Sole Food: A Journey on Foot

On July 16, I had the privilege of reading my work in front of a live audience at O’Rourke’s Office in Morgan Park as part of The Frunchroom reading series along with four other talented local writers. What follows is a longer version of the piece I read about why I choose to walk and the differences between being a pedestrian on the North Side of Chicago vs. the South Side. I’d like to thank the Beverly Arts Alliance and Scott Smith for organizing the event and inviting me to participate, along with O’Rourke’s for hosting. The Frunchroom, is truly #GoodForThe19thWard.

*****

“Argh!”

My fist pounds against my car’s empty passenger seat, the cushion dampening the sound of the blow but still absorbing the full force of my frustration. Another traffic jam on I-90 has drawn out my anger. When traffic crawls this slowly, nothing can make the experience enjoyable. Songs on the radio just add to the maddening cacophony of idling motors and blaring horns. Talk shows are as mind-numbing as staring in silence at the red brake lights in front of me. In the summer, air conditioning seems too cold, and in the winter, the heat creates a sauna effect that has me rolling down the window — only to let in an onslaught of noise and fumes. Even less comforting is knowing that somewhere else in the suburbs, my wife, Amy, is having the exact same experience in a different car, as we both try to make it back to our North Side home and escape the purgatory known as expressway commuting — at least for a few hours. Then, we get up and do it again the next day.

The experience I describe isn’t from a particular day. Rather, it is an amalgam of many different commutes I endured as a newspaper reporter living in Chicago but covering a massive swath of suburbia. For years, this was reality for me and Amy, a fellow reporter at the time. Though we made little money, we were essentially forced to own two cars just to do our jobs. Living closer to work wasn’t an option, because on any given day, we didn’t know where work would be. It could be at the office in Schaumburg, it could be at the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan, it could be at city hall in Lake Zurich, or it could be in all three places before 5 p.m. So when considering a place to live, we decided to put our off-hours comfort first. We settled in Uptown because we loved it. We figured that if we were chained to our cars during the day, we should live in a place where we didn’t need them for every after-work or weekend outing. We wanted a place that was walkable.

And walk we did! Restaurants, coffee shops, bars, the hardware store, the pharmacy, the bodega — from ice cream to tacos, Tylenol to nails, not much was outside of walking distance in our little corner of the world. And on the rare occasions when things were, we hopped on the bus or, yes, into our car and went for a ride.

I have no doubt this arrangement brought us closer to our community. The owner of the corner coffee shop lived literally across the hall from us in our building. We became regulars at the nearby taqueria, and when our carryout order was once mistaken for delivery, the mix-up was quickly sorted out due to the fact that we lived about 50 yards away. We loved the physical closeness of our neighborhood so much that when Amy and I both left our journalism jobs and her commute took her to the University of Chicago, we decided we would move to the South Side if we could find a similarly convenient neighborhood where we could afford to buy a house.

While we knew Beverly wasn’t quite as compact as our part of Uptown, it still seemed like a good fit. It was closer to work for my wife, yet I could still get downtown to my new job via the Metra Rock Island line. After we changed careers, we wasted no time in giving one of our two cars to my parents, and given the plethora of public transportation options we saw in the neighborhood, we envisioned living a mostly car-free lifestyle. We bought a house a couple blocks from 95th Street, and despite the vacancies, it was clear that it was a street that could blossom into a walker’s paradise. I had been impressed with the changes I read about and saw near the 103rd Street train station, which have made that district a friendlier environment for walking. I assumed that such improvements would become the norm throughout the neighborhood.

At first, walking through Beverly was wonderful! Each home I passed on my way to and from the train station was an architectural delight. The changes in topography, drastic for mostly-flat Chicago, made each walk a mini workout that left me feeling invigorated. And after six months, Amy took a new job downtown, meaning we would walk to and ride the train to work together. Our walks to the station continue to be the highlights of my week. It’s on these strolls we have some of our best conversations, learning more about each other day by day. Other times, we simply walk hand-in-hand enjoying each other’s company and the solitude.

But solitude and pretty houses alone don’t support a fully functioning neighborhood, and I’ve quickly learned that once a person steps away from our leafy residential streets and onto our commercial corridors, the pedestrian experience becomes dicier. There is tragic irony in the fact that the parkways of our residential streets are peppered with signs urging drivers to slow down for children yet we simultaneously allow for the constant, unimpeded flow of fast moving traffic on most of our main corridors, as if these places are somehow exempt from standards of walkability. To be a pedestrian among the automobiles on Western Avenue is to be like a solitary swimmer trying to traverse a rushing river. You might make it to the other side, but the experience won’t be particularly enjoyable. Our neighborhood has countless positive qualities, from the deep roots of our community institutions to the hard-working and kind-hearted people who reside here, but walking most of our main streets is like taking a tour of the neighborhood’s negative aspects all at once.

Prior to moving to Beverly, I had delved into the writings of Jane Jacobs, a journalist-turned-urban thinker whose keen observations about the inner workings of cities in the 1950s and ’60s helped bring about today’s New Urbanism movement. Jacobs turned her eye to her own neighborhood of Greenwich Village in New York for inspiration. Where planners of the day looked at the narrow, labyrinthine streets and saw chaos that needed to be tamed, Jacobs saw a human ecosystem as fine-grained and complex as a rainforest that fostered social and economic interactions. In her writings, particularly the book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she described the common acts of daily life as a ballet that played out not on a stage but rather on her neighborhood’s streets and sidewalks, and in its stores and homes. Each person’s movement was a step in an intricate dance. If Jacobs looked at the streets of Greenwich Village and saw poetry in motion, I can only imaging how she would describe a place like Beverly’s 95th Street or Western Avenue, where the only dance that seems to occur is the one with death each time a pedestrian attempts to cross the roadway.

Our neighborhood is often described as “tight-knit,” a place where longtime residents develop relationships that last generations. But it also has been described to me as a place newcomers can feel as though breaking into the community’s social circles is like trying to dig through concrete with a spoon. It can seem as though these tight-knit groups are hidden behind closed doors and a new resident such as myself must choose the right one to open.

I can’t help but feel like the lack of street life — and the anemic physical neighborhood structure to foster it — contributes to this challenge. Simply walking down our main streets can yield few interactions with others. While drivers can easily speed down Western Avenue, the sidewalks often are deserted. Cars dominate the landscape. From our extra-wide roadways to our many parking lots, the environment can can seem hostile to anyone who chooses to travel on foot. When living on the North Side, my wife and I would frequently walk miles from our apartment through the bustling Andersonville neighborhood without giving a second thought to the distance we had traveled. The atmosphere was constantly stimulating. Everything from the scale of the buildings to the width of the streets and sidewalks indicated that although driving was permitted, the priority was the safety and convenience of the pedestrian. While many of these walks were to a restaurant or particular shop, the true destination was the journey itself. The place was all around us.

When it comes to walkability — not to mention a plethora of other social and economic matters — much of the South Side has not fared as well as the North. The history of urban renewal on the South Side is well documented. Planners just like those eyeing Jacobs’ Greenwich Village saw messy and quote-unquote blighted communities where streets teemed with people, and they decided to level the neighborhoods. In place of the traditional buildings, these communities got vacant lots or isolating housing projects. In place of narrow, walkable streets, they got wide, over-engineered roads designed to funnel cars as quickly as possible through these once thriving neighborhoods. Mostly, these changes disproportionately impacted poor and minority communities, displacing many while leaving those who remained to live among a scarred landscape not conducive to walking farther than the front door.

Although Beverly was spared some of the demolition that came with urban renewal, its growth was certainly shaped by the same modernist planning principles that created the South Side we know today. In most places, our shops and restaurants — the gathering places of any great community — are kept separate from our homes. Physical barriers like high-speed roads and dead-end streets hinder inter- and intra-neighborhood connections. Aside from a few pockets of walkable districts, the public realm is a place that repels lingering and foot traffic instead of encouraging these activities. Our built environment is spread across distances that can seem as vast as the open prairies beyond Chicago. The same walks Amy and I took on the North Side can seem endless here, even when they cover the same distance. Given the design of our neighborhood, traveling by car can feel like the only option for getting around easily. The auto, once seen as a symbol of freedom of mobility, is more like a shackle when the place you live has been created with few other options in mind.

Ironically, with just one car in our household and two monthly train tickets to get to work, the bulk of our commuting today is not done by automobile. In fact, the amount of walking I do just getting around for my job — most of it downtown — is far more than I did in my days as a reporter, and I’m convinced that if I were to be offered my dream job in a location that required a four-hour, round-trip car ride, I’d have to seriously consider whether it was actually my dream job. Still, that doesn’t mean seemingly invisible forces don’t try to nudge me into a car when I need to get around the neighborhood for simple errands. The closest grocery store to my home, for instance, is just three blocks away. However, it is across Western Avenue in Evergreen Park, and the last time my wife and I attempted to walk there, we were almost run down in the crosswalk. One of my favorite places in Chicago to dig for vinyl — Beverly Records at 116th and Western — would be a short bus ride away in many other neighborhoods, but Pace operates so infrequently along this route that a quick jaunt can turn into a logistical nightmare. Not long after moving here, I bought my first bike in years solely for short trips. I love riding it, but the same conditions that make walking dangerous and inconvenient work against bicyclists, too.

But regardless of where I live now and at any other point in the future, walking will always be my favorite mode of transportation. After all, the cost — nothing — is appealing. Plus, it’s healthy for the body and for the community. Show me a neighborhood bustling with pedestrians, and I will show you a successful place. All those little details that make a place beautiful — from the craftsmanship of the buildings to the smiles on the faces of passersby — are little more than vague impressions when behind the wheel. But to see them up close, on foot, is to truly feel the pulse of humanity. Removing the barriers to a safe, pleasant and convenient walk can help people rebuild bonds between each other and allow them to truly feel the life that surges through the community. In other words, walking is good for the soul. I’ve never felt compelled to slam my fist against an inanimate object in frustration as a walker. Mostly, I feel nourished. A good walk affirms connections with your surroundings and makes you feel as if you belong. It is probably one of life’s simplest pleasures. But it’s also one of the most rewarding.

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