Reflections on a Queer Bike Tour of Chicago

In a city whose gay and queer community remains decidedly concentrated within a relatively limited number of neighborhoods, it would seem unlikely a tour of that very community’s history would traverse many neighborhoods outside the current concentration on the North Side. But that’s exactly what happened when I planned a tour of this very history. The tour, which I organized for and with the help of a local Meet Up for LGBTQ* and allied urban planning professionals, students, and enthusiasts called Moxie Chicagoland, took place a few weeks ago. Focusing on the city’s pre-Stonewall queer experiences neighborhoods throughout Downtown and the near South and North Sides were explored, thus examining often overlooked histories and simultaneously forcing a discussion about myriad other relevant topics.

Because of decently strenuous overseas move and a serious case of writer’s block I’ve delayed writing about this tour (sorry, Daniel!) It was nonetheless a wonderful capstone moment to a year spent in my hometown and an opportunity to flex my still underdeveloped event organizing muscle (thank you, Daniel!) It was also a much-needed excuse to venture further onto the South Side of Chicago, which is way too overlooked by North Siders like myself.

The tour, which featured roughly 20 intrepid participants facing cold and rain, began at Washington Square Park. This Victorian pocket of green located on Clark Street fronting the Newberry Library was once a center a bohemian life in Chicago and was until the second half of the 20th century the de facto center of Chicago’s North Side queer community. From here, the tour travelled north on Clark Street passing the former site of The Gold Coast bar (owned by Chuck Renslow, the founder of International Mr. Leather) and to an apartment building on Goethe Street where a police raid of a private party hosted by a gay male couple occurred in the late 1960s.

From here the group made a consistently southward trajectory, through the Gold Coast and River North (formerly referred to as Tower Town in reference to the Water Tower and Chicago’s answer to 1920s Greenwich Village) into the Loop, which included a stop at Daley Plaza the site of many important rallies and protests by queer Chicagoans including the first Pride March, AIDS rallies, and marriage equality protests. Cutting further south still along Dearborn Street (using one of the city’s bike paths in the process) the group made its way to Dearborn Station to learn about one of Chicago’s former vice districts (and an attraction for queer men) before zigzagging to the lakefront and a photo-op at the Shedd Aquarium.

Eventually, the sun did come out and dried us off after a rainy and drizzly start to the day.

Eventually, the sun did come out and dried us off after a rainy and drizzly start to the day.

This is when the sun finally came out and the city began to dry out and warm after the frigid morning. Just in time too: from here the group sped south along the lakefront passing McCormack Place and the then soon-to-be-open Northerly Island park on our way to Bronzeville. Better known for being one of the premier African-American neighborhoods and nightlife spots in the city (and possibly the country as well), it also played host to a number of bars and clubs where queer men–those who were white and who were of color–not only met for social events, but to also practice an art that is almost exclusively synonymous with queer culture: drag.

Lots is gone in fact. The tour made one feel the impact of time and redevelopment on our visible and physical urban history (both of Chicago and queer Chicago), but also the impact of social mores on what buildings (indeed, entire neighborhoods) we preserve, especially when the decision is done explicitly. Minority communities and underprivileged communities feel the impacts of these destroyed spaces the most. This was certainly true in Bronzeville, where an entire historical neighborhood disappeared and speaks volumes about to treatment of minority communities in Chicago’s past and even into its present. Seeking out physical remnants of Chicago’s queer past, especially that which happened before 1969, offered few satisfactory moments. Most of the queer community’s physical historical evidence is gone: the Gold Coast is a condo tower now, what were once the vice districts were mostly cleared and paved, and the Coliseum, historical for more than just its queer parties, is long gone.

Chicago is fortunate though that the voices of so many of its queer residents resonate still. Chicago’s queer community, although important, can’t compete with the fame of New York’s or San Francisco’s and the solidity and centrality of its current North Side home make it seem like it was always along Halsted Street. Its overlooked, misinterpreted, and misunderstood.

It didn’t totally disappear though.

Washington Square Park is still there. There are books and TV documentaries and websites being produced about this history. And there is still room for more research. The voices of women and people of color play second fiddle to those of white gay men. Physical spaces, like the home of Henry Gerber, are finally being recognized and preserved by the city and at the national level even. Ultimately it’s not a tragic end. Nor should the results be looked at as a disappointment. Never has a history of Chicago revealed so much about its diverse and complicated past while forcing the viewer to ask as many questions about a similarly complicated present. Indeed, the tour was not merely a history of queer Chicago, rather it was a tour of Chicago’s history through a queer lens and looking through queer experiences, which are as much a part of the city’s history as those of any other group.

Crossroads Goose Island: How a tech project could be the best experiment in urban planning this year

Oh, North Avenue. You so conveniently cut a path, straight as all lines, between two parks, how fine. But wait, you are deceiving and unkind. From end-to-end is but a mile and a half, yet, like the Kennedy you’re often not the best bet. Not a bus in sight. Oh, wait there it is behind the line of Autos Germanic, all stuck in the inconvenient slow. And cyclists go fast do they not? Here doubtful, I say, weave in and out best they may, this is a knot better than a Boy Scout’s on his best day. With no money for an ‘L’ and our poor ol’ streetcars rusting in hell this mess remains to stay.

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Getting from Wicker Park to Lincoln Park via North Avenue is more often than not an unpleasant and slow experience and speeding up that trip and relieving congestion will take some creative work. A pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Chicago River and Goose Island, as proposed by developers seeking to tap the island’s potential might be just the trick. For cyclists and walkers the new path is modern, fast, and quite smart. The best part of the proposal though is the potential it establishes to make a truly bike-centric section of the city on the Near North and Northwest Sides.

As Curbed Chicago has recently (and previously) reported, the development company South Street Capital is interested in investing in Goose Island as a new addition to a growing number of tech hubs in and around Chicago. As more details emerge about the company’s plans to build on the Goose Island Boatyard site and another site across the street so have plans to better connect the island to surrounding Lincoln Park and Wicker Park/Noble Square neighborhoods. The most significant aspect of this proposal, which has the potential to be financed entirely through private investments, pertains to how well this proposal could catalyze better bike infrastructure projects all over the city, but mostly in an area where it is sorely needed.

Boatyard Development Goose Island

Image showing the proposed development on Goose Island including one of two proposed pedestrian and bike bridges. The density and proximity of the area to River North and the Loop is also apparent. 

Although still in the planning and financing phases, the overall scope of the project includes maximizing on ways to connect the new developments with commercial districts in the surrounding neighborhoods, transportation options (including the Red Line’s North/Clybourn stop and Blue Line’s Chicago stop), and improving walkability and bikeability despite Goose Island’s generally difficult to work with infrastructure. The existing roads and connections are primarily remnants of the island’s former heavy industrial character, which over time has changed to high-tech industry and other modern technologies. This is both good and bad. The good is that there is a lot of infrastructure to work with from broad lightly used streets and old rail right-of-ways. The bad is that pretty much everything needs to be built from scratch.

The city and surrounding communities need to catalyze on the private investments to make public dollars stretch further. Some of the more expensive aspects of these proposals are the two bridges being touted as ways to get bikers and pedestrians on and off Goose Island more conveniently while avoiding more infrastructure encouraging driving. The bridges more than any other piece of new bike infrastructure in this part of the city may be some of the most useful tools in truly helping biking as a means of transportation explode. First, they offer better ways around the borders of the multiple neighborhoods that meet at this juncture than most of the main streets in the areas. North Avenue, as mentioned, is seemingly always a mess and even Division Street, which has relatively speaking very good bike infrastructure, gets tight near the Chicago River and Kennedy Expressway. It also helps connect the area to a new growing job center.

The most important thing though is that the costs of overall expansions may be cheaper because of the private investments. This means the city can spend more on improving on street bike routes rather than spending lots of money on bridges and large-scale projects.

As the city and surrounding communities consider the impact of these proposed developments, considering how biking will be integrated into this will be an important part of moving forward. The near North Side neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Uptown, and Wicker Park/Bucktown are already highly congested and dense and need relief. With no money available for new ‘L’ lines or other high-capacity mass transit (with the exception of the still proposed Ashland BRT) biking is the best solution to relieving congestion, but it won’t work if the projects are too basic. While some relief may come with the extension of Water Taxi service north to Goose Island, biking has the best potential to make this area less congested and relieve the car dependency that still exists.

Chicago: Wicker Park-Lincoln Park Connections

This map shows the near North Side neighborhoods near Goose Island. Proposed bike lanes and routes are shown in red, existing bike routes are shown in green–the Bloomingdale Trail is in dark green, bike routes built into the boulevards proposed in a previous article on this blog are in orange, and various new bridges are circled and in red or purple. The Water Taxi landing would likely be adjacent to the proposed bridge of Goose Island’s southern tip. 

From this proposal, a master plan for biking in the area needs to be developed which seeks to connect the Bloomingdale Trail to Goose Island, the bridges to existing bike routes and improve those routes to make them high-quality paths, not just painted stripes. Indeed, a large-scale examination of how to improve bike infrastructure radiating from Goose Island could be a role player in connecting the lakefront, the river, and the Loop to the boulevard system and Far North and Northwest Sides. The capacity of the project also needs to be high, so as to facilitate the use of bikes for all kinds of trips in the area and honestly get people out of cars. More than basic bike routes every half-mile to mile are necessary for this to be successful.

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Much like many Parisian streets, Division Street on Chicago’s Near North Side has broad sidewalks, which could easily absorb a protected bike lane like this one in the French capital. Image found on humanisttransit.org. 

Just from anecdotal experience it is clear that a number of streets in the area have the space and low automobile usage to facilitate the construction of new high-quality bike lanes radiating from Goose Island or connecting routes expanding from Goose Island. Even streets with bike infrastructure could easily see major improvements. The wide sidewalks along Division Street could easily absorb barrier protected or curb protected bike lanes from the lake to Humboldt Park and perhaps further for example.

The expansion of bike infrastructure in Chicago needs to stop being done in isolated chunks that result in high-quality infrastructure only at periodic intervals, rather in a consistent way that actually aids the formation of a bike culture legitimately available to all people. Because of the combination of often times ridiculous congestion of these North Side neighborhoods and high-density living with easy access in may parts to mass transit, some of the best opportunities exist here and now to radically improve the experience cyclists have in the city. Failing to take advantage of the impetus being brought about by these privately invested in bridges would be a huge loss for the city.

While the improvements made by the city are admirable, if the city truly wants to become a bike-centric city it needs to take advantage of opportunities like the one being presented to make a big concerted effort to turning streets once entirely the domain of cars into shared spaces like those found in Paris or Amsterdam. This takes confidence though, both on the part of the city government and city residents, to know the investments are worth it. And while it is a shame such potential bike infrastructure improvements help one part of the city out initially before being expanded to other parts, it does set an example. Places like Lincoln Park and Wicker Park have the character and density of bike-friendly European cities and could be the best local examples of how bike culture can and will thrive in the United States if given the chance. Grasping the opportunity to do more with this initial proposal could be the force that really brings the city forward in terms of bike infrastructure. Neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Edgewater would easily benefit form similar projects; it would be a shame to miss a good place to start.

But it can’t be done haphazardly, because let’s be honest, we’re a good biking city, but only by American standards. There is some work to be done yet.

New bike paths are good, but it’s a long-term vision that the Northwest Side really needs

The North Shore Bike Path is the southern end of a dedicated bike route, which extends practically the entire distance from Milwaukee to Chicago. The path weaves its way though forests, past prairies, over rivers all the while skirting the presence of built spaces as best it can and then suddenly terminates in the Chicago neighborhood of Edgebrook. A planned extension of the project would weave it through the southern most portion of the Cook County forest preserves along the North Branch of the Chicago River. While this is a positive step in bringing more bike-friendly infrastructure to the city a quick look at the plan makes one thing abundantly clear: the bike path exists in a vacuum and really this is sub par without more impressive bike infrastructure. It’s great that the city and county can afford to put in high-quality bike routes for recreational use in the forest preserve, but if real change is going to happen the quality, safety, and visibility of bike routes in the entire city must raise to a level that rivals city’s like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, when biking becomes an honest transportation option.

The Northwest Side seems an unlikely place to begin thinking about biking. The area of the city is served by limited mass transit routes. The CTA Blue Line is the only ‘L’ that runs through this part of the city and Metra’s model of serving mostly commuters is generally unreliable for many types of trips. Although busses are common the area, service is often infrequent and slowed by the heavy traffic in this car-oriented part of the city. None of this makes for what might be called a “bike-friendly” community. Most paths are recreational only and often accessed by car too. However, let’s be imaginative in our thinking. Granted, I am making an extreme statement, but: let us, an American city with major financial woes, spend a whole lot of money-making a car-centric corner of the city bikeable beyond recognition. How could that ever work?

The Northwest Side has some characteristics that put it in a good position to be a great trial ground for the bike friendly infrastructure that would make a Hollander or Dane feel right at home. First, the lack of transit access shouldn’t be seen as a hinderance to this type of system. Indeed, adding more bike infrastructure would help make the area more transit-oriented without having to necessarily add more transit options. Many parts of the Northwest Side are relatively close to some decent transit options the issues isn’t that they’re not their, but rather how do we get to them. Bikes might be the answer. Jefferson Park Transit Center is located within a 2.0-2.5 mile radius of much of the Northwest Side or a 10-15 minute bike trip. From here, people can transfer to the Metra, ‘L’, and numerous bus routes.

This map shows the theoretical extent of bike lanes on the Northwest Side of Chicago. This map centers on the neighborhoods of Sauganash/Edgebrook and Jefferson Park. This map shows how more extensive methods could rapidly expand the network. (dark red - protected bike lanes, orange - Dutch style "bike streets", yellow solid - buffered bike lanes, yellow dotted - stripped bike lanes, green - North Shore Bike Path extension, blue - CTA Blue Line, black - Metra routes)

This map shows the theoretical extent of bike lanes on the Northwest Side of Chicago. This map centers on the neighborhoods of Sauganash/Edgebrook and Jefferson Park. It shows how more extensive methods could rapidly expand the network. (dark red – protected bike lanes, orange – Dutch style “bike streets”, yellow solid – buffered bike lanes, yellow dotted – stripped bike lanes, green – North Shore Bike Path extension, blue – CTA Blue Line, black – Metra routes)

Secondly, the area is neighborhood heavy; what I mean by that is the Northwest Side definitely epitomizes the definition of Chicago as a city of neighborhoods. The numerous neighborhoods offer much for and would benefit from better bike infrastructure thus creating a mutually beneficial positive feedback loop. The neighborhoods allow many residents the opportunity to do much of their errands within their neighborhoods. This part of the city benefits from good schools, libraries, grocery stores in most areas, and relatively busy business districts. A bike trip to the store doesn’t require long car trips to other parts of the city when you’re on the Northwest Side and that facet of life here should be utilized. What I am saying is the idea behind bike lanes on the Northwest Side shouldn’t revolve around commuters or cross-town trips, but daily errands, visits to friends, getting to school etc. The Northwest Side offers great potential for developing into a bikes-first, cars-second part of the city. But again the hindrance: little to no reliable or safe infrastructure.

Thirdly, the area benefits from some strong spines that help bring cyclists into and out of the Northwest Side if they wish to do so by bike. Milwaukee Avenue is slowly but surely developing into an increasingly better bike street, the same goes for Lawrence and Elston. While all three need work (lots of it) the role they play as major bike routes shouldn’t be overlooked. Additionally, the North Shore Bike Path is important in that it can double as a safe passage through the neighborhood even if it isn’t the most convenient. It also provides an ideal example of what safe bike paths look like.

Fourth, the area is planned in an odd way that makes car-ownership easy, but also has pedestrian and bike-friendly streets. The old, established neighborhoods sprung up before car-ownership was common and many areas still center around rail lines in a way that supported bus, streetcar (fingers crossed), or pedestrian routes to these areas. A relatively low population density when compared to other parts of the city and the ability to build private parking easily also means car-ownership isn’t unreasonable as well. This however, could benefit bike infrastructure. Because of the ability to privately park cars (lots of alleys feed into private garages) many streets could facilitate the lost on-street parking (possibly up to 50%) that would accompany radical changes to incorporate high-quality bike lanes. Hopefully, this could be achieved an in the process raise the visibility of biking as an option increasing ridership. If successful, a goal should be to make biking such a viable option as to lower the number of cars per household, thus decreasing even more the amount of traffic in the area and on-street parking required.

[youtube.com=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9W9p4o765No]

And finally, children play the next best role in making the Northwest Side an area that is vivaciously bike-friendly. The primarily residential area has lots of families with children. Bike lanes should be designed so that kids can use them safely, whether they’re going to school, the store or library, or simply enjoying themselves. This is why the Northwest Side would be a great place to start implementing more high-quality models of bike infrastructure in Chicago–ones that may even verge on extreme for American eyes. The area is also home to many residents who age in place. Biking should be accessible for older residents as well. It adds even more mobility for all. If making an area that is car-oriented into an area where kids can safely bike most places then something impressive has been achieved–it’s an undeniable success.

It seems like an impossible cause in a car-oriented area, but there are examples of what can be done to achieve this. Even if the infrastructure costs more than simply painting stripes on asphalt it will cost significantly less than building or expanding new transit options. There is a particular stretch of bike route through Edgebrook and Forest Glen, which in my mind epitomizes the problems with our current infrastructure, but the potential as well (and especially so on the Northwest Side). I live along this stretch: it is the street based extension of the North Shore bike path system. From Devon and Leheigh it runs along Devon Avenue before dipping into neighborhood side streets zigzagging its way to Elston Avenue. The road is potholed though. The streets, though quite, are broad and allow for traffic to speed up decently fast. Major intersections lack stop lights and pit bikers and pedestrians again oncoming cars. There are no markings other than some small, well hidden signs advertising the bike route.

Chicago is a "good" biking city by American standards, but at a global level is a poorly connected city for cyclists.

Chicago is a “good” biking city by American standards, but at a global level is a poorly connected city for cyclists.

Paris is a better connected city. It is not Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but some of things to notice are the long, well developed routes with few gaps.

Paris is a better connected city. It is not Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but some of the things to notice are the long, well-developed routes with few gaps.

The prime example of a bikable city, Amsterdam includes numerous long and unbroken bike routes across the entire city with bike-friendly streets in the denser areas along basically each road.

The prime example of a bikable city, Amsterdam includes numerous long and unbroken bike routes across the entire city with bike-friendly streets in the denser areas along basically each road.

This is not a street for kids to bike along independently. This is not a street that will make for a comfortable ride to the train or grocery store. This is merely there to get sport cyclists to the lakefront, and it doesn’t even do a good job at that. Simple solutions could turn this into a fantastic bike route and exemplify what the entire system should look like. Take from the Dutch (see the video above of a street converted into a bike route): start by using colored pavement to visualize the location of a bike route to drivers. Paint the route red or green or something. Include signs at every crossing indicating this is a bike route and warning drivers they are entering shared space. Indeed, small speed-bumps doubling as crosswalks physically force drivers to slow and recognize they entered a new space. Because on street parking isn’t in high demand here, create larger curb bump-outs to force drivers to slow as they approach intersections and where possible add roundabouts. And finally: keep the street well paved.

For a fraction of the cost of new transit systems an entire network of bike routes, real ones could revolutionize transit in Chicago and on the Northwest Side. This system would easily expand across all neighborhoods along on quieter side streets increasing accessibility to cyclists of all ages and abilities. Following just the path of the North Shore trail’s street portion logical extensions reveal themselves. The route eventually leads to Forest Glen and onto Elston. An extension down Leclaire would serve the community well be bridging the gap to Jefferson Park the Jeff Park transit center, business district, Milwaukee and Lawrence. Stretch this north along Leheigh and Hiawatha and a continuous bike route through the neighborhood emerges. It can then be stretched east along Bryn Mawr connecting to Albany Park bring the Northwest Side closer to the lake and other city neighborhoods.

A bigger vision doesn’t necessarily mean everything will be achieved, however it would position the city in a way to really work on carrying out much more impressive large-scale projects. A focus on the Northwest Side additional is a symbolic step in showing that biking isn’t just something meant for Wicker Park and Logan Square or Lakeview, but it is a form of transportation appropriate for the entire city. A bike network stretched across different levels connected in unmeasurable ways is what will get people onto bikes and out of cars, and not just along high-profile routes in select sections of the city. This is especially important when considering the full spectrum of people who could use bikes, but don’t at the moment. The city wants to make biking and walking a more reasonable option for short trips, but many of those are to grocery stores, the bank, transit stops, and schools and those exist en masse across the city, not just fashionable neighborhoods and the Loop. We were always taught to think outside the box in school, let’s begin doing it again in real life. It almost seems obvious.