Saturday, May 27, 2006

Chicago by Bike

PurpleflowersmillparkIt's fun to have outings around town. Growing up, my father used to always take us on road trips on the weekend. In retrospect, I suppose that the road trips were not generally long excursions. I mean, the furthest we generally got was about forty or fifty miles from home, but we certainly had adventures. For instance, one day we would drive up an old logging road until the car got stuck. On another day we were chased out of an estate by Dobermans, on a third day we would find the most wonderful swimming hole around. The important thing about these outings were not to go to exotic locations, not to accomplish amazing feats of endurance, but simply to see a new side to the world. I suppose one of the lessons that I've drawn from these adventures is that you don't need to go far from home to have them.

I began the last post with a passing reference to one of my favorite books as a young child, Muncus Agruncus, A Bed Little Mouse. Things that I liked about that book included the nice rhythms, an interesting vocabulary for a children's book. Consider the following lines:

"One by one his brave fleet disappeared,

While the roar of the cataract burst on his ears.

Into the wild foam cloudland he whirled

With mizzen mast bending and all sheets unfurled. . ."

I mean, how many books for five year olds mention mizzen masts at cataracts, or have the inventiveness to come up with the word, "cloudland"? It really is a great book. And the whole plot is about a naughty little mouse that decides to have adventures around the house he lives in. It too reinforces the lesson that one can have incredible adventures without straying too far from home. But equally, the book also mentions the joy of returning to home. After being chased all 'round by a broom when the owner of the house catches site of the mouse, Muncus retires to bed but not before laying out plans for his next adventure.

Now that I'm a full adult - something that one feels in a deep way after turning 30, and which has been further emphasized now that I'm on the verge of turning 32 - I still try to keep up such adventures. My adventures in Chicago have been raised to a whole new register today, since I decided to go out and buy a bicycle. MybikeI then spent the next 12 hours exploring the city in a whole new way. I bicycle is such a very unique form of transportation, and I think that it's very difficult to come close to the feeling of riding a bicycle through any other means of travel. Unlike a car or a motorcycle, it's quiet, and you are not confined to the road, but can take excursions along paths, sidewalks, and fields. Unlike walking, you can travel at a fast enough pace to get to places far beyond the range of two feet, and even beyond your immediate horizon. And if you want to stop somewhere, it is easier done than said.

The uniqueness of this form of transportation was immediately apparent when I road down the road away from the bicycle store. Almost instantly I was in parts of the city that I had never been to before. CloudymomentTo understand this, you have to realize that in Chicago, just like in some other cities (Amsterdam is the most striking example of this phenomenon), really good neighborhoods are sometimes one or two blocks from a really bad neighborhood. In the case of my first ride from the store, it's a one-block difference. It's actually sort of amusing that in Chicago you can usually determine whether you've driven into a poor, slightly dangerous neighborhood by the existence of White Castle hamburger joints. These joints sell hamburgers for $.49, and so they're always located in neighborhoods where (a) there are lots of people interested in $.49 hamburgers, rather than the $7.00 hamburgers one can get at downtown diner and (b) where the property is cheap enough to be paid from the narrow profit margins of $.49 worth of beef. And sure enough, less than fifty feet from the bicycle store there is a White Castle. But then one block over you're in suburbia, with tree-lined streets, and polite and happy people, and even a university. It's sort of crazy how things like this work out sometime. Anyway, normally I don't explore these little bits of suburbia, because I don't particularly feel like crossing through WhiteCastleland (Or if we were in England I suppose we could spell it Whitcastle), but on my bike, travelling at the speed of the breeze (literally, since the breeze was under 30 miles per hour), a bad neighborhood is a mere passing blur.

BuckinghamfountainIn general, I find that Chicago has a certain wonderful randomness about it. For instance, Chicago has the largest population of Poles of any city outside of Poland. So, when you're driving around, chances are that you'll find a giant statue in the middle of nowhere celebrating some noble Pole's defense of the motherland. I suppose New York has these things too, but they seem to be more endemic to Chicago. I passed a few of these places within minutes of leaving the store, and they are sometimes in the most delightful little parks. Chicago has other amusing sites too.


And getting around in Chicago on a bicycle is rather easy nowadays. The mayor of Chicago Richard M. Daley - who might as well be known as the emperor of Chicago after the number of years he's been in power and the number of things that have his name written on them - really likes riding bikes, and so he's trying to make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the United States. Although he does have a way to go, I was amazed at the number of bike lanes, biker signs, and paths there are in this town: something I missed in my bikeless days. It seems that at least in the areas that I road through today there were always convenient ways for a bicyclist to get around. And perhaps the greatest of these is the lakeshore path. It's a path, 18 miles long running from the Southside of Chicago, through the center of town, and way up north, and it never wanders more than a few hundred yards from the water's edge. BikingonlakefrontThe path for the most part is free from intersections, and crosswalks, so you can basically bike the length of Chicago and have beautiful views the whole way. Not many cities have anything even close to this. Further, the path has two lanes, and although it can get quite crowded on the weekend, it nonetheless is possible to bike quite fast on it (with a few exceptions downtown). Furthermore, there are many detours one can take.

For instance, I visited Northerly Island for the first time the other day. Northerly Island Northerlyislandwater is an island just off the coastline of Chicago. I suppose it's not really an island, but more of a peninsula thanks to a narrow isthmus connecting it to the downtown area. It used to be an airport called Meigs field . . . in fact, it was still open when I first arrived in Chicago. But it was closed in rather dramatic fashion. When the lease expired, the mayor was determined to turn it into parkland, and so he hired bulldozers to secretly destroy the runway in one nighttime operation. It was sort of ridiculous, and many people are right to be mad about that move (especially the people who didn't get a chance to get their airplanes off of the island beforehand), but the result has been this wonderful expanse of fields, grasses, water, birds - and if you visit at the right time - complete silence. All of this with the center of the city not more than a mile away, and completely in view. In addition, I think that on the right day it may be one of the most perfect places to fly a kite in the world. What makes it the perfect kite-flying place? Well, it was an airport, so it has huge wide-open spaces. Some of these places are now covered with prairie bushes, but huge stretches are mowed, Goflyakite1so there is plenty of space to move around easily. It's also in the windy city, so there are often very strong breezes, especially since there are few buildings or hills on the island to interfere with the wind. The place has a full sand beach with a food vendor, and crashing waves, so that both gastronomical and auditory desires can be fulfilled. It is also - well, at least the day I was there - almost entirely devoid of people: or rather, even better than that, there were actually quite a few people on the island, but it's big enough that you can find space all to yourself and still feel safe. And finally, except for the crashing waves, there was almost no sound to be heard there. It was so quiet you could hear the wings of birds as they flew by (And the island serves as a bird rehabilitation center, so there are lots of birds, and apparently in the winter you can see Great Snowy Owls).

NortherlyislandbeachAnyway, when I road my bike there today there were many more people there, since it was Saturday, and some were already swimming in the lake. What a pleasant addition to city life here!

I also discovered that with a bicycle I can commute from Hyde Park, my little neighborhood of the moment, all the way to downtown in a little over twenty minutes. I thought this was remarkable, since it sometimes takes me longer than that to take the bus; but with no traffic, and no stops, a bike can make the trip in no time. Actually, I should say one complimentary thing about the busses: most of the busses are outfitted with bike racks, so it is easy to use public transport and a bike. Even the trains in Chicago allot a certain number of spaces for bicycles for free. FireworksgreenThis came in handy at the end of my day when I got a flat tire. Yes, it happened downtown, eight or so miles from home, and in many cities this would be the beginning of an annoying hassle. But in Chicago, I just hung out downtown, shopped a little, had a decent bouillabaisse with a glass of wine, enjoyed one of the bi-weekly firework shows, and took the bike home on a bus!

I should also probably say a word or two about the place I bought the bicycle, since it's really a great organization. It's called the Working Bikes Cooperative, and it is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that rescues hundreds of bicycles, many of which would probably have gone to the dump otherwise. These bikes are repaired and fixed-up by the staff, and then sold three days a week from their outlet on Western Avenue. So, you go in, pay between $40.00 and $120.00 and leave with a working bicycle. But the best thing about the organization isn't the fact that it's one of the few used bicycle shops in Chicago, but the truly amazing thing is what they do with all the bikes and bike parts they don't sell: they send them thousands of miles away to be distributed for free in third world countries. As many of your probably know, farmers and factory workers in such places often have to walk six or seven miles a day to get to their jobs. Literally hundreds of bicycles are shipped to places in Africa, Central America, and South America. So you know that when you put down your 40 bucks, that you're doing something that is producing real good in the world. I may actually feature the organization on my other weblog, but the location of this site is secret at the moment. I'll be sure to tell you more about it when everything is off the ground. It's far more than a humble blog . . . but more on that later.

So, now, after a long day of biking through new neighborhoods, relaxing on lawns, Fireworksredwatching fireworks, eating good food, and enjoying the sun (I'm a little burnt, I admit), I'm now sitting in my apartment, drinking red wine, listening to the stereo, and enjoying the pleasant period of contemplation that so often follows a full day. There's something so wonderful about those few hours before bed, when you have time to sit back and contemplate everything that’s happened, and to look forward to the next day's adventures. After hiking with friends, it’s the time to sit around and tell stories, and to have conversation around the fire; after working in restaurants or the farm, it is the time to just let all those tired muscles unwind, and after a party it's the time to sit back with the last of the wine and chocolate, and enjoy the silence of a clean apartment. (When I throw parties, I almost always clean up the place before I go to bed, mostly to generate this satisfied feeling.) Anyway, right now I’m relaxing, and I know that there are clean and crisp covers waiting on the bed in the other room. And on top of all of this there is that content feeling: you’re content not only knowing that you’ve sucked the marrow out of a day, but also knowing that it's time to plan for tomorrow’s adventures. Actually, I'll let Nancy Watson have the last word.


Saturday, May 6, 2006

Chicago and the Thumbtack

One of the memories I recall often is a fairly ironic one. Before I went to graduate school, before I even went to college, sometime in high school I remember having a giant map of the United States and Canada on my bedroom wall. One day, in Muncus Agruncus fashion—"And on his desk were the maps and plans/For the next time he might find some time on his hands."—Muncusagruncus(a good children's book, if you ever have a chance to read it - as a young child I memorized it), I had some time on my hands and I decided to mark all the cities I had visited, and to figure out all the places in the United States I wanted to visit at some point in my life. Every city that fell in either of these two categories was marked with a thumbtack. New York was marked, as was Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Vancouver, Montréal, Toronto, even Denver and Albuquerque were marked. I saw Los Angeles on the map, and experienced a little conflict. I don't feel a special bond to Los Angeles, and in fact, to this day I still haven't been there. The smog, the temperatures, the gangs, the lack of a downtown (Although apparently Gehry's working on that, see NYTimes April 25th): it just doesn't seem like a particularly satisfying place. I'm probably wrong about this, it probably has many redeeming characteristics, but I can't recall them off-hand. I suppose most of our media comes from there, and there's the film history, and those are interesting things. Anyway, I remember finally deciding that I should at least visit Los Angeles for a few days, to do touristy things like visit Hollywood and so on. So Los Angeles got a tack. And then I remember noticing that Chicago wasn't marked on the map. I felt at that moment that I didn't have a particular desire to ever visit Chicago. I had even less inclination to visit the place than Los Angeles. No second cities for me. I did have an uncle there, however, and he might be worth visiting. Holding the tack over the city, I finally decided that on some flights I'd probably have a stopover in Chicago anyway, so I might as well extend the stop-over by a few days and visit the place. So with a little rationalization, I managed to convince myself that I wasn't being irrational when I put that last tack on the map.

The irony is that I ended up going to graduate school in Chicago, and I've now lived in the city I never particularly wanted to visit for almost a decade. A whole third of my life! It's funny how fate sometimes can produce these twists. I have to say that when I first arrived in Chicago I didn't like the place. I arrived in the city after almost 30 hours on a bus (with a stopover in Tennessee), and two suitcases. One was full of clothes, the other was full of books - something that neither I, nor Ms. Wright, who was kind enough to help me move those suitcases through New York's subway system, are likely to forget. Despite the fact I had an uncle in Chicago, he couldn't meet me at the bus station, so I had to make my way over to the University of Chicago on my own. I arrived in the housing office (having finally been assigned an apartment two days before), got my key, and then went to my apartment in the city I didn't even want to visit. My first time ever in Chicago.

Chicagoapartment01Although my first apartment wasn't great it had some pluses. For one thing it was located immediately adjacent to the Midway park, and so in the afternoon after class I could collapse on my sofa, with the windows wide open and listen to Louis Armstrong on the stereo while looking across a tree-lined corridor at the front facade of the U of C. Viewfrom60th That was nice. What wasn't nice was the fact that there were almost never any people on my block (the buildings below 60th were far more isolated back then), and the garage in back of the building was given the ominous title of "the garage where people get shot." Crime was a bit of a problem back then. The area was getting better at that point in time, but shootings were still routine. Well, for the shooters and the police I guess, certainly not for the victims. I remember getting a ride from a woman one night during that first winter, and she asked me how I liked Chicago. I said that I was getting tired of the gray cold winter days, and that I was looking forward to spring. She told me not too hope for spring, "People don't hang out on the streets in the wintertime," she said, "they only do that in the summer. So when the temperature rises, you are more likely to be shot. If you know what's good for you, don't wish for summer." She was speaking from a bit of authority because someone she knew, was actually shot dead on the Midway when he made the mistake of walking between two rival gangs. But, even though this was the case, I still think the routineness of things was perhaps a little too overstated even back then. Yes, there has always been crime in Hyde Park - the side effect of having a prestigious and wealthy school, and one of the more wealthy neighborhoods surrounded on all sides by extremely poor and struggling neighborhoods, but it's not as bad now as it was in the 80s/early 90s. Even so, when I had to cross the Midway at night I did choose my course quite deliberately. I'd walk along 59th until I saw a section of the park that had no people on it, and then in a quick dash I'd make for the shadows and disappear into the darkness before emerging on my street corner. With all the negative publicity, each midnight crossing felt a little like an adventure.

Needless to say all this talk about crime, getting shot, not wishing for summer, and the emptiness of my block did not make me feel especially warm about Chicago. I mean, I enjoyed my time here even in those years - I did have some great friends and I loved taking classes at the U of C - but I didn't have any inclination to stay in the city longer than I had to. This was further emphasized by my forays in the downtown region. Not knowing about the Northside, all my intuitions about the city were determined by the "Loop" area. And these were not good intuitions. For instance, I discovered that it was impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in the evening, since everything seemed to close at 6 PM. Even the Starbucks joints were unavailable after that time. The only people downtown were businessmen in suits and naive Midwestern tourists that had the annoying habit of always stopping suddenly and unpredictably on the sidewalk.

But, I have to admit that over the years Chicago has grown on me. Part of this is the result of changes in Chicago itself, the most striking change being the construction of Millennium Park,Millenniumpark which I think has been one of the city's greatest successes. Now, it is not uncommon to see crowds of people downtown at 9 or 10 at night, dancing in the open air, or listening to music and so on - I mean, nothing compared to New York, but it's progress. There are also coffee shops open in the area, and there is always a wonderful green space to collapse and listen to free concerts by the CSO and other world-famous ensembles. GehrypavilionThere is nothing quite like collapsing on a lawn listening to Dvořák and looking around at the fabulous architecture, and even seeing a few stars. Even the tourist crowd seems to have become far more interesting and multi-national. I mean, there are still hordes of Midwesterners who stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk, but now there are German and French - and I think that was Finnish? - people doing the same thing. I suppose we've always been an international city, but it is only recently that everyone has begun to congregate outside of the ethnic neighborhoods.

Chinatown01Besides these changes, part of my increased appreciation of Chicago comes from a recognition of how many great things the city has to offer. The first of these things is the lake. It's so wonderful to wake up in the morning, and to run along the shores of Lake Michigan. It just helps alleviate the sort of claustrophobic feeling I get in Chicago when I think about how far it's from the ocean. I suppose I have an unusual connection to the ocean. Provincetown01 I grew up on a house immediately adjacent to Provincetown bay - it was a hotel that my parents ran - and the water after a full moon was literally six or seven feet from where I slept. Actually, as an aside, the house could be sort of frightening in a storm. When the waves hit the concrete embankment just outside my bedroom window, the spray would actually make it over the five stories of our building, and flood the street on the other side. My mother even remembers one Christmas when they almost abandoned the building because of a storm. This wasn't an irrational fear: about a decade before we moved in the water had flooded the entire first floor to a depth of three or four feet (there was a mark next to the front desk to indicate this).

LakemichiganLake Michigan is not an ocean, and it won't give you that wonderful salty spray, and you're not likely to see whales going by. But it's also not a mere lake, not only because you can't see the other side, but also because it sort of has a very strong personality, complete with moods. Sometimes it appears to be the most wonderful happy blue, and beckons a day of pleasant sailing. Other days when it is more reflective, it seems clear and flat like a mirror. But it sometimes wears a quirky shade of neon green, or it becomes rough and gray. Or on a few occasions after some especially violent storms it is s tumultuous brown, and everyone knows not to mess with the lake on that day. All these effects are just changes in the lighting or the turning up of the bottom in a storm, and so on, but they do make the lake interesting, and the "mood" metaphor soon seems a rather good way of describing the changes in the lake. In the past few years, my appreciation for the lake has grown as I've discovered the joy of sailing on it. Yes, you can sail in other cities, but there is something rather incredible about leaving Grant Park harbor and being out in a beautiful expanse of water, and yet having a completely unobstructed view of the entire downtown. It can be a particularly inspiring view at night.

Another thing that Chicago has going for it is its city architecture. Chicagobuilding1Emporis recently gave Chicago the distinction of having the fourth greatest skyline in the world based on the number of buildings with an index for the height of the buildings. It has only been exceeded by New York (number 3), Seoul (number 2) and Hong Kong (number 1). All of these cities have far more high-rises than Chicago, but what Chicago lacks in numbers it makes up with in quality. AonbuildingYes, a lot of cookie-cutter skyscrapers have gone up in recent years, but buildings like the Hancock Tower, the Sears Tower, the AON center (my favorite skyscraper in the world from its exterior), the Monadnock building, some of the finest examples of van der Rohe architecture in the world, Koolhaus buildings, dozens or Frank Lloyd Wright structures, and perhaps even a Santiago building in the near future give Chicago a distinctive look.

And then there are the wonderful public spaces. Like the parks along the river: unlike cities such as New York that are actual ports, Chicago's lakefront is entirely devoted to recreation. Chicago has miles and miles of parks along the water, including basically a single waterside park running 16 miles from the south side up to Evanston. In addition, there is Millennium Park, Grant Park, various smaller parks spread out throughout the city, and the old Meigs field that is being turned into a park with grounds set aside for migrating birds. And with two firework shows every week during the summer, bike paths, free concerts, free outdoor movies, music festivals, and so on, Chicago is a wonderful place to be during the summer, and few cities can rival it.

ChicagorivernightSo, now after spending almost a decade in this city I didn't even want to put a thumbtack into, I can say that I actually like the place. This is not to say that I still don't have complaints. In particular the dating scene sucks compared to New York - well, at least for the sort of people I'm attracted to. It's also so difficult to do things late at night. Yes, there are places on the Northside one can go to, but in New York you can almost always count on being able to get a wonderful pizza or sandwich delivered from one of the pizza joints, or from the all-night delis: concepts that seem to be almost completely lacking in the 9-5 culture of Chicago. And that really is the culture here. I mean, I've recently been doing work downtown, and have been a part of the morning rush, and it really is incredible. It reminds me a little of what New York was like during the subway strike. But then at 5 PM everyone disappears.

It occurs to me that I also live quite a distance from downtown Chicago. Waterfountain01I live in Hyde Park, which although it's a great neighborhood (modulo the comments above), it's still about eight miles from the Loop. I often wonder how much more enjoyable Chicago would be if I actually lived in the heart of the city? Actually, I'm seriously considering moving downtown this summer. I suppose part of it is that I just need a change. Eight years in a Ph.D. program begins to wear one down a little. But part of it is also the fact that I think I'm getting a rather poor deal with my apartment. Although $800.00 a month is far cheaper than the $1200.00 is costs to live downtown, the difference in locale might be worth the difference in price. Actually, in my apartment hunting so far, I've learned that $1200.00 is sort of a magic number in Chicago. That is, if you want to live downtown that's what it costs to get a studio or a one bedroom. And it doesn't matter where the studio is. If it's in an old building that's falling apart with no amenities, and minimal services, it's $1200.00. If you want a studio in a swanky apartment building with swimming pools, saunas, air conditioning and heat, wireless internet, free cable and a balcony, it's $1200.00. I take this to be a sign of a young housing market. For the fact is that Chicago has seen lots of construction over the past few years, and barring any dramatic bursting bubble this will continue in the future. In one year I think something like 14 high-rise apartment buildings were built, and I'm talking about 40 story buildings - and the buildings keep coming up at a maddening pace. But I also note that things are getting a lot more expensive from month to month. It may be that the magic number will have gone up to $1300 in a month or so. Anyway, I have narrowed my decision to move down to two buildings, and am just waiting for an opening. So, hey, if any of you all want to visit Chicago again in the near future, you might want to wait until I find myself a new pad right in the heart of it all!

Yes, I have complaints about Chicago, but on those days when the sun is bright in the sky, Riverwalk02when a gentle breeze is blowing across the lake, and the sounds of a concert drift in from the distance, and you're reclining on a beautiful grassy space beneath trees and surrounded by freshly planted flowers, Chicago is pretty damn cool.