Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Dense Thinking

Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Lakeview, Logan Square No Comments »

The 1611 West Division building has 99 units but zero parking for residents./Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Believe it or not, back in the early nineties, ex-mayor Richard M. Daley was planning to tear out an entire branch of the El system. “The Lake Street branch of what’s now the Green Line had terrible slow zones and you could almost walk to Oak Park faster,” recalls Jacky Grimshaw, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s vice president for policy. “The mayor and the CTA president wanted to take it down.”

Grimshaw says this moment of crisis was the birth of Chicago’s transit-oriented development (TOD) movement, a push to create dense, parking-light housing and retail near rapid-transit stations in order to reduce car dependency. CNT and the West Side community organization Bethel New Life teamed up to present the CTA with a plan for TOD near the Lake/Pulaski stop, but it fell on deaf ears. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Dick Van Dyke Effect

Logan Square, Loop, River North No Comments »

The author in Dick Van Dyke mode and roadie apparel./Photos: Steven Vance

By John Greenfield

I first heard about the “Mary Poppins Effect” back in March 2011 from local bike blogger Dottie Brackett, also known as The Martha Stewart of Chicago Cycling. “This is basically the idea that drivers are nicer to women bicyclists riding upright bikes with dresses and flowing hair, ” she wrote on her site Let’s Go Ride a Bike. “Who could be mean to Mary Poppins?”

On the other hand, it’s believed that motorists are less likely to operate safely around people wearing bike-specific clothing, bent over drop handlebars on a racing bike. “A cyclist dressed ‘normally’ looks more human to the driver,” wrote Dottie’s Massachusetts counterpart Constance Winters, who coined the term for the phenomenon on her blog Lovely Bicycle two months earlier. “The more ‘I am human! I am you!’ signals we give off when cycling, the more empathy a driver will feel towards us. Dehumanization, on the other hand, makes it easier to cause harm to another human being.” Read the rest of this entry »

411: Tour de Fat fetes Beer Drinkers, Bike Riders and Beer-Drinking Bike Riders

Bicycling, Events, Green, Logan Square No Comments »

“If Tour de Fat was a drug, ” an attendee to the cycling festival says on its Facebook page, “I’d say it was the same chemical compounds released in your brain and euphoric experience that we know as love.”

Those interested in the way beer, free music and bicycle riding can stimulate that particular feeling would do well to check out the upcoming Chicago leg of the Tour de Fat, which comes to Chicago this Saturday. Centered around a costumed bike parade, the festival, which is hosted by the Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company, will have an emphasis upon sustainability. The Car-for-Bike program allows one pre-chosen Chicago citizen to trade in their polluting car for an eleven-speed handcrafted bicycle for one year. Performing acts this year are appropriately eclectic, including vaudeville comedy act The Daredevil Chicken Club, psychedelic blue-grass band The Dovekins, and  self-described “circus punk marching band” Mucca Pazza. Seventies rock mainstay Free Energy headlines the stage. (Michael Gillis)

The Tour de Fat is in Chicago on July 16. Registration for the bike parade begins at 9am, with the parade itself being at 10am at Palmer Square, North Kedzie Avenue and West Palmer Square. Performances continue at Palmer Square from 11am to 4pm. 

Spanish Lessons: Turning language games into tools for home and abroad

Education/Training, Logan Square No Comments »

The fruits of my studies included quality time spent in Puerto Natales, Chile

When it comes to learning foreign languages, I’ve been a Jack of all trades, master of none. I’ve dabbled in French, Hebrew, Russian and Japanese, sometimes achieving the ability to hack my way through a conversation with a tolerant native, but never becoming fully functional in another tongue.

One reason Anglophones like me tend to be lazy about learning another idiom is that much of the world speaks English as a lingua franca. But one language that is very valuable for Americans to learn is Spanish, and it will only become more so as the U.S. Latino population grows. It’s especially handy here in Chicago, where more than one in four residents is Latino, many of them recent immigrants.

I made a half-assed attempt at learning Spanish during a one-semester early morning course at the University of Chicago. Although the teacher was a charismatic, funny woman from Argentina, sleep deprivation often led me to nod off in class. Since then I’ve worked a bit with books and tapes, and I got to practice the language during a college road trip in northwest Mexico, and when I was the lone Chicago delegate at the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Barcelona. Read the rest of this entry »

Gang Green: Election night with the soon-to-be formerly “established” third party of Illinois

Logan Square, Politics No Comments »

Jeremy Karpen

Fifty to sixty Green Party supporters and a few of the candidates themselves, gathered at Cole’s Bar in Logan Square election night to watch the results come in, and the news was not good. They had gotten trounced in their races for Illinois Comptroller, Cook County Board President and Illinois 4th Congressional District, to say nothing of Senate candidate LeAlan Jones. Their best hope had been Jeremy Karpen, a 29-year-old professional counselor and social activist running against Democratic incumbent Maria Antonia “Toni” Berrios for Illinois State Representative for District 39. He had already run against her in 2008, gaining 21 percent of the vote despite being massively outspent. Endorsed by The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Teachers Union, he’d been showing strength in the polls—enough so that national blogs like The Huffington Post had taken notice and were commenting on the possibility of an electoral upset. But as Jeremy takes the stage to address his supporters around 9pm, it has become clear that the race has been decided—once again, for the incumbent.

“Obviously this is not the speech I wanted to make,” begins Karpen. “But what we did today is an incredible example of grass-roots democracy. This was about what it means to run a democracy, to build a real political alternative.”

Read the rest of this entry »

411: Community-Aided Design

Green, Logan Square No Comments »

Danarvis Mitchell doesn’t own a computer. Actually, she doesn’t really know how to use computers either. Here’s what Mitchell can’t do: touch-type, email, or look for a job online. Here’s what she can do: test your hard drive to make sure it works, use Linux to wipe your hard drive, and navigate the maze of computer innards at Free Geek. Free Geek is a nonprofit in a basement in Logan Square that provides free, refurbished desktops to people willing to donate twenty-four hours of their time. Walking down the steep stairs of Free Geek is like descending into the insides of a computer: hard drives, motherboards and wires reach out from every shelf. Mitchell says her friend Donica Lyles dragged her here, all the way up from Gary, Indiana, to learn how to use a computer and build one she can keep. Mitchell says she got along fine without a computer in the past, but since she and Lyles got laid off from the casino they worked at, she realized she needs to learn computer skills so she can file for unemployment benefits online and search for jobs. At an OpenBuild session, Mitchell and Lyles chat and test hard drives, getting help from “super-volunteers”—people who continue helping out at Free Geek even after building their own computers. At first, Lyles says, she was nervous about working on computers alongside experts. Many of them are computer whizzes who want to learn more, help out others, and maybe add something to their resume. But, Lyles says, “If you don’t know [about computers], they don’t have any problems with that.” Free Geek describes itself as a “democratically run organization that uses consensus for decision-making,” and it’s hard to tell the super-volunteers apart from the Luddites. They’re all there to gain a better understanding of computers, whether it’s learning how to turn them on or program them. (Ella Christoph)

Donate old computers and equipment, buy a PC for $40, or earn a computer, and vast computer knowledge, by committing to twenty-four hours of volunteer time. Free Geek, 3411 West Diversey, (773)451-7130,

411: The Day of the Liquidator

Logan Square, News etc. No Comments »

Seth Marks has been a liquidator for seventeen years, which is only a small fraction of the nine decades his family has been in the closeout business. “Unfortunately, they don’t teach it in school,” Marks says, “so you have to learn it in the street.” The street, in Marks’ case, meant his grandfather and father. Working on Maxwell Street, Marks’ grandfather started as a jobber in the 1920s and 1930s, selling wholesale items. Marks’ father later joined the closeout trade, and now Marks carries on as the third-generation in the business. With even family Thanksgiving dinners consisting of conversations valuing the cutlery and trays on the table, Marks knew he “wanted to do this from the beginning,” working in flea markets and swap meets as a high school and college student. “I hustled it,” he says. Later, his wholesale liquidation background merged with the retail world when he started a job with Big Lots. He eventually came to own his own equity fund, Talon Merchant Capital. And now, Marks is launching Talon Deals, a liquidator retailer, with its first store opening last weekend. With discounted merchandise eighty- to ninety-percent off of regular retail, “It’s like a going-out-of-business sale every day,” says Marks, who sees the bad economy as a good time to launch his new store. “I feel bad for Michigan Avenue,” he says. The 30,000-square-foot store offers everything from 7 For All Mankind jeans to 73-inch 3-D televisions. “It’s truly a treasure-hunt environment,” Marks says. (Sylvia Kim)

Talon Deals, 2929 North California.

Ride a Beercycle: New Belgium Brewing is built on the happy union of cycles and suds

Bicycling, Events, Logan Square No Comments »

That bicycle on your Fat Tire bottle is more than just a logo. In 1989, New Belgium Brewing Company founder Jeff Lebesch gained an affection for Belgian-style beer on a trip bicycling through Europe. His taste for Belgian-inspired beer and reverence for the bicycle that brought him to it remain two tenets of the Fort Collins, Colorado craft brewery, which saw eighteen-percent growth last year. Bryan Simpson, spokesperson for New Belgium, says that bicycle culture “is pretty much in our DNA.” The company went commercial in 1991 when Lebesch and his wife Kim Jordan took their brew from a Colorado basement to bottles bearing a likeness to the fat-tired bicycle Lebesch traveled on over twenty years ago. Read the rest of this entry »

Spring Boards: Hitting the decks as the season changes

Logan Square, News etc. No Comments »

It’s dog-walking hour on Logan Boulevard. Two greyhounds each have on their spring jackets, one red and one black, their walker also in black. Just past Maplewood Avenue, a skate park sits underneath the Kennedy. Eight teenage skateboarders and three younger boys on scooters contentedly circle the concrete edifice avoiding the ramps and railings. Most of the tricks attempted by the eight fail, and when one succeeds, there’s no peer congratulations or gloating by he who triumphs; he’s already moved on. Rush hour can be heard on the 90/94 above, but none of the young skaters or spectators need rush to be anywhere on this the first day of spring break from school in Chicago. On a fence, a rules sign and two other signs equally prohibit alcohol and dogs from entering the park. That fence, three-feet high, separates the skaters from the civilians. A peanut gallery of the latter weighs in occasionally on the antics on display, where a girl in pink pants steals a boy’s hat off his head. It will belong to her for the forseeable future. On the tracks that run parallel with the expressway, there’s a Metra train going somewhere. The sun will set within the next few hours, but the lights on the underbelly of the Kennedy are already on, and there skaters are going nowhere soon. (Andrew Rhoades)

411: Bowling with Hipsters

Logan Square, News etc., Sports No Comments »

Anyone who’s been to Logan Square’s hipster destination The Whistler wouldn’t expect the bar to have a Super Bowl party. But not so fast! The countrified Golden Horse Ranch Band has a monthly residency at the venue and February 6, Super Bowl Sunday, just happens to fall on one of the group’s dates. The solution? Broadcast the game from the stage while the band performs, and when the Bowl concludes, auction off the television. “The residency fell on the same day as the Super Bowl, but what can we do?” Jennifer Boeder, assistant at The Whistler, says. “We’re broadcasting it on a five-inch piece-of-crap television, from the stage. They’ll play, and play the game from the stage, and talk about the game and give updates. If you actually do care, you can kind of keep score, and if you don’t care, it’s a good alternate activity.” Leave it to The Whistler crew to even make the Super Bowl some kind of art piece.