This essay was originally published on Anthology of Chicago and is reprinted with the author's permission.
I might argue with WalkScore.com.
The Walk Score for the north Pittsburgh suburb where I grew up was 8; in fact I managed tolerably well on my bike there, though it was a boring place to live. The tedium might have had as much to do with the 1970’s, the Great Stupid Moment in American History, as it did with a lack of interesting places to walk to, and the sterility of suburban life in just about any zip code or era.
My Lincoln Square neighborhood today features a Walk Score of 97, one more part of the community that I can brag about, but only 68 for transit? When I can walk to an L stop, to a Metra stop, to three bus lines? And bike score of 76? I’ve been biking downtown, biking to the Lake, biking to Oak Park to meet friends for music on Tuesday nights, biking everywhere, for over 20 years.
Well, I still brag. And I still walk.
The streets were laid out in my neighborhood around 1910. At the time the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company of South Bend, Indiana was still building wagons and carriages; they hesitated on committing to gasoline powered vehicles at that point, because it wasn’t clear to the management whether the automobile really going to succeed. Early maps of my block feature no garages behind the homes, and Leland Avenue wasn’t paved until the early 1930s. A photo of the block from about 1913 features exactly one vehicle parked on the street, a milkman’s horse wagon.
So the community was built for pedestrians, just like every city and village everywhere until the early 20th century. A century later my wife and I can walk to the post office, several grocery stores, the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library, several parks (including one with an indoor pool), Sears, all manner of shops and businesses, an animal hospital, Greek, Italian, Thai, French, German, Chinese, Mexican, and Korean restaurants, a Dutch pancake shop. We live around the corner from the Old Town School of Folk Music. I can walk to buy greeting cards and leaf bags and fresh pastries and stained glass and herbal remedies. I can walk to a printer’s collaborative where I can buy etchings and lithographs, I can walk 3/4 mile to the Chicago River (and bring my canoe along), I can walk to a grove of massive, 300-year-old bur oak trees on the property of our local elementary school.
Waters Elementary School just celebrated its centennial. The site of the school was once a pond; the community could not be subdivided until the north branch of the Chicago River was channelized by the Chicago Sanitary District in 1907. Evidently an oak savannah stood in the area, and when the School Board bought the square block at Campbell & Wilson to build an elementary school they preserved four of the oak trees in a grove just south of the school building. When I moved into the community 25 years ago I was told that these trees were 300 years old or more, but I dismissed that. An equally impressive, giant oak stood at the corner of Maplewood and Sunnyside, in the parkway. Someone must have planted it there. Was I to believe that the developer moved the street in 1910 so that he wouldn’t have to cut this tree down?
Apparently, yes. A grove of bur oak trees planted at Diversey Harbor is only a century old. We know that because the land was filled in after 1906. These trees are considerably smaller than the related trees at Waters Elementary. Further, looking at the corner of Maplewood and Sunnyside closely, I realized that Sunnyside southbound is narrower than Sunnyside northbound. The only explanation for that was that the developer made the parkway wide enough to leave the tree he found growing there, and it still towers over the street today.
I’ve been biking pretty much everywhere since July of 1992. Until then I had been buying a CTA monthly pass, but after I got laid off in 1992 I started working from home, and no longer needed one. I quickly realized that every time I didn’t board a train or bus, I saved myself a fare. I still rely heavily and happily on the CTA, but these days I bike to work nearly every day, I bike to Hyde Park for concerts or lectures, I bike to Oak Park to join friends making music, I bike to the Chicago Botanic Garden, to Brookfield Zoo, to the northwest side. And I started biking because I did not need a car; I didn’t need a car because I lived in a community that welcomed pedestrians and transit riders a century ago.
I’ve worked in the Loop most of the last 30 years, either as a freelancer or as a regular employee. I take Lincoln Avenue south to Wells, and then LaSalle Street across the river. It’s about 7.3 miles, and I ride year round unless it is raining hard. Lincoln has a bike lane; Chicago in general has motorists who are used to seeing bikers. Once I greeted my friend Abby as I was crossing Western Avenue a block from my home, me on my bike, Abby walking to the L stop. About 40 minutes later, I was on LaSalle Street, about two blocks from my office, and I saw Abby again, crossing LaSalle on his way to work, having just got off the L at Washington & Wells.
As a bike rider, however, I am not level headed. I’m a freak. And that’s the problem. I’m not the sort of freak that prompts young mothers to draw their children close to them when I pedal past. Rather, I’m a freak, and other people are normal. On one winter morning on my way to put my bike on Metra to a client site in Lincolnwood, a motorist rolled down her window, gave me a big smile, and said, “You are amazing!” That was nice of her, but it missed the point. I need to be normal; we all need to be normal together. I tell people I bike about 450 miles or so a month, sport icicles in my beard at 14 below zero, have not owned a car since 1985, I extend my reach to the Fox River or Morton Arboretum or the south suburbs by taking my bike on Metra, I used my credit card exactly once to buy gas between Memorial Day and Thanksgiving in 2007, and they marvel. They never reach the point of thinking “I wish I could live like that.” Why not?
Sweat is not evil. I towel off my head in the men’s room at work after biking downtown on an August morning, and I’m fine. I’ve never died from the rain, never found biking in 20 degree weather troublesome. Part of the point of my biking so much is that it is exactly possible. I represent a viable alternative to a cowardly culture. Not that I’m trying to be a rolling message, but there’s no reason why a great many other Chicagoans can’t be just as weird as I am. In fact, it makes no sense for 95% of the adults in my neighborhood to own a car, but they do anyway.
The latest economic collapse seems to have wrenched us as nation enough so that maybe we are moving away from being a civilization of consumer lunatics. So I hope we get to the point where our 21st century myth is no longer standard, but I still wait. We must have a nice 4BR 2.5 Bath house in the suburbs with a big lawn for the kids to play on, and good schools, and we must have two SUVs to drive around because we need the space and safety, and we must have air conditioning because we need comfort, and we must have nice furniture for entertaining even though we never have time for anyone to come over and we never use our Euro kitchen for dinner with friends, and we must have at least one vacation to the Bahamas every year to unwind from all this debt-induced stress, and we must deal with foreclosure and bankruptcy when we can no longer cover the interest payments on our mortgaged lifestyle.
I towel off my sweaty head before I go into work in August, I grow icycles out of my beard in February, and my wife and I paid off the mortgage on our two flat when we were 34 years old. Debt free ever since, our two sons both finished bachelor’s degrees without student loans, and our bicycles have a lot to do with that. And life in Lincoln Square makes a walker’s life, a biker’s life, practical. Lincoln Square is old-fashioned, but the future is catching up with me here.
Mark Dawson is a technical writer with the software firm Datalogics in Chicago. His wife Susan, of 33 years, is a clinical nurse specialist. They have lived in their home in Lincoln Square for 28 years, and have two grown sons, John and David. Besides biking, Mark is passionate about the music of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, and plays recorder and sings with a madrigal group.