Tell someone in Chicago you’re going for a bike ride through North Lawndale and watch the ensuing reaction. Your statement will most likely be met with a mix of bewilderment and concern, followed by a single inevitable question: “why?”
Since the days of Al Capone, the Windy City has been singled out for its violent reputation. Crime rates here are noticeably higher than the national average. Its active gang population tops 100,000. In 2016 alone there were over 700 homicides, and nowhere are the streets more dangerous than the city’s south and west sides.
Which is, oddly enough, where you’ll find one of Chicago’s best green cycling corridors.
I won’t pretend that the bike ride from Little Village to the Garfield Park Conservatory is a carefree experience. I won’t even recommend that you try it. Right out of the gate, the Cook County Correctional Facility – which constitutes the single largest jail site in the US – sets the tone for a five mile journey that takes you past some of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in the city. Perhaps in the state.
This isn’t the only notorious law-enforcement site located along the route, either. In Homan Square, an off-record CPD intelligence and interrogation facility was the focus of an extended investigation by the Guardian in 2015-16 for reportedly holding thousands of suspects without access to legal aid. This should immediately raise red flags about your surroundings.
And yet, despite all of the glaring reasons not to do it, there’s something defiant in the act of biking here: in the very existence of a well-maintained cycling passage through an area so many are quick to avoid. It’s an invitation to break the negative stereotypes; to help neighbors reclaim a sense of pride and safety in their community; to explore new and sometimes uncomfortable realities that too many of us are insulated from, if only by a handful of streets.
In other words, it’s an opportunity to use cycling as a tool for community building, and not simply a means to an ideal heart rate.
Find the Perfect Ride for Cycling the Windy City:
Beginning in Little Village, aka the “Mexico of the Midwest,” the shouldered bike lane winds its way north and west along South California and South Marshall Boulevards. Once in Douglas Park, the scenery opens up revealing ball fields, swing sets, community gardens, and even golf practice areas.
From here, it’s another northwesterly “L” on Douglas and Independence Boulevards until you arrive at Garfield Park, home to one of “the largest and most stunning conservatories in the nation.” Having passed through some of the roughest districts in the West Side, Chicago’s stunning architectural beauty is once again put on full display.
Admittedly, it would be naive to expect the simple act of pedaling a bike to have a profound impact on areas that have struggled with high rates of poverty and crime for decades. As if to drive that point home, the Chicago Tribune reported in March on the disproportionate number of citations being written for cyclists in heavily African-American communities such as North Lawndale.
Still, change has to start somewhere, and the city has already made the effort to provide a safe and scenic biking corridor through the area. Now it’s up to residents and travelers alike to set fear and prejudice aside and put it to good use.
For me, the experience was both eye opening and sobering, but it’s certainly not one that I regret.