April 09, 2016
By: Brigitte Treumann
Among the many of Chicago’s glories are her lively, diverse, and fascinating neighborhoods. How to best visit them? Get on your bicycle and start peddling! Which is what I have done, and continue to do, throughout most of the year (unless there is a polar vortex freezing my breath or a microburst pulling trees out of the sidewalk). I love my bike and, obviously, I thoroughly enjoy biking.
Chicago is a great city for cycling: it’s flat – or almost flat – but for a gentle elevation, or ridge, that runs westward from the lakeshore. If you feel like it, you can switch from 3 (the touring gear) to 2, as it rises, almost imperceptibly; not necessary to huff and puff. Conversely, when I ride in the opposite direction from Ridge Road, I laugh, “Hey, I am rolling down the ridge!“ I never noticed this ridge until I started bicycling, like so much else that passes you by in a car. It was quite a different story when I moved to Washington, D.C. – a city of many hills – a real challenge to the bicycle lover. I remember getting off my brave conveyance more than once to push it uphill in 100° weather – ah, yes, good for toning and cardio.
I have no systematic plan when I go exploring, but sort of go whither the spirit, or my energy, drive me. I don’t have a map or compass, because one can’t get lost in Chicago. The lake is always in the east, as is the skyline visible from most points in the city. North and south fall into place. Some friends think I am crazy that way, and my son insists I should take my iPhone along, just in case. Perhaps he had in mind when my chain ripped in the middle of a forest preserve, quite some distance from any intersection or larger road, where I might have been able to hail a cab or get help. Thankfully, Hermes, the god of wanderers and cyclists – I appointed him to that post – showed me the way. I had to walk the bike for about half an hour across a golf course, until there at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Devon, a kindly Yellow Cab came along, made room for the bike in its capacious trunk (where have the days of capacious cab trunks gone????), and drove me to my designated bike store. A bit of advice to any true bike aficionado: make sure you have competent biking services/bike stores in your neighborhood.
Over the years I have become more focused on favorite areas, or seeking out a specific place. But often, when I return home and try to reconstruct my itinerary, it is to no avail. It is just wandering and looking at interesting buildings, discovering brilliant horticultural oases, meandering through extensive parks, and pushing my bike through wilderness sanctuaries and the lovely dunes-scape at Montrose Harbor. What a pleasure it is to see the sun glinting off the North Shore Channel and watching the river flow as it changes colors and lights throughout the seasons.
I frequently head east from my Andersonville abode to Montrose Harbor. Not truly a neighborhood, but an expanse of coastal land between the harbor proper, with its bobbing boats and gently swaying masts, and a replanted dune-scape with copses of hardy bushes and trees, and a wildflower preserve, which is incomparably beautiful in late autumn – a veritable forest of golden Brown-Eyed Susans and pale violet Asters. The Chicago Park District, to which I am ever so grateful for all the incredible work it does preserving, maintaining, reclaiming land, and re-introducing heritage plants, asks not to bike into either the fragile dune-scape or the wildflower preserve. So, I tether my bike and walk, stunned by the lake and its shimmering blues, a sky with nearly unreal pink, yellow, and grey clouds, and the spectacular vision of the Chicago silhouette at dusk.
Returning home, I take a leisurely detour through Andersonville and Edgewater side streets, now so particularly beautiful with many of the front yards in early spring bloom. While Andersonville has become a pleasant urban and lively melting pot, its Swedish heritage – the neighborhood was founded by Swedish settlers in 1855 – is documented in the Swedish-American Museum on Clark Street, and one can still buy delectable breads and pastries at the Swedish Bakery at 5348 North Clark. It was founded in the 1920s and features “Swedish treats, such as marzipan cakes, cardamom coffeecake, and cookies.” The yearly Midsommarfest in mid-June is a fun mix of loud music, street-food, art, and trinket booths galore.
Andersonville even boasts a “haunted house,” the locally famous “Castle on Berwyn.” A veritable Victorian fantasia of turrets, stained-glass windows, marble putti – both both small and large – in the front yard, the “castle” has a checkered history of ownership. I often bike by it and wonder what it might be like to live there. Former tenants claim they heard strange noises and saw ghostly figures about the place.
While my place is not haunted, I do live next to a historically interesting site, the Essanay Studio. This is where Charlie Chaplin began his career and filmed most of his 1915 comedies, before he moved west to Hollywood. The interesting Art Deco terracotta entrance has been preserved and integrated into a newer building that now houses St. Augustine College. I look at it every day when I walk or bike by it on my way to get the best Pho (Vietnamese Beef Soup) at Tank Noodle Shop on Broadway. But neighborhood food is a story in itself for another Perennial Biker essay.