South Side History by Bike

Though I didn’t worry about it at the time, the waivers blown across the University of Chicago’s Bartlett Quadrangle during registration for the South Side History Bike Tour last Saturday morning should have been a warning that I was in for several hours of wind and cold. As the papers were picked up from the attendees, three West Town Bikes volunteers in fluorescent chartreuse and Dean of the College John Boyer, Social Sciences Dean Mark Hansen, and sociology professor Terry Clark finished their introductory speechifying. Shortly before 11am, several dozen riders took off.

Our first stop was the DuSable Museum in Washington Park. Since 1973 a museum of African-American history, the grey stone building was commissioned as a Parks Commission office. Afterwards we headed towards Cottage Grove Avenue, smelling the Universoul Circus encampment before we saw it. By then I was shivering under my sweater, and really regretting the hat and gloves I’d left at home.
Stephen A. Douglas of Lincoln-Douglas debates fame was next. His memorial at 35th and Lake Park is tucked into a quiet residential neighborhood, and Boyer and Hansen discussed his career as a real estate developer as well as the Civil War prisoner of war camp that bore his name a short distance west of the memorial. We rode nearer to the site of the “Andersonville of the North” to reach the historic heart of Bronzeville. There, in a shopping center dominated by a White Castle, a community organizer chanced on our group and lectured us about restrictive covenants, which until the 1940s prevented blacks from living in many South Side neighborhoods.

We hit plenty of other historic spots, including the “Daley Manse,” as Hansen described Richard M.’s boyhood home in Bridgeport. It’s nondescript, but the brief lecture Hansen gave on Chicago machine politics and interethnic Catholic coalition forming was fascinating. But even after five hours on the road I didn’t feel much better informed than before the tour, and on the whole, the sights were better than the sites. I noticed cozy parks I’d never seen before, and it was also nice to see so many bikes from the University’s new sharing program in use. Never mind the Gold Line; bikes are still the best way to get around the South Side.