like a totally logical mode of transportation for the boulevards because the boulevard system was founded in party because of lobbying from bicyclists because they needed paved surfaces for riding. Plus biking is a great way to explore the boulevards, and biking is very hot right now. And, of course, bicycling is something that we want to encourage.
What were some of the surprising things you saw while you were traveling the Boulevard system?
By in large, the boulevards are in great shape and are absolutely beautiful. A lot people would probably be surprised to find out that the west side parks – Humboldt Park, Douglas Park, Garfield Park – are absolutely magnificent. They definitely rival the lakefront parks in beauty and there is some really significant Prairie School architecture in those parks and architecture by some of the city’s greatest architects like Daniel Burnham.
Garfield Park Fieldhouse
Some of the neighborhoods on this tour are very much struggling communities. You never see them on T.V. unless there’s a crime and it’s on the news. You don’t see what else there is in these neighborhoods and you certainly don’t learn their histories. There’s a big Scandinavian history on the west side – that was definitely surprising to me.
Did you have any interesting encounters with locals or other cyclists while you were filming the show?
We had this big movie truck that we used for a lot of the show. I was riding my bike behind the movie truck with a cop behind me so traffic didn’t run me over, so we were quite a spectacle. Lots of people saw us with the movie truck and asked us if we were filming “Transformers 3.” It was the most common question from people. And we’d say, no we’re filming a documentary, and they were really interested in that. I think a lot of documentaries have been filmed in these neighborhoods but they tend to be about hardcore urban problems.
Did you do much reconnaissance before the show was filmed – were you taking excursions to the Boulevard system?
Definitely. I produce some of these shows and write most of them, but in this case the show was written and produced by an extremely talented colleague of mine named Dan Protess. He spent the better part of a year on this project. I was involved in it at every step because he would get a lot of research together and then we’d talk about the proposed route for the show. I would read drafts of the script and give notes, but he was far more the person making the show than I was. He went and surveyed every inch of the Boulevard system in advance of writing and shooting. So we were really out there in advance looking at the whole system.
You were basically reciting a script while you were riding the bike, so you had to memorize lines?
Oh yeah – I do that for all my shows. They’re really not documentaries in the classic sense because there are no interviews. They’re really tours on T.V. They’re shot much more like a feature film than a documentary. It was all written ahead of time and broken down into shots and scenes and then we go out and shoot those. The only stuff I’m saying out in the field is when you see me on camera, so probably 80, 85 percent of the show I’m reading a script in an announce booth but you don’t see me on camera. But I was out with the crew for eight days shooting riding shots on bike, and that was a lot of fun.
What’s an aspect of Chicago bike history you cover in the show that a lot of local cyclists might not be aware of?
There’s a number of them that I really love. We all know that Mayor Daley is the “cyclist-in-chief” and wants Chicago to be the most bike-friendly city in the country, but there have been two other really big biking mayors. Mayor Daley the First was really pro-bike and established the city’s first on-street bike routes and also designated the lakefront as a bike trail.
But about 80 years before that Mayor Carter Harrison II won his race for mayor with the slogan, “Not the champion cyclist but the cyclist’s champion.” He really made the biking agenda a big part of his platform. He launched his campaign with a bike ride from Chicago to Waukegan and back in about nine-and-a-half hours a as a publicity stunt. And he built Chicago’s first bike trail, which went from Edgewater to Evanston.
Carter Harrison II
Another thing a lot of people don’t know is that in the late 1800s Chicago was the bicycle manufacturing capital of America and there were 80 bicycle manufacturers in the city.
After doing this research and riding, do you have any recommendations for how bicycling could be improved in Chicago?
I’ve be come much more tuned into this issue through this process. We’ve had this absolutely great partnership with Active Transportation Alliance. So I’ve had my consciousness raised about the whole bicycling agenda for Chicago.
It would be really great to see separated bikeways here. We’ve got this huge network of bike routes and bike lanes, but the lanes are basically just stripes down the street. There’s nothing that really separates the cars from the bikes.
Route signage is another issue. There’s an amazing amount of bike signage in the city but region-wide the connections aren’t always there. For example, if you’re going north from the city and trying to follow the Green Bay Trail, in some suburbs it’s phenomenally well-marked and in other suburbs you’re kind of guessing.
One time I was trying to get from the northwest side of Chicago to the North Branch Trail via Bryn Mawr and it’s a pretty circuitous route through neighborhoods. The signage is great, you turn here, you turn there. And then I got to the expressway and the signage just disappeared and I never did find the trail.
On some trails like the Green Bay Trail you could be riding on a really nice paved surface in one suburb and then all of the sudden you’re on gravel in another suburb. So a lot of the interconnectivity could be improved.
It seems to me like every time they’re resurfacing a road or putting in new sewers they should be putting in a new bikeway. The best example I’ve seen of that recently is on the Valley Line Trail. It’s a really great little trail that runs from Bryn Mawr to Devon. It’s an elevated trail with a couple of bridges. It’s really good. And then you get to Devon and there nothing – no facility for bikes.
Valley Line Trail
I rode east on Devon from there and as I was riding east I could easily observe that this road had very recently been completely redone. The curbs were brand new, the median was really nice, but there was no provision for bikes. And there’s a parkway along there - how easy would it have been to just swap the parkway and the bike area so that you could have had a protected bikeway? If it was just part of the agenda it might have been done without much additional cost.
I know they’re going to be testing a new cycle track on south Stony Island using the federal money they received. If something like that was just part of the plan whenever they re-did a street anywhere in the city, think of what you could have.