Thursday, February 18, 2010

CTA riders sound off on cuts to the #52 bus

By John Greenfield

[This article also runs in theis week's Time Out Chicago magazine,]

Curious about how the new CTA service cuts are impacting Chicagoans, on Monday, February 8, the day after the cuts took effect, I traced part of the #52 Kedzie/California route by bicycle and talked with people waiting for, missing, and grumbling about, the bus.

The #52 winds from the “Little Arabia” strip at 63rd Street and Kedzie Avenue to Hot Doug’s at California Avenue and Roscoe Street. Before the CTA belt-tightening measures—cuts of nine express buses, reduced service hours on 41 bus routes, and less-frequent service on 119 buses and seven of the eight rail lines—the 52 operated from about 3:30am to 12:30am on weekdays. Now weekday service starts about a half hour later and ends as much as 40 minutes earlier, with up to a ten-minute longer wait time between buses.

As I pedal south on California from Logan Square around 10:00 pm, then west on Chicago and south on Kedzie into Garfield Park, I cross paths with a couple of northbound buses but don’t see anyone waiting at the stops.

Around 10:30 pm outside the shuttered 007 Lounge, 600 N. Kedzie, with its James Bond-esque logo, a middle-aged woman in a hoodie says the earlier end time means she won’t have a ride home from late shifts at her nursing home job. “I think it’s crap,” she spits.

A few blocks south by the Green Line’s Kedzie station, Harry Lucas and Jesse Galloway are waiting for the southbound bus, the last leg of their trip home from their bricklaying class at Bronzeville’s Dawson Technical Institute. They tell me the cuts mean that if class runs late—which it occasionally does—they’ll miss their ride home.

“You used to wait 10 or 15 minutes between buses,” Galloway says. “Last night it took a half hour. It’s messed up. The CTA and the drivers need to stop pointing fingers and come up with a solution.”

Rolling south through Lawndale and into Little Village I pass two or three more northbound buses, then stop into George’s Hotdogs, an old-school stand at 2612 S. Kedzie. Owner George Maichalios, nattily dressed in a fedora and tweed jacket with a handlebar moustache, says the cuts aren’t a problem for his employees since only his wife and son work the grills.

But Malcolm X College student Michael Alaniz looks depressed as he waits for his burger. He’s used catching the bus home from the Pink Line’s Kedzie stop after classes but he just missed the last southbound #52 which left 26th Street at 11:11 pm. “Now I’ll have no choice but to walk thirteen blocks,” he says. “This sucks. It was hard enough to get to work and school by the CTA before. This just makes it harder.”

As I spin northbound again the bus stops are deserted. Around midnight I stop to talk to three homeless guys outside Anna’s Food and Liquors, 1303 S. Kedzie in Lawndale. A car pulls up and a young man who looks like 50 Cent gets out. “What is this - some undercover shit?” he says and threatens to kick my ass. After he enters the store I follow the homeless guys’ advice and get back on my bike. Note-to-self: don’t conduct interviews outside liquor stores late at night.

I follow the bus route back to the Continental, a 4 am bar at 2801 W. Chicago in Humboldt Park. As Wire’s “Pink Flag” blasts on the sound system, doorman Jason Holshoe says he used to catch the first #52 of the morning home after work. Now that the bus starts later he’ll spring for a cab rather than wait.

“We’re getting less frequent service but still paying the same fare,” Holshoe says. “It’s less bang for your buck. And why did they have to make the cuts in the dead of winter? If it was summer at least you wouldn’t be waiting out in the cold.”

Bellying up at the California Clipper, 1002 N California Ave., I alert barmaid Michelle Tomlison that the 52 has stopped running for the night. She offers a customer one for the road. “Nah, I’m already at the point where I probably shouldn’t drive,” he says. “Well,” Tomlison says with a wink, “maybe you should take the California bus.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bus-ted: a hit-and-run by a CTA bus driver?

Crash diagram from the police report

The CTA cuts a check for a smashed car, but is a rogue bus driver still on the job?

by John Greenfield

[this article also runs in this week's Time Out Chicago,]

Two days before leaving his North Center ’hood to move to the West Coast, corporate trainer Jason William Power fired a parting shot at the Chicago Transit Authority.

In a January 13 e-mail to the CTA’s board of directors, cc’ed to local politicians, Power sarcastically thanks the agency for an $846 settlement covering only about half the damage to his car, which he says was caused by a bus operator who fled the scene. He urges the CTA to fire the driver. “You’re a mass transit organization,” he writes, “which apparently harbors a hit-and-run driver who can harm people without accountability.”

“That e-mail is just another opportunity for me to say ‘fuck you’ to the CTA,” Power explains over the phone. “This situation is classic Chicago.”

According to the police report, on May 6, 2009, during the evening rush, Power’s wife, who requested anonymity here, was driving the couple’s 1989 Volvo west on Chicago Avenue near the Museum of Contemporary Art. A westbound CTA bus pulled out from a bus stop, its front left side striking the Volvo’s rear passenger side with enough force to move the car. When Power’s wife pulled over, the bus continued west then turned south on Michigan. Power’s wife jotted down the license plate and bus numbers and called the police.

Soon after the crash, Power says, he filed a claim with the CTA, submitting a copy of the police report with the offending vehicle’s numbers, for the damage to his car, estimated by a mechanic at $1,500. “We also wanted disciplinary action for the bus driver,” he says.

On September 18, Power says, CTA claims analyst James Schmit told him by phone that his claim was denied because the bus indicated on the police report did not appear to be damaged and because the driver of that bus denied knowledge of the crash.

The car owner appealed the decision. In late September, after inspecting his vehicle, the CTA settled with him for $846, the blue-book value of the Volvo. The agency wrote the check because “the damage sustained was consistent with a possible collision with a bus,” CTA spokeswoman Wanda Taylor says.

Power says he again spoke with Schmit about the case in late September, after the settlement, and asked to receive notice the operator had been disciplined. Schmit conceded that hit-and-run drivers are a menace, Power recalls. (Last fall a disabled man the #14 Jeffrey Express bus. When the driver pulled away without
picking him up, he approached the bus, then stumbled and fell under the wheels and was killed. The bus stopped briefly, then continued down the street until it was flagged down by a witness.) But Schmit also said it would not be possible to tell Power whether the bus driver was reprimanded or fired.

The CTA turned down our request to interview Schmit about whether action had been taken against the implicated bus driver. “We do not divulge disciplinary action against an employee,” Taylor says.

Asked if the license plate and bus numbers on the police report, along with CTA staffing records and the damage to Power’s car, were enough to prove the bus driver was responsible, Taylor says, “That’s information that’s not definitive.” Asked if this means no one has been disciplined, she responds, “Correct.”

Power says it’s ridiculous there have been no consequences for the bus operator who allegedly hit his car. “That driver could have killed someone, and the taxpayers and passengers who support the CTA everyday are being smacked in the face.”

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wisconsin wanderings on two wheels

By John Greenfield

Last week I tried to squeeze the last juice out of the summer with a spontaneous bicycle camping trip around southeast Wisconsin. Each year my co-workers from Boulevard Bikes head up to Waterford, WI, home of Waterford Bikes, about 20 miles west of Racine, for the NAMI charity ride organized by our friend Peter, a former chef at the Handlebar. I decide to bring along camping gear and use this as a jumping-off point for my short tour.

Early Sunday morning eight of us drive up from Chicago with our bicycles to the Waterford high school. The ride is a benefit for adults fighting mental illness, and signs are posted outside the school with the names of famous people who battled depression and other challenges: Tchaikovsky, Darryl Strawberry, Buzz Aldrin, even Dolly Parton.

Photo by Ezra Hozinsky

We ride a 60-mile circular route that takes us on lovely back roads under the brilliant blue, smoke-free Wisconsin sky. We stumble into a parade in the tiny town of Lyons. An old farmer is driving a tractor pulling his nine grandchildren in brightly-colored cars made from oil cans. Clowns cruise by on dazzle-painted bicycles and scooters and a man in rolling along, soaking in a bathtub-mobile powered by a lawnmower engine.

In East Troy we savor roasted corn and root beer while brats sizzle on the grill at a bluegrass festival. On stage a band is playing gospel tunes while elsewhere on the grounds people are jamming secular tunes in song circles. Two parakeets are perched on the handlebars of someone’s mountain bike.

After the ride we enjoy Sprecher beers and a cheddar plate (the first of many samples of local cheese I will enjoy on this trip) at Peter’s parents’ house in Waterford while his brother Tim entertains us with acoustic blues songs on guitar. Then I take off solo 20 more miles west to the southern unit of Kettle Moraine state Forest, a popular mountain biking destination.

I’m using the Bike Federation of Wisconsin’s state bike map and I aim for a teepee icon on the map that suggests a campsite, but when I arrive at sundown, I find the location is only a trailhead. But there are picnic tables and a bathroom, which is all I need for comfortable camping, so I crash there anyway. Two college students from Morengo, IL, are returning to their truck from a bike ride and offer me a Heineken. They’re punk fans, so I try to impress them by mentioning I used to messenger and play shows with guys from the Alkaline Trio.

The next day I head northeast, since I eventually want to make it to Kohler-Andrae State Park, just South of Sheboygan on Lake Michigan. I pass through Wales, a village that was founded by Welsh setters in 1840, where the country’s dragon flag still flies.

I eat a lunch of landjaeger (a dry German sausage), cheese, crackers and apples alongside placid Lake Pewaukee and wind up camping a Pike Lake State Park, making it a leisurely 50-mile day. At the lake’s beach I enjoy that pleasantly existential feeling I get watching the sun go down over water after a day of solo riding.

In the morning, after re-stocking with horseradish cheddar, garlic sausage, stone-ground mustard and cashew brittle at the nearby Cheese Hut, I continue 60 miles northeast towers Kohler-Andrae along back roads. I stop to drink coffee and sun-dry my laundry in Kewaskum, a pleasant enough small town that a friend who grew up nearby calls “Scum Town.” It’s challenging, hilly riding for much of the rest of the trip to the coast, and after I reach the state park and take a quick dip in lake Michigan, I’m happy to lay out my ground pad on the quiet beach and relax.

Kohler-Andrae is a beautiful little park, with similar geography to the Indiana Dunes, but it seems to be a bit tranquil. The next day I take a stroll along the park’s miles of undulating boardwalk to the sound of cawing crows and lapping waves, then get back on my bike and head south along the lakefront. I pass through more European themed towns: Cedar Grove, where I get coffee at the Broken [wooden] Shoe, across the street from a windmill; and Belgium, which doesn’t seem to have a particularly Flemish vibe.

I roll a few more miles along the pleasant Ozaukee Interurban Trail into Port Washington, a delightful little lakeside town that’s the first freestanding city along the lake north of the Milwaukee suburbs. I pick up additional cheese and sausage, this time homemade garlic salami, from Bernie’s Fine Meats, a great old-fashioned butcher shop, as well as smoked trout at Ewig’s Smoked Fish and have another tasty lakeside picnic.

From there I make my way down Lakeshore Road, a popular bike route into Milwaukee where I encounter many folks in spandex on training rides. My friend Dave Schlabowske, the bike and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Milwaukee meets me on the north side of town. He’s coming from a rally on the south side of town where he’d dressed up in a chicken costume and crossed a road multiple times to remind drivers they need to stop for peds in the crosswalk. He’s done this a few times, once dressed like Evel Knievel, bearing a sign saying, “You shouldn’t have to be a daredevil to cross the street,” another time wearing a 12-foot-tall chorizo costume borrowed from the Klements Sausage Company.

Dave escorts me by bike to the Trocadero, a French café where we meet his wife for mussels and frites. I’d been intending to camp at Cliffside Park, 20 miles south of downtown Milwaukee but as the sun sinks and I sip a 9% Belgian beer, the Schlabowskes persuade me to sleep on their couch instead.

I tell them about a new theory I developed on this trip. Is it possible that I consider Wisconsin to be so much fun, that I get so stoked about the scenery and culture and food, because I’m only visiting? Would the excitement wear off if I actually lived here. Liz and Dave look at each other. “Nope,” says Dave dryly in his moderately heavy Badger accent. “Drinking beer and grilling brats – life is pretty good here.”

Schlabowske at sunrise

I need to get back to work at 3 pm the next day so I leave before sunrise with Dave, who always heads to work at an ungodly hour, and then I ride south along the familiar route towards Chicago. I need to get to Waukegan, IL, around noon to catch Metra commuter rail home, so I only stop once in Racine to pick up a kringle, a large ring-shaped Danish pastry that’s a local specialty, for the boys back at Boulevard. Due to a sweet tailwind I make it to Waukegan with enough time to have one last picnic by the marina before hopping the train back to the hustle-bustle of the big city.

Dubi Kaufmann's Bike Salute photo project

Dubi Kaufmann

Interview and photos of Dubi Kaufmann and Critical Mass sticker by John Greenfield; all other images by Dubi Kaufmann

Dubi Kaufmann is closing in on his goal of taking a thousand photographs of Chicago cyclists holding their bicycles up over their heads in what Kaufmann terms a “Bike Salute.” By July 14 he had reached photo #935.

Since early 2008 he’s been going to local bike events like the Tour de Fat, the Dyke March ride, the Bike to Work Rally, Critical Mass and the Soldier Field Criterium, asking attendees to lift their rides and pose for snapshots. The results are up at

Kaufmann will celebrate the completion of his project with the Air Ride on Sunday, July 19th. This free group ride meets at 5 pm at Olive Park, just east of the Ohio Street Beach at 601 N. Lake Shore Drive, and will cruise the Loop, ending at Northerly Island. There Kaufmann will take an aerial photo of the group with a camera attached to a kite.

VWYF recently met with Kaufmann, an Israeli immigrant and computer programmer at Intelligentsia Coffee on Randolph to discuss his motivation for the Bike Salute project as well as other photography and graphic design endeavors which appear on his site,

Tell me about your background with bicycling.

I learned to ride a bicycle when I was seven or eight. As a kid in Israel I liked to ride BMX, jumping off of small ramps that I built with my friends. And then of course I kept riding bikes as an adult.

What brought you to the U.S. from Israel?

It’s America. The streets are paved with gold – there are so many opportunities. I’ve been here for almost 13 years and I’m still very excited about being here.

What brought you to Chicago?

My family. I’ve got some relatives in the north suburbs. I came here to study film at Columbia College, with a focus on animation.

I took at look at There seem to be lots of examples of ads, short movies, graphic design projects and games. What’s your day job?

I’m a consultant, a freelance programmer. I do it for ad companies that are contracted by Fortune 500 companies like oil companies and insurance companies.

You seem interested in puzzles and visual puns. For example, you’ve got an application where you can color in the Bean at Millennium Park and you’ve got a device that let’s you create a [red, white and blue Shepard Fairey-designed] Obama-style portrait.

Yes, I did it about a week before the election. But I wrote it for the Mac only and then someone took the concept and made it available for the PC. I didn’t want to deal with the PC stuff so I just left it at that. My program got 50,000 downloads and a lot of press.

So you just do these puzzles and applications and things for fun?

Yes. It’s a learning experience. As a programmer I have to be up-to-date with all the new technologies. A good way to learn a new technology is to do something fun with it.

Have you been riding for transportation in Chicago for a long time?

Ever since I moved to the Loop. I used to live up on Granville and the commute downtown was almost impossible with a bike. It wasn’t an efficient way to get downtown.

How long have you been riding with Critical Mass?

About two years.

So how did you get the idea for the Bike Salute project?

It started out with an attempt to impress a woman. We had been talking about art and cycling so I decided to combine the two into a photography project. She was definitely impressed, but a romance was not meant to be.

When did you start the project?

In January of 2008. I was taking random photos here and there and then in June of 2008 I launched the site and the blog and I set up the goal of a thousand photos.

So are there any rules as to what you can and cannot do to get photographs?

Yes, it’s one person, one bike. If someone wants to pose with a tandem bike they have to be conjoined twins. It has to be a real bike, and the person really has to be holding the bike up in the air by his or her own power, not lying on the ground with the bike behind them.

Over time I’ve learned better how to approach people and ask them to pose. At first I was very shy. I was like, “Would you like to get your picture taken? You really don’t have to but it would be nice.” Now I’m better at asking.

I’ve learned that I have a better chance if I ask a group of people instead of an individual. With a group I’m not targeting anyone in particular. Otherwise a person might think I have some kind of hidden agenda. Usually the guy poses first and then the woman says, “I don’t know if I can,” and it ends up she can.

Another thing I learned is that it’s very important to take the water bottle out. It’s very funny when a water bottle falls on somebody’s head. It’s even funnier when it starts dripping and the person thinks it’s raining. For safety it’s important to take out the lock. Fortunately I’ve never had a lock fall out on someone’s head.

Does the Bike Salute symbolize anything in particular to you? Does it have a political meaning or are you just saying, “Yay bikes!”?

Yes, it’s “Yay bikes!” It doesn’t serve any purpose but as a celebration and a declaration of independence.

Now, in the early days of Chicago Critical Mass a rider named Jim Daniels created a sticker you might have seen. It’s like a green traffic sign with male and a female figures holding their bikes up in the air. Have you seen that?

No. No. No. No. That’s very interesting but it wasn’t an influence.

How do you feel about the term “Chicago Hold-up” versus “Bike Salute.” Is ‘Chicago Hold-up” a valid term – is there any possibility the gesture was invented here or is that off-base?

I don’t like that term. That’s something that I don’t like about Chicago. I feel the city is too navel-gazing. On purpose I didn’t I didn’t call the site “Chicago Hold-up” because I didn’t want it to be provincial. It’s something that’s bigger than Chicago. It would be too self-congratulating to call it “Chicago Hold-up.”

You know, I’d like to tell you more about why I chose to do the site, about the artistic decisions.

Sure, go ahead.

I’ve been doing projects on-line before where it’s a collection of photos. It started with “Parking Spots.” It’s a site that I did in 2002 that also involves lifting and transportation. I asked people around the world to hold a toy car next to a real car and photograph it and send me the photo.

I learned a lot from doing that. It was before there was Flickr and other modern photo sharing sites, so I had to write my own program to do that.

Lately I’ve been doing other projects that are collections of photos of the same thing. Like “Type Nesting” where I just collect photos of letters on signs. It’s on my site.

I like taking a lot of photos of the same thing. It’s not something I came up with, it’s just something I like to do. It’s been done before.

There’s a photographer who just takes photographs of twins. They’re similar but then the subtleties come up. In the music video for “Walk Like an Egyptian” [by the Bangles] there’s people doing the exact same gesture but the subtleties come up. There is a movie called “The Aristocrats” with many comedians telling the same joke and then the subtleties come up.

One more thing I’d like to mention is I have a memory game on the site. The game forces people to look at the subtleties. In the memory game I gave people the option of making it a little harder by just looking at close-ups of the faces or looking at the bikes. I heard from people who say they don’t remember faces but they remember the bikes. When they talk about other cyclists they say, “Oh, it’s the guy with the such and such bike,” because they remember the bike but not the face.

Overall how has the experience been, taking all these photos?

It’s been good. I can be really happy programming at home. Just let me be by myself and write code and I’ll be happy as a bivalve. But doing this project forced me to be more social, more gregarious and I met a lot of people, which was nice. It’s much easier for me to approach people to photograph and there’s now a thousand people in Chicago who know who I am.

Traffic control aides

By John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in Time Out Chicago,]

Q: What’s the deal with traffic control aides - are they trained experts or just ineffectual masters of the obvious?

A: Chicago’s 610 traffic aides may seem like a waste of taxpayer dollars – about $10 million annually – ordering us to walk or not when a signal says the same. But these civilians in safety vests keep traffic flowing during rushes, emergencies and special events, says Traffic Management Authority spokeswoman Jennifer Martinez. They can override stoplights, like waving a stranded vehicle through a red so it doesn’t “block the box.” Their numbers have been steady since 2005 when TMA took over the program from the police, and they still train on-street with cops. Aides can’t ticket for moving violations or jaywalking but sometimes cite illegally parking. Last year CBS 2 videotaped several in the Loop slacking, using confusing gestures and ignoring dangerous driving. The city ordered a week of additional training for all aides and disciplined eight. But Martinez says most are hard-working professionals. “I give them credit – it’s a dangerous job.” Active Transportation Alliance’s Rob Sadowsky says aides should do more to protect peds and pedalers from speeders. “The TMA’s motto is ‘Moving Chicago Faster,’” he says. “It should be ‘Moving Chicago Safely.’”

Ciclo Urbano opens on Paseo Boricua

by John Greenfield

After five years of operating out of the back of a storefront near North and Western, in May West Town Bikes community cycle center moved to a new larger space at 2459 W. Division on Humboldt Park’s Paseo Boricua Puerto Rican business district. Founded by Alex Wilson, West Town is a not-for-profit which teaches bicycle safety and maintenance, and other life skills to youth, as well as providing open shop sessions and mechanics classes for adults.

Partnering with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and the Division Street Business Development Association, West Town is launching a new retail store called Ciclo Urbano (“Urban Cycle”) at the front of the space, offering used bikes, basic commuter gear and repair services. In cooperation with the cultural center and its community center Batey Urbano (“Urban Gathering-Place,”) the shop will host programs for underserved youth, teaching mechanical and entrepreneurial skills and offering opportunities for creativity and adventure through bike building and travel.

A grand opening celebration and fundraiser took place on Friday, May 1, starting with a parade leaving from the old space, 2418 W. North, to a block party at the new one, departing around 5 pm. The festivities included live music; Puerto Rican cuisine; and beer from New Belgium Brewery, whose Tour De Fat bike festival raised several thousand dollars last year for West Town, making the expansion possible.

Recently Vote With Your Feet met with José “Jay” Rivera, a Columbia College film student who volunteers at Batey Urbano, and José Luis Rodríguez, Program Director for the cultural center’s CO-OP Humboldt Park obesity prevention initiative, at Café Colao, 2638 W. Division. They talked about how their organizations promote a healthy community and the significance of the new shop to the neighborhood.

José "Jay" Rivera and José Luis Rodríguez in front of the new Ciclo Urbano space

VWYF: Jay, how’d you get involved with West Town Bikes and Ciclo Urbano?

Rivera: When I graduated high school my sister got me a bike and I rode it every day. It was just one of those bikes you get from a department store like a Wal-Mart or something and it started to break down on me. One of my roommates had an old Schwinn Suburban so I put new tires on it and started riding that, to school and along the lake. When that started breaking down I tried to fix the small things.

CO-Op already has a program called Muévete (“Move Yourself,”) with free dancing and aerobics classes at the Humboldt Park Field House. There was a conversation about me maybe joining Muévete and adding a bicycling component since I was riding every day instead of taking the bus. Also Co-Op sponsored a fresh fruit market called Conuco on Saturdays and Alex Wilson used to sell bicycles there. I met him when I bought a bike from him. I got involved in the Build A Bike workshops at West Town and a year and a half later there was talk of bringing a shop to Division Street and they asked if I was interested in helping out.

VWYF: José [Luis Rodríguez,] why is obesity a problem in Humboldt Park?

Rodriguez: Among the Latino population in Humboldt Park, both Puerto Rican and Mexicano, the overweight and obesity rate is close to 50 percent among the young, between the ages of two and 18, and the adult population runs at around 32 percent. This can be attributed to a number of things. One of them is the lack of physical activity. Kids don’t get out as often as they should. They’re not engaged in sports activities, they’re not engaged in riding or walking in the neighborhood. They’re much more sedentary.

And this happens across the population as a whole – it isn’t something new. But this impacts us specifically because one half of the young population has a problem that will eventually lead to something much greater. The diabetes rate among Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park is 21 percent – that’s very high. The mortality rate is 68 deaths per every 100,000. Obviously there are a lot of other factors that lead to diabetes but obesity is certainly one of them.

CO-OP Humboldt Park came about after a study by Sinai Urban Health Institute which looked at six community areas and their rates of obesity among children and adults. That study was followed up by a survey that we did at one of our street festivals called Fiesta Boricua. From that survey we held a community meeting with the support of a local church. From that we began looking at the issue of obesity as a problem that needed to be addressed.

And this is where Muévete comes in, in terms of providing a space and a place free of charge where residents who are overweight or obese can go and exercise. We have a really good participation rate with 40 to 45 participants at every one-hour session who are getting aerobic activity. It’s low-impact aerobics, it’s not designed for folks that are already physically fit. It’s really for community residents that are not doing anything at all, so they can go somewhere and see other people that look like them and have the same issues. They can begin taking charge of their own health.

That’s part of the physical activity component but we’ve always said that physical activity is not just aerobics. Over the summer we started a walking program five days a week and we saw biking as another component. So there are five or six activities that we want to promote and get community residents involved with - aerobics, walking, biking, swimming and skateboarding – so we can get the entire community involved in some kind of physical activity. The young are more in tune with skateboarding and biking.

So for us as CO-OP our thing is that we have a problem and we have to address it and try to figure out what can be done. It’s not enough to say, “Go to the doctor.” It’s not enough to say, “Go on a diet.” There are a lot of other things that are involved. We have to capture people’s imagination and engage them in such a way that that they take ownership of the things we do.

So biking is something that can involve more young people and capture their imagination. It addresses health issues, but also environmental issues. With all the talk of reducing our carbon footprint … I’m 48 years old and when I was growing up we didn’t have computers or Nintendo. I can remember, six, seven days a week we were riding bikes, playing baseball, playing basketball, playing “Catch One Catch All.” Today most young people don’t do any of this. So the whole idea is to give young people something healthy and constructive to do.

VWYF: Jay, tell me about Batey Urbano.

Rivera: The Batey is about seven years old and I’ve been with it three years, since I started high school in this neighborhood. It was started by a group of young college students that felt that there was no place in the community where kids of color could channel their energy into something positive. There wasn’t a particular idea of what the space would be it was like, “OK, we have money for the first month’s rent and for the sign – what do we do with it?” Nowadays we’re funded by grants and donations.

One of the things that make the Batey unique is that it’s run by a collective of youth. There’s no board or anything. On any given Friday there’ll be a hip-hop night where young people come out and do their stuff or people from other cities come and perform. There are poetry nights and film nights, where we watch a film and discuss it. There are also nights when we bring professors in for teach-ins.

During the week we have classes called BACCA, Barrio Arts, Culture and Community Academy. In that we teach on-line radio and have our own station, [The website currently is down as they change servers.] We also have classes in photography, journalism and graphic design. Right now we’re working on a campaign against underage drinking and using all the different media that we’ve taught the students to try to figure out how to reach the community with flyers, advertisements and radio spots. We’re moving towards having video labs and teaching film.

One thing we’ve had since the Batey opened is a policy of no racist, sexist, homophobic language in the space. It’s a way to question the way that we speak to each other and how we treat each other and how do we turn the Batey into a safe space where people can express themselves creatively.

VWYF: How is Ciclo Urbano going to be a valuable addition to the Paseo Boricua?

Rivera: A lot of people in the neighborhood associate bicycling with yuppies but Ciclo Urbano is going to change that perception. Service is going to be available in Spanish or English. The shop is going to provide bicycles and gear to the community at reasonable prices. For example, it will be the first shop in the city to sell used tires and patched tubes. In an emergency you’ll be able to pay three dollars for a tire that will keep your bike rolling. This also cuts down on waste and has an environmental impact.

Alex Wilson leads West Town Bikes students on a ride

They’re going to offer cheap or free Build A Bike classes for young people. And young people are going to have a voice in what kind of other programs they would like to see. There’s talk right now of a bike-sharing program – those details are still being worked out. There will be opportunities for jobs and internships for kids who complete the youth programs.

Rodriguez: The relationship between West Town Bikes and the community has been wonderful because West Town has approached this in a very mindful and respectful way. Puerto Ricans have been in the neighborhood since the ‘50s, after being displaced from other parts of the city. There are historical markers here and the flag arches over Division Street, but some people move into the neighborhood and they’re clueless.

Ciclo Urbano was a case where someone approached us and said, “How can we work together to do something mutually beneficial?” Alex Wilson and West Town did a presentation for the board of the Division Street Business Association explaining how in the future the shop would represent the community in terms of staff and programming. The board voted overwhelmingly in favor of his proposal and the DSBA actually wound up moving offices so that Ciclo Urbano could have a corner space. This isn’t going to be just another bike shop – it’s going to be a model for how to put together a business that’s culturally relevant.

Car-free camping at Shabbona Lake

By John Greenfield

God bless the Bikes on Metra program. Since Chicagoland’s commuter rail system granted access to bicyclists a few years ago it’s become a whole lot easier to escape the city and get into nature without using an automobile. I’ve used the bike-train combo many times to get to state parks like Starved Rock, Illinois Beach, Chain O Lakes and Kettle Morraine and I’m still discovering new destinations.

Case in point was a spontaneous trip I took this week that inadvertently brought me to Shabbona (pronounced “SHEAH-bunna”) Lake State Park. It’s a pleasant little rec area 30 miles west of Aurora, IL, that I didn’t know existed until fate took me there.

I’d actually been planning to camp at Silver Springs State Park, 16 miles southwest of Aurora on the Fox River, having decided the night before to take advantage of the gorgeous late September weather by getting out of Dodge. I’d heard of Silver Springs because it’s across the river from the steel-and-glass Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951.

After loading up with full camping gear I caught the train Tuesday morning at 18th and Western heading to Wayne and Garth’s hometown. Eventually there were a total of seven bikes in my car which required some shuffling as cyclists exited at different stops.

At around 175,000 people, Aurora is Illinois’ second-largest city, located at the western edge of Chicago’s suburbs and bisected by the Fox. Next to the Metra terminal is Walter Payton’s Roundhouse, a very serviceable brewpub set in a historic building, originally used for servicing locomotives.

I took a quick spin around the downtown, checking out the old firehouse, topped with an onion dome; sculptures of shrouded female figures on the 1931 Memorial Bridge; the garish Hollywood Casino riverboat; and the ornate Paramount Theater. Then I got on the paved Fox River bike trail heading southwest out of town.

Unfortunately, while in Aurora I forgot to visit the Dr. Charles Smith’s African American Heritage Cultural Center. It’s a sculpture garden and studio with more than 400 works depicting black history, which I’d read about in Jerome Pohlen’s Oddball Illinois. Oh well, there’s always next time.

The 33-mile trail bike path runs north-south from Crystal Lake to Oswego with a handful of Metra stops along the way, making it a great place to take a car-free pedal without resorting to roof-racking. It also meets up in several places with with the 61-mile, crushed-limestone Prairie Path system which fans across the ‘burbs, so there are many possibilities for day rides.

After picnicking on a river island I stopped in Oswego at Millrace Cyclery, a well-stocked shop, to pick up a spare tube. Detouring off of busy Rte. 71 I found myself in Farm Colony, a new development full of McMansions and SUVs where once there were cornfields. Next to a man-made pond with Canada geese a sign warned, “This neighborhood is for exclusive use of Farm Colony residents. All other will be considered trespassers.”

I passed through Yorkville and soon found myself at Silver Springs, where burley worker were setting up tents for this weekend’s National Hunting and Fishing Days. The event features shooting ranges, canoe rides and the Hawg Trough, a giant fish tank hauled in on a semi, used to demonstrate angling technique.

Unfortunately, the lady at the snack stand told me that, despite the tent icon on the Illinois map, nowadays Silver Springs only offers camping for youth groups. Since the campground was sure to be empty on a Tuesday night, I thought about waiting until dark and guerilla camping anyhow. But the scenery at the park didn’t seem too spectacular, so I decided to soldier on to Shabbona Lake, 26 miles northwest, which she recommended for camping.

I stopped at nearby headquarters for tours of the Farnsworth House, a one-room house in by the Fox River, with exterior walls made almost entirely of glass. Chicago kidney doctor Edith Farnsworth commissioned the structure from Mies van der Rohe as a retreat in the woods where she could play violin and translate poetry. The two were rumored to have had an affair but eventually the relationship soured and a disagreement over payment led to a lawsuit.

Last year I took a bike and Metra daytrip with my friends Josh and Lisa to tour the structure, but the place suffered major damage when the house flooded recently during Hurricane Ike, even though Mies had it built on stilts for just such an occasion. At the HQ, site director Whitney French told me renovation costs may hit $500,000.

Crews were able to able to salvage most of the furnishings but the wooden core of the building became badly waterlogged. Although tours are cancelled for the rest of the season, French is confident the house will eventually open again. “There’s too much love for this house for it not to be restored,” she says.

Making my way towards Shabbona Lake, I passed through the town of Sandwich where Ketty’s Pub and Grill is partially housed in an old railcar. As I stair-stepped northwest on the grid of back roads lined with corn and soybeans I savored the sight of the sinking sun. With no buildings to block the view, the sunset over the prairie wasn’t so different from those I’d enjoyed on the west coast of Michigan a few weeks earlier.

I stopped in the tiny town of Shabbona to pick up some groceries before setting up camp at the park, stopping for a drink at Nite Crawlers tavern, a dive with a beautiful carved wooden bar. Almost everyone in the place was wearing t-shirts and drinking bottles of cheap beer so I drank PBR as well. But the guy next to me, the owner of the local hardware store, was wearing a polo and drinking Sam Adams Octoberfest on tap – as the resident beer aficionado he had lobbied the bar to stock it.

We got in a conversation about the ancient roots of brewing. He said the Sumerians wrote on clay tablets about making barley beer long before they wrote about baking bread with the grain, so fermentation may have been one of the chief motivations for civilization. Then he asked why I was drinking swill. “I don’t want to look like a snob,” I said. “Be who you are,” he advised.

Making my way to the wooded campground littered with horse chestnuts, I pitched my tent in the dark, heated some soup on my canister stove and soon hit the hay. The next day I packed up and explored the area surrounding the mile-long, man-made lake, created in 1975 with the construction of a 3,000-foot earthen dam. The lake is well-stocked and fishing seems to be the main attraction. Small cabins are available for rental, which might be a nice option in the winter when trails are open for cross-country skiing.

Towing my loaded bike, I strolled along the Arrowhead trail which skirts the lake through prairie and deciduous forest with occasional views of the water, spying deer, butterflies and hawks along the way. Then I rented a rowboat for ten bucks and rowed across the water. Dead trees, left over from the days before the land was flooded, stick out from the surface like bony fingers. On the far side of the lake I spotted a big blue heron that flew into the air with a screech when I pointed my camera.

After I docked the boat and continuing on my hike, the scenery changed to piney woods then marshland full of cattails waving in the breeze. At 3:30 I got back on the bike and headed northeast 17 miles to check out the city of Dekalb, home to Northeastern Illinois University. A billboard along the way showed the winged ear of corn logo for the famous Dekalb brand with the legend, “Dekalb County is DEKALB Country.”

As I headed into the quaint downtown, signs directed me to the Egyptian Theater, which opened in 1929 during the first wave of King Tut mania. The outside façade, with its pastel bas-reliefs of pharaohs, is very reminiscent of the Reebie Storage and Moving building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The theater was closed but operations director Alex Nerad heard me yanking on the doors and invited me inside for a tour.

The inside of the theater, which still shows movies and stage shows, is stunning with its many gilded heads and statues of Ramses, murals of sphinxes, palms and pyramids and a ceiling of twinkling stars. Nerad says there used to be around 60 Egypt-themed in the country but the Egypt is one only six left standing.

He says the theater is trying to raise $2.5 million for renovations including adding air condition and new seats. “These are the original seats from the 1920s and they just weren’t designed to hold people as wide and as heavy as what’s common today,” he said. This weekend the theater is staging its first “Ride Like an Egyptian” benefit bike ride to raise funds for the work. I’m sure the Bangles will be in heavy rotation on the sound system.

It seemed liked every other person in Dekalb was walking down the street with a guitar. A young man was hanging out in front of the House café on the main street playing banjo as the café’s owner, a bushy-bearded man in a fedora, scooted around the sidewalk on a Rollerblade Razor.

Down the street I stopped into North Central Cyclery, a big shop with a great selection of stylish bike commuting and touring gear like Surly bikes and Brooks leather saddles and saddlebags. The sun was setting by then and Toby, the owner, advised me to take Keslinger Rd. 19 miles east to the little country town of Elburn where I could catch Metra home, instead of riding all the way to Geneva as I’d been planning.

Keslinger was dead-straight and I had a tailwind, but the ride was a bit spooky in the dark as lightning flashed in the pink sky over the metropolitan area. When I got to Elburn I was surprised to learn that while train tracks run through the tiny downtown, the Metra station is just east of town, surrounded by nothing.

When the line was extended from Geneva a few years ago, residents opposed placing the station in the business district, where it could have boosted the fading local economy, because they feared the additional train and car traffic. Another opportunity lost to NIMBY-ism.

To kill some time before the 9:25 train, I stopped at Alice’s Place, an ice cream shack that’s been open since 1958, originally called Dairy Joy. Before Alice took it over 16 years ago and cleaned it up, locals called the place the the Dairy Dump. I sat inside at the counter and ordered a fried pork tenderloin sandwich, difficult to come by in Chicago but more common as you get closer to Iowa.

After a rush of excited high school kids at the takeout windows, Alice told me how the young couple next to me met. The young woman worked the counter and the guy used to show up every night after work for dinner. The girl used to make fun of him, Alice said, but eventually they got married.

As I sat there in the quiet Elburn night before catching the gleaming stainless steel train back to the center of the big city, I was struck by the power of rails and bicycle wheels to connect the urban with the rural.