31 October 2007

Lake Calumet: Are you aware?

I have decided that November will be Lake Calumet Awareness Month. Please note that I have absolutely no official capacity whatsoever to make this declaration, but I personally think it's high time for November to be about something other than turkey, college football, and people forgetting my birthday. Why not Lake Calumet? It's a good topic for awareness. I started caring about Lake Calumet this past spring and would like to continue caring about it and see other people start to care about it, too, so I will spend this month being aware of Lake Calumet and hopefully spreading that awareness to others. Because awareness is the first step towards caring, which is the first step towards trying to actually do something about it.

So, are you aware...
*Lake Calumet is Chicago's largest lake? (Wait, isn't it Chicago's only lake? Clearly we're not counting Lake Michigan or Wolf Lake, so what the heck else in Chicago is large enough to qualify as a "lake"? Or is Powderhorn Lake considered to be within city limits?)
*Lake Calumet is part of the Port of Chicago, which includes the world's largest inland container port?
*The highest elevation in Chicago is a landfill near Lake Calumet?
*Harborside International Golf Center, built on another landfill near Lake Calumet, has been rated the #3 municipal golf course in the country?

Now that you're aware of Lake Calumet, why should you care about it?

It's a stinking cesspool of toxic waste.
Really, it's embarrassing. There shouldn't be a stinking cesspool of toxic waste in the City in a Garden.

It's an important environmental resource.
Do it for the pretty flowers and the cute critters whose habitat is threatened.

It's an important cultural resource.
Pullman and Hegewisch and South Deering, oh my!

It's an important artistic resource.
Lake Calumet is just begging for a whole community art fair's worth of painters, poets, sketchers, photographers, essayists, playwrights, sculptors, songwriters, musicians, quilters, glassblowers, and interpretive dancers to help tell its story. Let's start with the bloggers.

It's a birdwatcher's bonanza.
And unlike at the Magic Hedge, you don't have to worry about running into creepy guys cruising for gay sex.

It's a popular illegal dumping ground.
People who are too lazy to throw stuff in the trash or set it out on the curb evidently have no problems driving down length of Stony Island Avenue and dumping stuff by the side of the road. If more people cared, then there would be more outrage, which would result in less dumping. (FYI, if you see someone dumping, you can report it online. I didn't know that.)

It's a model for what will happen if we continue to pollute Lake Michigan with reckless abandon.
Take a good whiff. You have been warned.

You never realize how much you'd miss something until it's already gone.
I wouldn't put it past the US EPA to decide, in its infinite wisdom, that there's really nothing that can be done with Lake Calumet other than to fill it in, cap it with several feet of concrete, and surround it with a barbed wire fence. (Actually, it already is surrounded with a barbed wire fence.) And then people would show up--too late--to mourn its disappearance: Hey, what happened to Lake Calumet? It was Chicago's largest lake...

Extend your awareness of Lake Calumet by visiting the following Web sites:
Journey through Calumet
Calumet Environment Education Program
Wetlands of the Calumet Region
Post-Industrial Wildlands
Calumet Stewardship Initiative
Southeast Environmental Task Force
Ford Calumet Environmental Center
Calumet Ecological Park Feasibility Study
NPL Site Narrative for Calumet Cluster, NPL, Superfund, US EPA
...
In other news, this. Yay!

Wanna see a scary map? or Boo! I'm a suburban Republican for Halloween!

I'll probably ramble more about this later; for now I would just like to draw you attention to a rather thought-provoking set of maps on Spudart:
Who supports the CTA, Metra and Pace?

Note, as expected, the suburban Republicans who voted against SB 572 in September, despite representing areas of heavy Metra ridership.* But right now I'm more curious about the southern Illinois Democrats who voted yes. What else is going on here?

I also thought that Jessica might be interested in this.

[Tip o' the helmet to Illinois Transportation Issues.]

In other news (it's a slow work day), I surfed over to the Daily Herald to get a feel for the suburban vibe. The slight difference in perspective is interesting:
Will transit crisis affect Olympic bid?
...
"CTA and Pace officials are planning to ax several dozen bus routes on Sunday while also raising fares by as much as $1. Metra officials are debating a fare hike ranging from 5 to 10 percent and the elimination of Sunday service starting Jan. 1.

"In the suburbs, many of the Pace routes on the chopping block shuttle Metra riders to overcrowded stations. CTA routes slated for elimination include express lines carting Metra riders to key employment centers downtown."

...
So few people are even mentioning Metra and Pace. It's all doomsday, doomsday, doomsday for the CTA, and the collar county residents are all yelping about how unfair it is to raise their taxes to bail out just another corrupt Chicago agency and all those socialist urbanites demanding some nonexistent right to a free ride (for example). No one seems to mind that Metra could be rendered effectively useless in the next few years.

You never really appreciate something until it's gone.

Back to work. Magnetohydrodynamics!

*Curse you, Lake County. Thanks for nothing, as usual... Don't get me wrong, I know a few real-life suburban Republicans and they're all very nice people--who wouldn't last five minutes in a typical Chicago neighborhood. The title of the post is more to poke self-depreciating fun at us snobby liberal urban elitists, who tend to paint suburban Republicans as the root of all evil. Boo!

30 October 2007

Celebrate the tollway--in the weirdest, most ironic way that you can imagine

My brain is overloading on weirdness.


The Illinois Tollway: bridging communities, connecting lives, destroying ecosystems, causing headaches. Open roads for a faster future, more motor vehicle traffic for a postapocalyptic dystopia. Let's celebrate!

Believe it or not, Roll the Tollway--a sold-out bike ride on the brand-new south extension of I-355, the Veterans Memorial Tollway--is just one event in the corridor-wide grand opening celebration on Sunday, November 11. There's also a 5K run/walk hosted by Salute, Inc. and the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, the usual dedication and ribbon cutting ("Celebrate our first new tollroad in 20 years"), and community festivals in Lemont, Lockport, Homer Glen, and New Lenox, as well as throughout Will County. There's even free parking and shuttle service.

Now, I see at least three competing sources of tremendous irony in all this:

0. Wait--people actually wanting to be on, or anywhere near, a tollway? Free parking and shuttle service for a tollway? Aaaaaa, my brain...

1. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation is hosting an event to celebrate the grand opening of the very thing that's most contrary to their mission:

"The mission of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, founded in 1985, is to improve the bicycling environment and thereby the quality of life in the region. With more than 5,000 members, we do this by promoting bicycle safety, education and facilities, and by encouraging use of the bicycle as an energy-efficient, economical and nonpolluting form of transportation and as a healthful and enjoyable form of recreation.

"The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation recognizes the synergies between promoting bicycling and promoting walking and public transit. We align our advocacy with social equity and community improvement and we embrace the power of a broad multi-modal coalition to achieve our mission."


Yes, so let's celebrate a bigger, better interstate. Is your mind blowing yet?

But hold on: the proceeds from Roll the Tollway "will help fund the construction of a multi-use trail alongside the new extension." See, there's a silver lining. No, that's not quite accurate--what's happening is that the CBF is making that silver lining. This does, in fact, fall exactly within the scope of their vision. They're saying hey, as long as there's no way, at least for now, to avoid building all these roads and interstates, then let's at least make sure that we do it right. Let's include bikeways and walking trails, sidepaths and sidewalks, and ped bridges and underpasses with each new project. Let's take advantage of the rights of way created by these motor vehicle corridors and build a network of "active transportation" corridors alongside them. Let's show everyone, particularly in the suburbs, that it's possible for multiple forms of transportation to coexist and be utilized in the same area, and let's make it happen.

So maybe it's not so ironic after all.

2. Homer Glen's festival, called "The Community and Nature in Harmony," will feature, among other things, military reenactments and "various military displays." Yeah. How natural and harmonious.

Then again, it is the Veterans Memorial Tollway, and November 11 is Veterans'Veterans [whoops] Day. So at least all the flag-waving, war-reenacting, and military-displaying does make some sort of sense. And we should still support the troops and all, even if we don't support the war. And many people, especially veterans, do subscribe to that whole war-is-peace mentality. I don't, but power to you if you do.

3. Amidst all the ironic, patriotic, memorial-themed celebration, it's easy to forget the real reason why we should remain cynical: the havoc that this thing has wrecked--and will continue to wreck--on the environment. The I-355 extension featured prominently in an alarming and thoroughly depressing special report last year by Chicago Wilderness Magazine called Roads: The Great Divide. Various ecologically essential and picturesque natural spots have been cruelly, ruthlessly, unnecessarily raped by the evil Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. The poor endangered dragonflies. What have we done?

It's a given the Chicago Wilderness consortium is going to come out swinging against any and all construction projects like the I-355 extension. After all, such groups exist to put a stop to this sort of thing, and their own missions are rarely as accommodating of suburban sprawl as that of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. Unfortunately, this means that most people are are simply going to tune out the environmental concerns--because that's what most people do whenever the environmentalist crowd starts wailing and warning about this and that.

Then again, the environmentalist crowd (hi) has a point. Does it really not bother you that the Des Plaines River is in perpetual danger of turning out like the Sanitary and Ship Canal? You know, the channel so filthy that the Illinois Waterway has to say that they can't be held liable if anyone falls in?

It looks like much ado is being made about the extension's Des Plaines River valley bridge, but according to Chicago Wilderness it was built all wrong, and no one really cared:

"The construction of the I-355 extension will bring invasive species and harmful salt into nearby forest preserves. Enclosing the bridge over the river would offer more protection for nature--a suggestion that was disregarded."

I think the casual shrug-off of the actual well-being of all that scenery contained in the "dramatic views of the corridor and surrounding area" wins the Irony Award.
...
Hey, the epic Dan Ryan reconstruction project also just finally came to end, you know. Where's the party?
...
Quote of the day:
"'Oh I love this job,' [NASA astronaut Scott] Parazynski said as they worked 220 miles above southeast Asia. 'Beautiful view.'"

Shucks, now I want to be an astronaut when I grow up all over again.
...
In other news, this. And then this. Also this.

29 October 2007

Dunes again

I went back to the Indiana Dunes. I had to. I left the bike at home and went to the Dunes Nature Preserve at Indiana Dunes State Park and did it right. It was a very long hike. It was marvelous. I enjoyed the pretty leaves and the sunshine, mostly in that order.


I explored a bit of the Calumet Trail west of the Dune Park South Shore train station. There was supposed to be a deer in this picture, but she bounded away before digi responded to the shutter button. Doe.


The new entrance/parking/Dunes Creek "daylighting" configuration is more aesthetically pleasing, environmentally sound, and bicycle-friendly than it used to be. However, it's just as pedestrian-unfriendly as ever, or else I was too stupid to figure out where peds are supposed to go. I'm going to guess that either the walk-in traffic into the state park simply isn't large enough to justify building a separate sidewalk/footpath system at the entrance, or the state of Indiana doesn't believe otherwise. It's obnoxious and blatantly unsafe, but I'm not sure I want to bother throwing fits about it. If the people walking into Indiana Dunes State Park are mostly University of Chicago students and Hyde Park intellectuals taking the occasional train to Indiana for fun and sport, well, let's say I don't want to be the one responsible for starting a civil war between two states with a long history of hating each other.


Trail 2, near the west end. The morning sun shining in the forest reminded me of a stained-glass window, and then I thought about all the stained-glass windows in the Smith Museum at Navy Pier that are supposed to remind you of the sun shining in a forest. And then I remembered that it was Sunday morning, and for a moment it seemed like it should be significant.


Fall foliage on trail 2.


More fall foliage on trail 2.


How often do you see a tree with four trunks?


I took another picture from another angle in case anyone wanted to try to make a 3D image.


Shagbark hickory leaves on trail 2. I encountered a small cluster of young shagbark hickories with very pale yellow leaves that looked like ghosts. But I couldn't for the life of me get a good angle, so I took this picture instead.


Even more fall foliage on trail 2. Was this along the boardwalk through the swamp? I can't remember now.


Experiment with perspective (read: "I forgot to switch to macro setting") at the north end of the boardwalk on trail 2.


Autumnal fire on trail 10.


Purple herbaceous leaves along the boardwalk through the marsh on trail 10.


Fall foliage on trail 10. Sorry, I went nuts. The leaves I've seen in the city have mostly been turning a muddy shade of brown.


View more or less straight up somewhere in "the pinery" on trail 10. I was again reminded of stained glass, as well as of Gothic architecture. Funny how I still sometimes get a sense of being at Mass on hike in the woods.


Western end of trail 10, where you crest the dune and arrive at the beach. The Chicago skyline is just barely visible on the horizon if you know what to look for and where to look. I've had years of practice, so I rarely have any trouble spotting it.


View northeast toward Michigan City from the beach near Big Blowout.


View southwest toward Gary from the beach near Big Blowout. This is why I earlier referred to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as "paradise between the sewers." You can't ever quite forget the heavy industrial presence in the area.


Furnsville blowout, looking very desert-y.


"Tree graveyard" in Furnsville blowout.


View northwestward from the crest of the dunes on trail 9, near Beach House blowout. The Chicago skyline is on the horizon just beneath that bit of grass sticking out. Trust me.


View northwestward from the crest of the dune at Beach House blowout on trail 9. Chicago skyline is again visible on the horizon near the center of the photo, just to the right of the dark elongated rectangle, which I'll guess is a barge or something.


View southeastward from the crest of the dune at Beach House blowout on trail 9 (no place for folks shy of heights, btw). I recently learned that the farthest line of trees is the Valparaiso Moraine. I think. Or maybe it's actually the Calumet beach ridge. Or maybe it's neither of those. I really should have erased this one and took a better pic from the top of Mt. Tom, where nice a kiosk is installed explaining all this, but I didn't think of it. Oh darn, now I'll have to go back...

In the meantime, the National Park Service Web site has a brief overview of how the dunes formed and their various ecosystems here. I'll try to find a better one later; let me know if you know of any.


Wistful view northeastward back toward the Dunes and self-portrait, sort of, from the shore at the foot of Mt. Tom an hour or so before my train home.

For the first time I realized that the steel mills and power plants flanking the Dunes, which I had previous thought of as blots on the landscape, are actually parts of the landscape. The parts all together make the whole, which is somehow greater than just the sum of the parts. Without the heavy industry nearby, there would be no Chicago; without Chicago, too few people might have realized and appreciated the natural value of this place for anyone else to want to bother saving it. The Indiana Dunes just wouldn't be the Indiana Dunes we know and love today; they might not even be anything at all, just some big piles of sand on the shore of a large lake. Being parts of the same whole, however, doesn't automatically make them harmonious. Indeed, the different parts are often in direct conflict with one another. But that's what makes the Dunes so beautiful--the parts that make up this wonderfully diverse, dynamic whole. We all get along here, somehow. We have to.

Strength and beauty, just around the corner.
...
Sudden random thought: What we ought to do is figure out a way to draw the Calumet river/lake system more into the protective shelter of the Indiana Dunes in the popular imagination. The latter have enjoyed a long, solid history of fame and fortune in the midwest and beyond, while the former have suffered long in relative obscurity with brief bursts of notoriety. Could we get some sort of super-regional south side/Southland/NW Indiana environmental campaign going? Not like the Sierra Club, something more grassroots but not quite so local in scope? Does something already exist and I just don't know about it?

Too bad there isn't a convenient interurban passenger railroad that goes near Lake Calumet, because those would be very interesting promotional posters. I can envision one or two of them very clearly. Oh, why can't I paint?
...
In other news, I had every intention of going to Halloween Critical Mass last Friday as a polite, law-abiding bicycling advocate who was a Critical Mass participant for Halloween, but apparently that violated the Law of Conservation of Irony because natural forces conspired to keep me away. The bleak, blustery, November-like weather convinced me that my time would be much better spent at home with a book and a nice hot cup of tea. Sorry, folks.

Macomb is the new New Lenox, or Fun with census data

While working entirely too hard on a post that will hopefully appear sometime in the near future, I got carried away on a tangent that may as well be it's own quick(ish) post right now.

It all began with an entry in Illinois Transportation Issues, a slightly misnamed blog I came across one night and have been loving-hating ever since:
Get Your Kicks On Route 67

"The latest project to get its own website is the U.S. Route 67 project. The Route 67 project corridor goes 223 miles from Interstate 280 (I-280) at Rock Island to I-270 south of Alton. The communities along the way include Monmouth (pop. 9,900), Macomb (pop. 18,600), Beardstown (pop. 5,800) and Jerseyville (pop. 8,300). According to IDOT's traffic volume maps (here and here), daily traffic volumes on the corridor range from a low of 1900 to a high of 26,000."

The anonymous moderator goes on to question "the perceived waste of pouring $1.5 billion into a road that serves a collection of small communities and meanders down the state like a riled up snake" while projects that are desperately needed in the boomingly populous, eternally traffic-congested Chicago area are either tabled or ignored (for example). See why I said that blog was slightly misnamed?

One of my first reactions was that Macomb isn't small. It certainly isn't large, but it's not small. Nineteen thousand people don't live in a cluster of houses around a grain elevator and a gas station, like in North Utica (pop. 977). And the presence of Western Illinois University complicates matters a bit, no doubt creating crazy traffic conditions that are difficult to represent using only at-a-glance numbers.

But let's ignore the university for a moment and wade into the Illinois Census 2000 data (because unlike the above-mentioned moderator, I really don't trust Wikipedia). Macomb's population of 18,558 ranks as the 122nd largest in the state. So far, so small. But consider the populations of Geneva (19,515), Franklin Park (19,434), Brookfield (19,085), Grayslake (18,506), Deerfield (18,420), and Lake Zurich (18,104). Still want to dismiss Macomb as a small community?

Let's take a look at New Lenox, with a 2000 population of 17,771, ranking 128th, just behind Lake Zurich. This Macomb-sized town in Will County has two (count 'em) Metra stations, one of which opened just last year, and is located near the end of the new I-355 extension. (FYI: Roll the Tollway is sold out, but they still need volunteers. Anyone want to volunteer for driving me to Lemont? I kid, I kid.)

Now, New Lenox is also located 40 miles from Chicago (Over 2 Million Served), and Will County is one of the fastest growing in the state. [Does anyone happen to know how fast?] Anyone who tried to deny the significance of those two facts would be an utter fool. But those two facts alone aren't enough to negate all the other facts in a comparison between New Lenox and Macomb. For example, let's stop ignoring WIU, which has an enrollment of 11,330 at it's main campus (source). So we can safely guess that roughly twenty thousand people are in Macomb on any given school day. How many people have any reason to be in New Lenox? Yet New Lenox gets an interstate extension, while Macomb gets people wondering why we're wasting concrete.

Granted, 80% of Illinois' population lives here in IDOT District 1, but what kind of assholes would we be if we demanded all of IDOT's attention? I know what you're thinking: We'd be the same kind of assholes who would demand better state funding for Chicago-area mass transit. Well, would we really? Chew on this: No one is whining about the lack of commuter passenger rail service in the greater Macomb metropolitan area, if it has one. (Couldn't tell you, haven't been there lately, or much at all.) But if we had more and better regional public public transportation options in and around Chicago, then would IDOT have to construct and reconstruct so many damn roads in this overblown corner of the state?

Smackdown from the Pacific northwest

From Chicago Tribune:
Chicago Olympic hopes tied to transit neglect

"Chicago may not have much of a mass transit system left when the 2016 Olympics are held, a congressman said at a hearing Monday on the city's transportation needs to host the Games.

"Calling Illinois 'the poster child for neglect,' U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the political gridlock in Springfield over funding transportation agencies and renewing deteriorating infrastructure cannot be viewed separately from hope of ascending onto the Olympic stage.

"'It seems that the state and the governor are walking away from a minimal responsibility to maintain an existing system let alone dramatically enhance it,' said DeFazio, chairman of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee. 'You're in a full crisis mode, and the whole country is going to be watching this week.'

"'There are some very immediate problems that need to be resolved or there won't be a transit system upon which to build for 2016,' he said, adding that state government has 'dropped the ball and booted it.'"


That's the entirety of the article [but see update below]. I think it's telling that Jon Hilkevitch felt that nothing more needed to be added.

In other news, this. Tip o' the helmet to CTA Tattler, who brought to my attention something I could easily have missed because I spent most of Sunday in Indiana. No wonder Oregon is laughing at us--Indiana can't manage their pollution and Illinois can't manage anything. What a pair we make.

Update: Transit neglect is linked to Chicago's Olympic hopes
It's the same article, but it's been expanded. I don't know what, if anything, appeared in the print edition.

27 October 2007

Imitating art

This has always been my favorite piece at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass at Navy Pier:

If I remember correctly, it was commissioned by a utility company for a power plant in Joliet to depict/celebrate/promote the electrification of urban and rural America.

Just imagine for a moment the kind of world in which a Tiffany-style stained glass window is installed at a power plant. Does it speak to their overwhelming decadence or to our scorn of building things that are beautiful and lasting? Or to both?


Or has the cityscape itself become a great work of art?
...
Later I tried to shoot the moon.

It sort of worked.

25 October 2007

How to avoid the CTA

Update: Yipes!
Metra fares may jump 30% by '10 (Chicago Tribune)

"Metra riders can expect fares to increase up to 30 percent over the next three years and trains to be slower, dirtier and more crowded if the commuter rail service has to balance its budget without additional state funding, officials warned Thursday."

[Excuse me while I go buy myself several drinks.]

"Sunday Metra service might also be cut, meaning 43,300 people on a typical Sunday would no longer be able to take the train downtown to visit the Art Institute, shop on Michigan Avenue or see the Bears play."

Hey! The trains go both ways! What about the cyclists who want to get out of town on a Sunday, huh? Particularly those of us who are young and broke and would like to spend a day with the family in the outer 'burbs but Sunday is the only day both parents have off? You know, all one of us, but I'll still gripe about it anyway.

There are public hearings on Wednesday November 7 (4-7pm) in Clarendon Hills (Village Hall), Arlington Heights (Arlington Heights Senior Center), Woodstock (City Hall), and Homewood (Village Hall); and on Thursday November 8 (4-7pm) in Chicago (Metra, 547 W. Jackson), Geneva (City Hall), Grayslake (Village Hall), and Joliet (City Hall). Please, please, please contact your legislator if you haven't already (and again if you have), even if you live in the Quad Cities and never, ever, ever take the train. These service, maintenance, and staff cuts, and steep fare increases, will put a huge dent in the regional economy that will inevitably spread statewide. In addition, this will all create a very unfriendly environment for expanded Amtrak service in Illinois. People simply aren't willing to go anywhere if it's too difficult to get around.

...
Well, once again, doomsday is coming. If for some reason you actually rely on the El or some endangered bus line to get around town every day, now would be a good time to practice living without it. Just in case.

So, how does one avoid using the CTA? Well, if you happen to live and work in the same neighborhood and don't have much of a social life, your problems are probably already solved. Good for you! But I know that most of us aren't that lucky (I'm being sarcastic, in case you can't tell), in which case there are a few steps you can take.

Step 0: Do you study and/or work at the University of Chicago and/or the UCH? (Wait, when did they start calling it the Medical Center? Did I miss something?) You're in luck: Routes 170-174 and 192 are completely subsidized by the university, and I know you can ride the 170-172 free with a student or staff ID. [I do have sources; I'll find them later, or find them yourself--aren't they always sending memos about that or something?] (And if you don't study or work at the U of C but look enough like you probably do, you can often get away with a fast flash or a "Oh shit, where's my ID?" if the driver is in the mood to actually check. But you didn't hear it from me. And it's only useful in, you know, Hyde Park and parts of Kenwood.)

Step 1: Get a bike! Come on, you knew that was coming. A used beater in ridable condition typically costs around a hundred dollars. So, where do you get one? Hell if I know; I haven't bought a hundred-dollar used beater in ridable condition in years (and never in Chicago), even though I keep meaning to. I've heard rave reviews about the Working Bikes Cooperative, and I of course have to do a little song-n-dance for Blackstone Bicycle Works. There are bike shops all over the city, and some of them do sell used bikes, or so I'm told. Or ask around a college neighborhood--someone's always got a bike to sell in a college neighborhood, even this time of year. Is there an ancient Schwinn with flat tires in the basement of your building that the landlord might like to see gone? Do you have parents or other relatives nearby who might have bikes sitting in their garage gathering dust? Do you have a friend's roommate's girlfriend who's moving to Spain and looking to get rid of one? Are you getting cozy with a cyclist who's got a beater to spare? Trust me, if you really want a cheap bike, you will find a cheap bike. Just don't resort to stealing one, please; it's impolite.

The bad news is, after you've bought your cheap bike, you're still going to have to get a good lock, and a good lock is going to cost you at least $40 or so, probably more. It's a good investment. It means you won't have to look for another cheap bike later. Don't get one of those flimsy cables and a combo lock at Walgreens, go to a bike shop and get a real bike lock.

The good news is, all those other accessories can wait a few paychecks. Lights are required by law--and good lights are a really good idea--if you're going to be riding around after dark (and who won't be, now that it's autumn), but in Chicago's perpetual orange glow you can get away with wearing bright colors and not riding like a dumbass if you're really broke. Reflective velcro straps are like five bucks a pair. Ask a bikey person if she has an old blinky light she doesn't use anymore and might be willing to loan you. Fancy bike bags or those insanely expensive messenger bags that many cyclists use are nice but not required. Carrying racks/baskets are good investments, but if you normally don't carry around enough crap to make your shoulders ache then you'll be fine without one until you're comfortable enough using your bike to start hauling stuff with it. At that point, it becomes indispensable and you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. Trust me.

So now you've got your bike and your lock and you're starting to collect accessories. Now what? Well, that's what the sidebar is for. Knock yourself out. Fire a comment if you have a specific question and don't know where to find the answer.

Step 2: Take Metra. I know this probably sounds really stupid, but I've known hard-core urbanites either for whom Metra simply never occurred to them or who just absolutely refused to stoop to the level of taking the stupid suburban commuter train, gosh darn it. So I've come to the conclusion that Metra is an underutilized transportation resource among Chicago residents.

Now, it is true that Metra doesn't go everywhere, doesn't stop everywhere, isn't as cheap, and has those fare zones. And Metra trains run on schedules, and sometimes those schedules are only every hour or two and sometimes not at all. But you know what, Metra trains run on schedules. You can set your watch by those schedules, and if a train is not running on schedule they announce it at every station along the rest of the line every few minutes, even at 2am when there's absolutely no one on the platform and people in the vicinity are trying to sleep. Can you really say the same thing of the El lines? No, you cannot, not even now. So maybe, say, taking the Metra Electric instead of the #6 requires a bit more advanced planning on your part, but the trade-off is that you don't waste any time standing around wondering when the damn thing's gonna show up.

[Begin part where I was later shown to be wrong, but not until later.] I know what else you're thinking: Metra has also announced fare increases and service reductions, but they haven't released any of the details yet, so we don't yet know how bad it will be. Well, the good news is that I'm pretty sure Metra wields a bit more clout in the RTA, so Metra's hikes and cuts probably won't be as bad as the CTA's. You see, there's this idea that the El is taken by poor people/pissy hipsters who don't contribute anything useful to society, while Metra is taken by rich businessmen who live in the posh suburbs and work in the Loop and are therefore essential to the Chicago area economy. I know as well as you do how completely false that notion is (and someone always calls racism, too), but it's there. There's also the simple, undeniable fact that Metra serves far more communities over a far larger area, so people outside the behemoth that is Chicago have a different idea about what's fair.

So if it's a feasible option for you, take advantage of these sentiments and learn to take Metra. The 10-ride pass is real bargain, especially considering that it's valid for an entire year from the date of purchase (and extra-specially considering that I've never seen a conductor actually check the date on the back of one, but you didn't hear it from me). I predict that Metra's doomsday scenario won't be more than just a big nuisance, nothing that will actually cripple the city. If it turns out I'm wrong and you're pissed at me for the suggestion, then I'll buy you a drink. [No on took me up on this, but like I said above in the update, I think I owe myself two or three right now. Metra is what keeps my general carlessness from driving me crazy. Why the hell else do I put up with living in Hyde Park? Because it's so easy to get the hell out!]

24 October 2007

Scene from a Metra station


Actually I just wanted to tell you that Dune is done; I've added the pics from Mt. Baldy and explained what the heck Mt. Baldy is (short answer: a big pile of sand). But hey, sometimes the sky is just too pretty and I can't help myself.

Dune

Adventures with a folding bike, episode 2: paradise between the
sewers. Scattered along a narrow strip of shoreline between the postindustrial hellholes of Gary and Michigan City is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, fragile and beautiful, perennially imperiled, infinitely precious.

This stunning stretch of scenery is also an ecological bonanza, where tundra shrubs grow alongside desert cacti, where trees bury themselves in the dunes of their own creation, where migrating birds gather and rare insects find a haven mere miles from the biggest industrial polluters on Lake Michigan. It's a piece of heaven in the middle of hell. And it's not flat! You see, we midwesterners don't have mountains or an ocean, so we have to make do with sand dunes on a large lake. If you see mountains or an ocean every day, then it might be a little difficult to grasp the significance of the Indiana Dunes. But where else is the cycle of ecological succession so apparent? Where else are the dangers of pollution so obvious?

It's the wrench in the spokes of Illino-Indianan relations: as much as they foul our drinking water, we still can't hate them because they have the Dunes. So historically Chicagoans have been rather bossy about what Indiana should and should not do with their Lake Michigan shoreline, but can you blame us? All we have are a cattail marsh, a couple of bluffs, and a famous stretch of artificial parkland won--and just barely kept--by the skin of our teeth. Merciful heavens, Indiana, you've got something rare and wonderful--for the love of all things good in this world please don't just bury it all in industrial waste!

So the Dunes have been appreciated, used, studied, protected, saved, and loved to tiny bits, and through it all nature has carried on its course--with our help, perhaps even despite our clumsy attempts at help. Have we truly been successful in our efforts? Hard to say. I personally like to think that we're doing just about the best we can, all things considered. At least the Dunes are still there to be visited.

I fell in love the first time I ever did; I've returned at least twice a year ever since. The Calumet Trail has intrigued me for years, but trying to figure out how to get to it used to drive me nuts. Come on, you get off the train and it's right there, so how do you get a bike there from Chicago? Well, I guess you break down and get a folding bike, that's how. Mt. Baldy, here I come again, finally.

I did my homework on the Calumet Trail: roughly ten miles, flat, straight, crushed limestone, along a NIPSCO right of way, managed by the Porter County parks department, parallel to NICTD's South Shore line, ample parking, no facilities, doesn't terminate anywhere terribly useful. Seemed like a good enough trail on its own but that more could be done to connect it to something else; Calumet Citizens for Connecting Communities is rumored to be trying. And how difficult would it be to install a water fountain or two and a couple of port-o-potties? That's not sarcasm; I really don't know. If it's actually a monumentally difficult task then I could understand why Porter County hasn't done it, but Will County did it with the Wauponsee Glacial Trail and that one runs a long length through middle-of-nowhere farm country. But there I go being a bossy Chicagoan, so nevermind for now.

I lugged my folding bike onto a South Shore train on a bright and balmy October afternoon, the kind of day when the golden leaves flash and flutter in the sun and wind against a starting blue sky and you start to think that maybe, just maybe, autumn isn't so bad after all. An hour or so later I was at the Dune Park station in Chesterton pointing and giving directions to people who'd had a similar idea. Lucky them, I thought, if this is their first visit; mine was dark and rainy, but I'm not the sort who'd have been deterred from returning. And here I am yet again, this time trying something new. So I unfolded my bike, wheeled across the tracks, stepped onto the trail, and found myself hesitating. What's this silly fear of gravel all of a sudden? If this bike can't handle limestone screenings then I'll know right away and it will be useless to me; I'll walk back to the station, go home, and sell it. Not for what I paid for it, certainly, but I've wasted money on worse.

Well, here I go. Ooph, I wish the shifting wasn't so... Ah!

Bike is good. Trail is good. Life is good. Did I mention it's a utility corridor? This is how it should be--right of ways put to good public use through county-level trails/greenways under a state-level plan for a large-scale interconnected trail network. Looks like Indiana has the right idea with their Greenways Foundation and Trails Plan, but I don't live and hardly ever bike there so I couldn't tell you how successfully this idea is being realized. It's hard to tell how strong of an organization the Indiana Bicycle Coalition is in terms of real bikeway building, but perhaps that's an indication that they're not, or not terribly? I've heard grumblings from Indianans about how difficult it is to bike from point A to point B, so I have a haunch everything is still in the "planning" phase right now. Still, such grumblings indicate that there's certainly a demand for a good bikeway/trail network.

(By the way, fenders are wonderful things. Why did it take me so long to figure this out?)

But it was only my very first experience biking the Calumet Trail, so for now I was happy enough just to be there. I headed east toward Mr. Baldy, inaccessible by train unless you're willing to walk, which I'm usually not on a trail like this (I'd get bored real fast, moving so slow). The view from Mt. Baldy is quite worth the walk, but for that many miles the trails at Indiana Dunes State Park/Dunes Nature Preserve are a much better hike. But I've been to the state park how many times? I've only been to Mt. Baldy once before, a long time ago, and I'd been wanting to go back.

So another hour or so later, there I was. They even had a bike rack by the bathrooms. How thoughtful.


What a difference a couple of years makes--"alarming rate"? I remember well scrambling right up that southern slope, and yes, it does seem to be quite a bit closer to the parking lot. So to combat the erosion contributing to the danger that threatens to bury the parking lot, the bathrooms, the water fountains, the picnic shelters, and the informational kiosks such as this one (is nature trying to tell us something?), the park rangers have fenced off the southern slope and rerouted hikers around to the western slope. But I'm afraid they're losing this battle (more below). Mt. Baldy, the famous "moving dune," doesn't care that there's an endangered parking lot directly in its path, and judging from the footprints I saw on the southern slope I don't think many people care, either.

This is the difference between a sand dune and a mountain: on a sand dune you can watch the landscape changing right before your eyes, and it can be very difficult to manage those changes. Aldo Leopold called upon us to "think like a mountain"; should we learn to think like a dune as well?


View of the Chicago skyline across Lake Michigan from Mt. Baldy's summit. (Well, not quite the summit--I had to go partway back down to find a good Foreground Tree.) Yes, it's there, you can see it! Click on it for the full-sized version. Under certain conditions the skyline from the Dunes is more visible and quite striking (example), but unfortunately this wasn't one of them.


A trained professional would tell you that there are some huge number of different species of grasses in this photo. Ecology!


Tree graveyard. How does that happen?


View roughly eastward from the top of the southern slope. It always feels odd to stand on top of a big pile of sand that's taller than the treetops.


View down across the southern slope, where Mt. Baldy is plowing into the oak forest along its landward side. The dead trees are the ones that have already been buried too deep to survive. Note how large (old) they are. These aren't saplings that have had the misfortune of sprouting in the wrong place at the wrong time. The forest has been there for a while, but it's being quickly buried by the dune. As you can see, plenty of people are still climbing up and down the southern slope with little thought of this danger.


Close-up of some dead trees on the southern slope. Looks like there are some vines taking advantage of the situation, but soon they too will perish.


Fence along the top of the southern slope indicating how far south Mt. Baldy must have moved since March.

I departed with reluctance, but the sunset was rapidly approaching and I had a train to catch. Both beat me by about half an hour, but at least this time I had plenty of stunning twilight and was riding right into it. I also had my glasses and fresh batteries in my headlight. Unlike the last time I played sunset roulette. Speaking of Will County.

Then the next train was an hour late. And then it was delayed again in Gary for no apparent reason.

The bike is fine; the logistics are lacking. Or else I just keep running out of sunlight. Stupid autumn.
...
These. Are. Beautiful. I must get the book. I already have this book, with the South Shore line promotional posters that I wish I had full-sized and framed on my wall. Art inspired the Dunes' preservation, which in turn inspires yet more art. It's a nice relationship.

American Girl pining for Pleasant Company

We all have guilty pleasures; mine is the American Girl catalog. But wait! It's not what you think!


Back in Ye Goode Olde Days, back before American Girl became a well-known brand as despised as it is beloved, there was Pleasant Company, founded by a former educator and education publisher who created The American Girls Collection.

There were three sets of three books that told stories about three young girls who lived during three different periods of American history. Kirsten was a Swedish immigrant on the American frontier in 1854 making a home and finding herself in a new land filled with new people speaking a new language. Samantha was a wealthy Victorian orphan in 1904 who stood up to the social injustices of her time with an endearing innocence and an indomitable spirit. Molly was a typical American girl in 1944 until her world was shaken by World War II; as she learned to cope with the changes in her own life she discovered a new perspective on the wider world.

The American Girls were a fun and novel way for girls to learn about American history and the value of self-confidence as they were beginning to read books that had chapters in them, colorfully illustrated stories of other girls their own age living during historical periods that are usually only glossed over at that grade level. Here's a girl like me who lived a long time ago, here's what she wore, here's what she played with, here's what she ate and learned in school, what she got for Christmas and what she did for her birthday. Many things were very different, some things are still the same. This is what life was like back then. This is how American girls discovered the courage to be themselves and lead the changes of their time.

Oh, and there were dolls that went with the books, and accessories that went with the dolls. And you could also get period costumes that matched the dolls' outfits, as well as cookbooks, craft kits, and games like the characters played. But I remember the whole thing focusing mostly on the books. Sure, the catalog featured glossy pictures of the pricey play sets you could get--just like in the books!--but I'm pretty sure they were pitched as miniature reproductions for acting out the stories, not just high-quality toys with books to promote them. Maybe it's because I was more book-oriented than the average eight-year-old girl. Maybe it's because the books were freely available in the public and school libraries, unlike the dolls. Maybe it's because nothing is ever quite as good as you remember it being once upon a time. Or maybe it's because the whole thing really did focus mostly on the books.

One thing's for sure, though: the tales of Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly now play second fiddle to all the new collectible stuff that's rolled out fresh each holiday season. When did the American Girls fade into the background of American Girl the brand? I'm not really sure. Perhaps there wasn't single, definitive, objective turning point for Pleasant Company, but I don't doubt that the acquisition by Mattel resulted in some major marketing shift.

I still get the catalog each year; now it comes to my mailbox addressed to someone else, but I keep it anyway and don't tell them to stop sending it. I leaf through it when I'm feeling bored, nostalgic, or cynical (usually in that order); I call my mom (she's always loved the catalog too) and we discuss the new products and lament the discontinued ones. Once or twice we even went inside American Girl Place and reminisced while we deconstructed everything in sight ("Why is this soccer uniform pale purple? What message is that sending?") and thoroughly confused both the customers and the employees. Good times.

The 2007 holiday catalog arrived today (meet Julie, from 1974). The cover shows a pair of dolled-up, smiling, picture-perfect blondes with matching tiaras, and my cynical self can't help but be disgusted. It's not just because I feel like being a pissy feminist today. It's not just because the company selling girls the idea that they can do anything is implying that all they really need to do is just smile and look pretty. It's because somewhere in the bottom of a drawer I didn't clean out is a catalog from about 15 years ago, and on the cover is a picture of a girl in a cozy robe curled up next to her doll, reading a book.

Just like I am now, minus the doll.

It's the disgust that accompanies betrayal.

23 October 2007

Fast and Frequent, and now this

Why should you join the Midwest High Speed Rail Association?

Their new poster. Oh. Oh! It's Real Art! Ah, but is it worth a $100 donation to a good cause? Perhaps by next May I will have a better paying job and be able to answer that question without laughing.

In the meantime, whoever stole my Fast and Frequent had better be enjoying the hell out of it. Of all the packages mistakenly sent to my apartment building that went missing (why does that number seem unusually large?), I definitely miss that one the most.

22 October 2007

Plan ahead: Chicagoland Bicycle Federation's 20-Year Vision

Yes, the person who's always dropping everything and dashing to the train station at the last minute is about to sing the virtues of planning ahead. How far ahead? How's the next 20 years sound?


The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation just released it's 20-Year Vision plan (PDF). No, it's not a health insurance supplement for people with progressive myopia, although that would be nice. In this plan the CBF has crafted a blueprint for a future in which only half of all trips within the Chicago area are made by automobile. That means that if all goes as planned, by 2027 a wonderful 50% of all local trips in Chicagoland* will be taken by bicycle, public transit, and/or good ol' fashioned walking.** How will this be accomplished? They've outlined four main areas of focus:

Build a movement. That's right, build a movement. We're not just a fringe group of self-righteous proselytizing protesters tying up traffic with Critical Mass once a month. We're in your neighborhood living and buying groceries. We're in your community commuting to work. We're in your schools teaching bike safety to your children. We're in your parks and preserves building better trails and linking them together. We're at your town hall meetings encouraging local leaders to complete the streets by building sidewalks and bike lanes. We're contacting your legislators and asking them for better public transit funding. We're at the bus stop, we're on the train platform, we're strolling down the sidewalk, we're zipping down the street. Come join us! Help us build the future!

Create a world-class bicycling and pedestrian network. We don't have one; don't let any noncyclist cheerily tell you otherwise and cite all the special maps. Been in the Southland lately? Maps don't create a world-class network, they show the least bad way to get around the gaps where no network exists. We sorely need to actually build this network so we won't need maps. (Except to hoard as collectibles, of course.)

Encourage active transportation. Bike! Bike! Bike! Walk! Skate! Bike! Go places! See stuff! It's fun and exciting! It's vaguely educational! Meet people! Do things! It's healthy and eco-friendly! Everyone wins! Hooray! (There, now, are you sufficiently encouraged? No? Well, I'm tired. I'll try again tomorrow.)

Reduce traffic fatalities for bicyclists and pedestrians by 75%. If you do drive, please drive with care. Watch out for more vulnerable road users, especially in places where there are more pedestrians but fewer options for them. Share the road with bikes because bikes are vehicles and the road is where they belong. I want to live!

We can do this; we will do this. Sure, we've got until 2027, but let's not wait until the last minute. Let's see, in 20 years I'll be... oh, damn. But that's not important.

*Suddenly I have to wonder whether this plan accounts for the ever-spreading geographical extent of "Chicagoland" in the next 20 years. Will the CBF spread its coverage to Kankakee, Grundy, and DeKalb Counties? Would it be willing to tackle state legislation in Indiana and Wisconsin, too?

**Power chairs, inline skates, Segways, etc., also count. But skateboards don't count because skateboarders are bike-lane-hogging punks-asses and they know it.

20 October 2007

Conservatives care about my breasts (and apparently not much else)

Spread the word like it's an STD!

From Planned Parenthood Aurora:
Want to prevent breast cancer? Give up that Ph.D.

"As we mark Breast Cancer Awareness month many of us consider prevention methods. Some of us tally up how many women in our family has been struck by this disease. We give thought to what we might do, as individuals, to keep the disease at bay. Well guess what? HT to the Feminist Peace Network for finding the cure in a conservative web community..."

From Feminist Peace Network:
The Right Wing Cure for Breast Cancer

"I suppose it was inevitable, but the family values crazies have come up with a great cure for breast cancer. Yes, you guessed it–get married and have babies! Dr. Miriam Grossman writes for Townhall, a “conservative web community..."

From Towhnall.com:
Want Protection From Breast Cancer? Have Some Babies

"October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, ladies. Time for pink ribbons, fundraising, mammograms, and that familiar list of lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your risk.

"I bet most of you can recite it in your sleep: examine yourself monthly, watch your weight, exercise, eat berries, vegetables and fiber. Don’t smoke or drink excessive alcohol. Avoid red meat and fatty foods.

"Those are the guidelines etched in our brains, women young and old, desperate to dodge the dreaded bullet that will strike one in eight of us. But as you stock up on blueberries and sauerkraut, please know one more thing. The 'lifestyle' choice that provides the best protection from this epidemic has nothing to do with diet, cigarettes, or booze.

"You won’t find it highlighted in women’s magazines or health websites, but it’s the mommy track that provides the greatest protection against breast cancer: giving birth before thirty, having a bunch of kids, and breastfeeding them—for a long time..."


Pah, you sound like my grandmother. I'll take my chances with cancer, thanks.

Anyway, here's the gem of a quote that's making the rounds:

"October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, right? It’s all about publicizing the facts, so women can make informed decisions. If we’re encouraging women to rethink their 'lifestyles,' why omit the most critical lifestyle choice of all?

"It’s another instance of ideology trumping science. Emphasizing the benefits of early motherhood could—gasp!—encourage some young women to give marriage more priority, and postpone their demanding career. They might decide it’s a diamond they most want now, not a PhD.

"Yes, yes, I know: Betty Friedan, founding mother of feminism, is convulsing in her grave. I hear her cry: here goes forty years of progress down the drain!

"The problem is biology itself is sexist..."


First of all, it's the science of biology that's sexist, and that's because bio chicks work in a historically male-dominated environment and ideology. (Sadly, it persists even today--ever read any evolutionary psychology? That's the field that tells us that men are "genetically programmed" to prefer hot young women and sleep around because it makes them and their offspring "more fit." So there's just no way around it, sorry. Gag.) But biological systems themselves can't be called sexist. It's like calling the climate racist because why else is it so dangerously hot down there by the equator where people tend to have dark skin?

Besides, what the heck else is science, technology, and medicine all for if not to enable ourselves to overcome the very limits imposed by biology? We've walked on the freaking moon, turned deadly diseases into minor inconveniences, and built cities where millions of people can live without having to hunt or gather. So why all the hand-wringing about the feminist ideology being incompatible with biology?

Oh, and DON'T get me started on ideology trumping science. I can hardly believe that a conservative had the ovaries to even say such a thing. Madam, you walked right into that one--watch your back, 'cause here comes the lash.

Diamonds and PhD's are both pretty overrated, if you ask me, but no one ever does. I'm not stereotypical enough for my opinion to matter.

19 October 2007

What about Boub?

[Placeholder entry. Eeps, I've got lots of catching up to do. Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana, and so on. Title shamelessly stolenhumbly borrowed from Bike Traffic.]

To paraphrase Lord Kelvin (everyone does), there remains a dark cloud over bicycle policy in Illinois. You see, before there was Complete Streets, there was Boub.

A letter to the Daily Herald nicely summarizes the situation:
Do more to assure safe bicycling

"We have many legislators and local civic leaders to thank for the many miles of safe and marked bicycle lanes and trails throughout Illinois. These people deserve our thanks and votes every chance we get.

"Most of these citizens get it because they also enjoy riding their bicycles for their hearts, waistline, gas savings, pure enjoyment, etc.

"Unfortunately, we have several leaders frozen by an Illinois Supreme Court decision called Boub v. Wayne, 1998. My take is that this decision tells governments that they will only be responsible for a bicyclist's safety if it marks a roadway as a bike route. Many local governments have now taken the stance that if they do nothing and a cyclist is injured or killed, oh well.

"Enough of them have thwarted Illinois' legislature from enacting sensible laws that would encourage road safety to include bicyclists.

"The governor changed a bill before him that would have required state road improvements to include a safe way for bicyclists and pedestrians to one that permits a safe way. The governor wants health care, but is putting cyclists' well-being at risk -- either by injury or driving instead of riding.

"The governor did sign important legislation that was thoroughly supported by our legislators. It requires bicyclists to ride as safely as possible to the right and for automobiles to give us 3 feet when passing. Thankfully, most bicyclists and most drivers are courteous to each other. Re-striping roadways to give the right lane an extra foot or two from the center lane or converting narrow four-lane roads to three with a dual center turn lane and bike lanes on the edges would be great way to get more people on their bikes.

"Find out where your leaders stand and vote. Get out there and ride.

"I also hope that Mr./Ms. Boub is healthy and enjoying bicycle riding. I have only recently heard of this case, but only from the effect on leaders' withdrawal from being bicycle friendly."

Terry Witt
Bartlett

[Tip o' the helmet to bike>>blog.]

I've remained quiet on Boub for two reasons: I considered it to be an issue that was before my time, and I never quite understood what the heck it was about anyway. Both reasons are bullshit, of course. It's been almost a decade now since the Boub v. Wayne decision, but the passage of time in no way diminishes the great need for a legislative solution to the problems that have sprung up in its wake. The effects on local bike policy in Illinois have been, well, devastating. And there's never any excuse for ignoring something just because it's complicated.*

So, what's all the fuss about?

[I'll have to leave you with that cliffhanger because I've got too much Real Work to do today. LIB has background on the Boub bills here.]

*Don't let the legalese scare you away, either--plenty of my peers ended up in law school for lack of anything better to do with their English majors and theater experience, so I've concluded that they only use all that incomprehensible Latin-sprinkled mumbo-jumbo because there are so few things in the world less intimidating than a well-read drama queen.

18 October 2007

Dawn at Calumet Beach

If at first you don't succeed, ride your bike again.





Later, at 89th and nowhere...



It occurs to me that roundabouts is where Friends of the Parks is itching to put the Olympic stadium, should we have need of one. They have their work cut out for them.

Then I was almost very slowly run over by a semi pulling an indifferent yet impressive U-turn across the boulevard. The driver's brief glare said it all: What the hell are you doing here?

I ask myself that question every day.

15 October 2007

Aurora

No, I did not go to Aurora. Not recently. But I've been thinking about it.

[A work in progress. Come back soon.]

Aurora is a city in the suburbs, a behemoth sprawling across four counties with a burgeoning population. With respect to the latter, Aurora is considered to have beat Rockford's long-held rank as the second largest city in Illinois. It's a recent enough development that Rockford is still disputing it on technical grounds, but I think they're grasping at straws. No one who's been to Aurora recently would argue.

As far as small American cities go, Aurora is probably pretty typical: booming on the edges while decaying in the center, split down the middle into a "good" side in one cardinal direction and a "bad" side in the opposite cardinal direction. The industrial foundation of its economy sputtered in the late 20th century, resulting in a population vacuum that was quickly filled by a steady stream of immigrants, mostly Hispanic. A supposedly glamorous casino was built to boost the economy and revitalize the downtown, but those dreams didn't quite pan out. These days city planners are focusing on the central transit hub as a potential draw for both new business and new residents; meanwhile, the most successful economic development occurs along the city's ever-widening fringes, dominated by a culture of automobiles.

Oh, Aurora. I won't weep for you, but I do on occasion heave a heavy sigh on your behalf. You deserve so much better than this.

My own personal ties to Aurora really aren't that significant: I went to IMSA, and that's where IMSA happens to be located, and if you're lucky enough to actually enjoy high school you'll always tend to think fondly of whichever town it was in. The time I spent with suburban ex only counts to the extent that Aurora and Naperville are entangled, along Rt. 59, cozy as lovers and different as night and day. And then there's my more recent habit of treating Aurora as a gateway to the Fox River Trail. I do have family ties to Aurora on the Davis side, but they are few and distant, and I think mostly dead.

So when I think about Aurora, I inevitably think about the past. But Aurora still exists in the present, regardless of how I think about it.

In a weird twist of fate, in recent months Aurora has been shoved uncomfortably into the national spotlight as "ground zero in the abortion wars" (or "ground zero in the fight for women's rights/health," depending on how feminist you are). Much ado was made about the "community" where the new Planned Parenthood clinic is located, the nearby residential area, the adjacent shopping plaza, the barely strictly legal squabbling over the zoning ordinances, the rapidly changing demographics of the southwest suburbs and exurbs in the four-county region--the Aurora metropolitan area, if you will. Every time I read something my curiosity got the best of me and I checked the clinic's address on a map, and every time I did the location still didn't trigger any familiarity. It was probably still a cornfield the last time I was anywhere near there.

For all we hear about the context, we somehow never get to see any pictures of this "community," just close up shots of people (usually protesters) waving signs. What's this place like, that it was so peaceful and idyllic that the sudden appearance of a Planned Parenthood clinic absolutely ruined it? I doubted that it was really much of a community until something came along that pissed off and thus united the residents. I doubted that anyone really gave a damn where they drove to buy their groceries until they discovered that they might have to drive past a group of perennial protesters.

Chicago snob that I am, it was really easy to assume that it was all just a classic case of not caring until confronted with controversy. Stupid suburbs.

But... it's Aurora. And what do I know? The last time I was there the community was a cornfield. Everything in Aurora that I ever cared about, formerly on the edge of town, has since been subsumed by the decay spreading out from the center.

There must be a better way to build cities.

The magical, far-away land of Wisconsin: Hiawatha edition

Adventures with a folding bike, episode 1: I went to Milwaukee on a bleak and blustery October evening, and all I got was this lousy head cold. I rode home via King Drive (lots of interesting architecture, btw) because I was feeling... brave? No, "brave" is not quite the right word. "Stubborn," maybe, or "arrogant." It was uneventful. So was Milwaukee, for that matter. (I didn't even get spectacularly lost, only somewhat "where the hell am I on this map?" lost.) I mostly just wanted to get out of here for a while, prove that I could do it. Get my $42 worth and come back home again. Practice lifting 20-something pounds over my head into a luggage rack. I really should work out.