The Chainlink

Interview with WWTW's Geoffrey Baer about "Biking the Boulevards" on VWYF

This week Vote With Your Feet talks with WTTW's Geoffrey Baer about the making of his new show, "Biking the Boulevards," which premiers tonight at 7:30 pm.

 

Keep on biking, walking and transit-ing,

 

John Greenfield

 

WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer on “Biking the Boulevards”


by John Greenfield

[This interview also appears in Gapers Block, www.gapersblock.com.]

“Biking the Boulevards,” premiering on WTTW on Monday, November 29, at 7:30 pm, focuses on three topics: Chicago’s 28-mile boulevard system, the often-overlooked neighborhoods and parks connected by the boulevards, and the history of cycling in Chicago.

In the show, host Geoffrey Baer, a veteran of many local travel and architecture documentaries, leads a tour of this network of tree-lined streets, first developed in the 1860s. From the seat of a Pashley Roadster Sovereign bicycle [donated by Boulevard Bikes, where I work] he showcases features you might not notice while speeding by in a car. He pedals by landmarks like Bronzeville’s Walk of Fame, Laredo Taft’s Fountain of Time sculpture on the Midway Plaissance, the golden dome of the Garfield Park field house, and Logan Square’s eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument.

"Black Doughboy Monument" on King Boulevard in Bronzeville

I recently talked to Baer about the making of the program, aspects of the boulevards and local bike history that may come as a surprise to Chicagoans, and his own ideas about how to improve cycling here.


How did you decide on the topic of the history of the Boulevard system and the history of bicycling in Chicago?

This is now the 17th show I’ve done about Chicago architecture and history. We’ve covered the city’s neighborhoods via the El and we’ve done the lakefront and the Loop and the river and basically all of the suburban regions of Chicago. This was a part of the city we had never featured before. It’s been on my radar for a long time but it didn’t get to the front burner until this past year.

In all these shows I’m always in some form of transportation, seeing neighborhoods via the El, or in the south suburbs I was in a tugboat on the Calumet River, and then I was in a 1929 Model A Ford “Woody” going down the Dixie Highway. They’re tours, so I’m always looking for a fun mode of transportation to make the show more entertaining.

The bicycle seemed like a totally logical mode of transportation for the boulevards because the boulevard system was founded in party because of lobbying from bicyclists because they needed paved surfaces for riding. Plus biking is a great way to explore the boulevards, and biking is very hot right now. And, of course, bicycling is something that we want to encourage.

What were some of the surprising things you saw while you were traveling the Boulevard system?

By in large, the boulevards are in great shape and are absolutely beautiful. A lot people would probably be surprised to find out that the west side parks – Humboldt Park, Douglas Park, Garfield Park – are absolutely magnificent. They definitely rival the lakefront parks in beauty and there is some really significant Prairie School architecture in those parks and architecture by some of the city’s greatest architects like Daniel Burnham.

Garfield Park Fieldhouse

Some of the neighborhoods on this tour are very much struggling communities. You never see them on T.V. unless there’s a crime and it’s on the news. You don’t see what else there is in these neighborhoods and you certainly don’t learn their histories. There’s a big Scandinavian history on the west side – that was definitely surprising to me.

Did you have any interesting encounters with locals or other cyclists while you were filming the show?

We had this big movie truck that we used for a lot of the show. I was riding my bike behind the movie truck with a cop behind me so traffic didn’t run me over, so we were quite a spectacle. Lots of people saw us with the movie truck and asked us if we were filming “Transformers 3.” It was the most common question from people. And we’d say, no we’re filming a documentary, and they were really interested in that. I think a lot of documentaries have been filmed in these neighborhoods but they tend to be about hardcore urban problems.

Did you do much reconnaissance before the show was filmed – were you taking excursions to the Boulevard system?

Definitely. I produce some of these shows and write most of them, but in this case the show was written and produced by an extremely talented colleague of mine named Dan Protess. He spent the better part of a year on this project. I was involved in it at every step because he would get a lot of research together and then we’d talk about the proposed route for the show. I would read drafts of the script and give notes, but he was far more the person making the show than I was. He went and surveyed every inch of the Boulevard system in advance of writing and shooting. So we were really out there in advance looking at the whole system.

You were basically reciting a script while you were riding the bike, so you had to memorize lines?

Oh yeah – I do that for all my shows. They’re really not documentaries in the classic sense because there are no interviews. They’re really tours on T.V. They’re shot much more like a feature film than a documentary. It was all written ahead of time and broken down into shots and scenes and then we go out and shoot those. The only stuff I’m saying out in the field is when you see me on camera, so probably 80, 85 percent of the show I’m reading a script in an announce booth but you don’t see me on camera. But I was out with the crew for eight days shooting riding shots on bike, and that was a lot of fun.

What’s an aspect of Chicago bike history you cover in the show that a lot of local cyclists might not be aware of?

There’s a number of them that I really love. We all know that Mayor Daley is the “cyclist-in-chief” and wants Chicago to be the most bike-friendly city in the country, but there have been two other really big biking mayors. Mayor Daley the First was really pro-bike and established the city’s first on-street bike routes and also designated the lakefront as a bike trail.

But about 80 years before that Mayor Carter Harrison II won his race for mayor with the slogan, “Not the champion cyclist but the cyclist’s champion.” He really made the biking agenda a big part of his platform. He launched his campaign with a bike ride from Chicago to Waukegan and back in about nine-and-a-half hours a as a publicity stunt. And he built Chicago’s first bike trail, which went from Edgewater to Evanston.

Carter Harrison II

Another thing a lot of people don’t know is that in the late 1800s Chicago was the bicycle manufacturing capital of America and there were 80 bicycle manufacturers in the city.

After doing this research and riding, do you have any recommendations for how bicycling could be improved in Chicago?

I’ve be come much more tuned into this issue through this process. We’ve had this absolutely great partnership with Active Transportation Alliance. So I’ve had my consciousness raised about the whole bicycling agenda for Chicago.

It would be really great to see separated bikeways here. We’ve got this huge network of bike routes and bike lanes, but the lanes are basically just stripes down the street. There’s nothing that really separates the cars from the bikes.

Route signage is another issue. There’s an amazing amount of bike signage in the city but region-wide the connections aren’t always there. For example, if you’re going north from the city and trying to follow the Green Bay Trail, in some suburbs it’s phenomenally well-marked and in other suburbs you’re kind of guessing.

One time I was trying to get from the northwest side of Chicago to the North Branch Trail via Bryn Mawr and it’s a pretty circuitous route through neighborhoods. The signage is great, you turn here, you turn there. And then I got to the expressway and the signage just disappeared and I never did find the trail.

On some trails like the Green Bay Trail you could be riding on a really nice paved surface in one suburb and then all of the sudden you’re on gravel in another suburb. So a lot of the interconnectivity could be improved.

It seems to me like every time they’re resurfacing a road or putting in new sewers they should be putting in a new bikeway. The best example I’ve seen of that recently is on the Valley Line Trail. It’s a really great little trail that runs from Bryn Mawr to Devon. It’s an elevated trail with a couple of bridges. It’s really good. And then you get to Devon and there nothing – no facility for bikes.

Valley Line Trail

I rode east on Devon from there and as I was riding east I could easily observe that this road had very recently been completely redone. The curbs were brand new, the median was really nice, but there was no provision for bikes. And there’s a parkway along there - how easy would it have been to just swamp the parkway and the bike area so that you could have had a protected bikeway? If it was just part of the agenda it might have been done without much additional cost.

I know they’re going to be testing a new cycle track on south Stony Island using the federal money they received. If something like that was just part of the plan whenever they re-did a street anywhere in the city, think of what you could have.

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Replies to This Discussion



Don P said:
Poorly informed? unfounded biases?.......humm..

According to the Chicago Police website, in September 2010, between the hours of 8am-5pm there were 53 reported crime incidents (homicide(1), robbery(2), asst. assault(5) , asst. battery(17), asst. theft(15), drug(7), other(6) - and that isn't the full selection) in this corridor. Most crime experts say that between 35-50% of crime goes unreported (and trends higher in disadvantaged areas). I would use the term foolish, rather than afraid, to describe people that would take a recreational bike ride in this area by themselves.


H3N3 said:



I won't speak to Douglas to Garfield, but anyone who's afraid to cycle alone between the jail and Douglas park is poorly informed and should probably keep their unfounded biases to themself.

While I have certainly not been riding around there NEARLY as long as Howard, I have been living and riding in Little Village for 5 years, and have felt VERY little hostility or aggression. Are there violent crimes? Do I feel like my health and safety are in danger? Not even a little. I have been the target of much more unpleasantness biking through say, Humboldt Park, than I do in my neighborhood.

I describe living in Little Village like this. In the eyes of the thuglets who are responsible for most of the violence, I'm scenery, rather than a target. Sometimes scenery gets shot, but less than targets.

A quick perusal of Everyblock Chicago listed 119 crimes within 8 blocks of 1600 N. Humboldt Blvd for example, and I know personally two cyclists who have been knocked off their bikes and beaten in that vicinity in the last two years.
My experiences have been similar to Howard's and Sam's while riding and walking in Pilsen, Rogers Park, Little Village, and many parts of the south side considered "high crime" areas (including Woodlawn, Roseland, West Pullman, and South Chicago). Even in a place where I'm very much the minority, I usually feel that I'm regarded as part of the scenery, not a target. I encounter friendly curiousity much more often than any sort of hostility.

Whether I'm riding or walking alone or with others, I've rarely experienced any real threat.

H3N3 said:
I'm sorry, but I live and work in the area you're referring to, I've spent most of my life for the last 8 years travelling that area by bike and by foot at all hours of day and night and I've never been subject to threatening behavior (except the usual distracted/sloppy driving) or heard of a bicyclist being attacked in any way.
Keep your uninformed and insulting biases about other people's neighborhoods to yourself.



Don P said:
Poorly informed? unfounded biases?.......humm..

According to the Chicago Police website, in September 2010, between the hours of 8am-5pm there were 53 reported crime incidents (homicide(1), robbery(2), asst. assault(5) , asst. battery(17), asst. theft(15), drug(7), other(6) - and that isn't the full selection) in this corridor. Most crime experts say that between 35-50% of crime goes unreported (and trends higher in disadvantaged areas). I would use the term foolish, rather than afraid, to describe people that would take a recreational bike ride in this area by themselves.


H3N3 said:



I won't speak to Douglas to Garfield, but anyone who's afraid to cycle alone between the jail and Douglas park is poorly informed and should probably keep their unfounded biases to themself.
I liked the documentary, especially the historical aspects, but agree that it was slanted to the perception that "everything is great for bike riders in Chicago".

I took exception to the "poorly informed....keep unfounded biases to themselves" statement. That statement was a response to a legitmate concern about riding solo from Cook County Jail to Douglas to Garfield, and it didn't sound to me like unfounded bias. A good answer could have been "there are no issues CCJ to Douglas", and I would of agreed. Personally, I have been through Little Village on my bike, solo, more than a few times, have been the scenery, had no issues, and didn't expect any.

The September reported crime incidents, centered within 1/2 mile of Marshall and Cermak, happened during the day, when a single recreational rider is likely to ride. That's being informed. Would you rather people be uninformed? I was surprised by the number of incidents reported during the day, as my personal experience in the area gave no indication. My situational awareness will be higher in future rides.

I'm wondering how an objective evaluation of the facts can be seen as insulting bias. All neighborhoods experience crime, some more, some less. It is up to the individual to determine their threshold of acceptable risk. I'll leave judgment to the individual recreational rider from outside your neighborhood that wants to take the ride.

I'm sure your testimonial will be of great comfort to the individual recreational rider contemplating a boulevard tour.



H3N3 said:
I'm sorry, but I live and work in the area you're referring to, I've spent most of my life for the last 8 years travelling that area by bike and by foot at all hours of day and night and I've never been subject to threatening behavior (except the usual distracted/sloppy driving) or heard of a bicyclist being attacked in any way.
Keep your uninformed and insulting biases about other people's neighborhoods to yourself.


The data as presented on the police site is certainly interesting and perhaps useful as part of a larger assessment, but considering its application is confounded by a multitude of possible factors, as you admit, I find it disingenuous to present it as any sort of "objective proof" of anything, especially as it relates to the declaration an entire city area as "sketchy" and the passage of a particular artery by bicycle as "foolish."
Not sure how you can defend the way this was expressed as a "legitimate concern".
I don't know how you were able to search a whole month, but I'm returning wildly different numbers than you posted.
For 9/17 to 9/30, 1/2 mile radius centered on:
3000 W. Cermak: 7 incidents
3000 W. Division: 31 incidents
That's with the initial defaults checked, 8 AM to 5 PM.
FWIW I didn't say that the area was "sketchy", I said the coverage of the route from Cook County Jail to Douglas Park and on to Garfield Park was sketchy - intending to mean it was glossed over, they didn't dwell on it, in fact they hardly spent any time at all on it.

And apologies to anyone I may have offended with what was meant to be a fairly light hearted observation.
True, sorry.
You said you'd be afraid to ride this entire stretch of boulevard alone, and expressed that you found it amusing that this part of the boulevard was mostly glossed over in the documentary, and Don P said he considered it foolish to ride this stretch of boulevard alone.
Forgive the innaccuracy.



Alan Lloyd said:
FWIW I didn't say that the area was "sketchy", I said the coverage of the route from Cook County Jail to Douglas Park and on to Garfield Park was sketchy - intending to mean it was glossed over, they didn't dwell on it, in fact they hardly spent any time at all on it.

And apologies to anyone I may have offended with what was meant to be a fairly light hearted observation.
Gotta say, Howard is spot on on this one. I have lived in Little Village forever and I always feel like it gets a bad rep. It is nowhere near as bad as most people think. As a matter of fact, I think people would be surprised to find a community of decent hard-working people. Do we have our share of knuckle heads, sure, but this is Chicago. Personally, I think cyclists in Little Village have less to worry about when it comes to violence against them or even bike theft, than other "nicer areas" on the north side.
After a read of last night's postings, I get it that you are proud of your neighborhood, and react quickly and unkindly to any affront, real or imagined. As indicated in my last post, I took exception to your response to Alan, and decided to check the CPD website, basing the search on your response.

Being informed is more than observation and experience. The results did not correspond to my prior experiences in Little Village, but the data is real, nonetheless. As long as the data perimeters are agreed, your interpretation is no more or less valid than mine. "Objective proof" is your term, not mine.

As a recreational biker, often solo, passing through any given area, my concern is not actual crime activity per se, but the accompanying collateral mayhem it produces; quite often on the streets on which we ride. It does not keep me away from an area, but it does influence how I approach it.

I stand by the numbers quoted in my first post. I'll be happy to share how the CPD data was run, so my results can be verified, if it matters to you. Message me via Chainlink, and I'll respond as far as you want to take this, time permitting.

The thread is wildly off topic; something that appears to happen often on this site. For my part, apologies go out to all that expected to read comments on Geoffrey Baer's excellent show.




H3N3 said:
The data as presented on the police site is certainly interesting and perhaps useful as part of a larger assessment, but considering its application is confounded by a multitude of possible factors, as you admit, I find it disingenuous to present it as any sort of "objective proof" of anything, especially as it relates to the declaration an entire city area as "sketchy" and the passage of a particular artery by bicycle as "foolish."
Not sure how you can defend the way this was expressed as a "legitimate concern".

Reply by H3N3 15 hours ago
I don't know how you were able to search a whole month, but I'm returning wildly different numbers than you posted.
For 9/17 to 9/30, 1/2 mile radius centered on:
3000 W. Cermak: 7 incidents
3000 W. Division: 31 incidents
That's with the initial defaults checked, 8 AM to 5 PM.
Yes, definitely interested in how you arrived at those numbers (that's why I asked.)
The question of whether portions of the Boulevard were under-represented, and what the possible motivation behind that may be, is not off-topic but a valid discussion point.
I don't think I imagined that it was declared to be "foolish" to "ride alone" on this portion of the Boulevard, and I reject your insinuation that there's something irrational about speaking up when something you care about it wrongly disparaged, and that there's something irrational about offering daily, real-life, long term familiarity in response to a set of "data" with no reference, context, or specific parameters adequate enough to reproduce it.
I've never lived in Little Village, only been there as a visitor. I generally find conditions safer than Lincoln Park, due to the lack of entitled a$$hole drivers.

Vando said:
Gotta say, Howard is spot on on this one. I have lived in Little Village forever and I always feel like it gets a bad rep. It is nowhere near as bad as most people think. As a matter of fact, I think people would be surprised to find a community of decent hard-working people. Do we have our share of knuckle heads, sure, but this is Chicago. Personally, I think cyclists in Little Village have less to worry about when it comes to violence against them or even bike theft, than other "nicer areas" on the north side.
We finally subscribed to WTTW after seeing Biking the Boulevards: at the level that gets us the set of 12 Geoffrey Baer DVDs, and we are eagerly awaiting their arrival. They have all been great programs!

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