Chicago history on wheels

South Side bike tour puts faculty at the head of the pack.

On a sun-spotted Saturday morning in October three social sciences faculty members donned helmets, packed notes and megaphones, and led 51 students, faculty, and neighborhood residents on a ten-stop bicycle tour of Chicago’s South Side. 

The annual tour is a signature event of the Chicago Studies program, launched by the College in fall 2008 to create opportunities for undergraduates to study and explore the city. This year, as last, it was led by three avid cyclists from the Division: political science professor and dean Mark Hansen, history professor and dean of the College John Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, and sociology professor Terry Nichols Clark.

Start: Bartlett Quadrangle, University of Chicago
Spokes cast crisp shadows on Bartlett Quadrangle, the meet-up location. At 10:30 a.m., David Hays, assistant director of the University Community Service Center and the tour organizer, briefed riders on the trip logistics before Mark Hansen kicked off the history lesson. Second City Players, Hansen told the group, originated as the Compass Players at the Compass Bar about a block north of Bartlett. A fire station now marks the spot.

Stop 1: DuSable Museum, Washington Park
The caravan of riders made its way west to the first tour stop, at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park. John Boyer described the development of the Chicago parks system and used the growth of the DuSable Museum, established in 1961, to introduce a major thread in the tour, the history of black Chicago.

Stop 2: Douglas Memorial
En route to their next stop, riders got fleeting views of Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH headquarters and the lot where the home of Democratic congressman and South Side boss William Levi Dawson (1886-1970) used to stand. They rode near the track of the Illinois Central, one of five main railroad lines seen on the tour route.

Stop 2: Douglas Memorial
The Douglas Memorial, at Lake Park Avenue and 35th Street, pays tribute to “The Little Giant,”’ Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. He moved to Chicago in 1847, the year he was elected senator and 11 years before the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The surrounding neighborhood is now known as Douglas. It was near here, Hansen noted, that the infamous 1919 race riots were touched off when “a group of whites began to throw stones at black teens floating on a raft that had crossed over into ‘white’ territory at the 31st Street beach.” Five days of violence later, 38 were dead and 500 injured, on both sides of the racial divide.

Stop 3: Bronzeville
The tour made its next stop at 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive. The Prohibition years, said Terry Clark, “saw the most successful speakeasies in the city on 31st and 35th Streets. These areas had aldermen who were especially lax and well paid off by Al Capone.” Capone’s headquarters were in the Lexington Hotel, a short distance north. Clark described how he joined with others in appealing the city’s decision to tear down the historically significant site in November 1995. Mayor Daley responded, “We don’t honor bad guys.”

Stop 3: Bronzeville
In Bronzeville the tour crossed the path of Harold Lucas, a local activist who has spent three decades fighting to preserve the neighborhood’s historic architecture from the wrecking ball. To illustrate Lucas’s work, Clark pointed out the strikingly featured Supreme Life Building, built in 1921 across the street from the cycle tour’s Bronzeville stop. The building was designated a Chicago landmark in 1998 and was the longtime headquarters of the first African American owned and operated insurance company, Liberty Life, which became Supreme Life in 1929. 

Stop 4: Prairie Avenue District 
At 18th Street and Indiana Avenue, riders stopped in front of the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens, where Boyer told the story of the oldest surviving house in the city, the “Widow” Clarke House, built by Henry and Caroline Clarke in 1836. Prairie Avenue, one block east, is dotted with historic homes of iconic early twentieth-century businessmen who represented the rise of the first true Chicago elite. Boyer also pointed out and praised Glessner House, now a museum, designed by H.H. Richardson in 1886. It’s the only surviving building of four in Chicago by this significant American architect.

Prairie Avenue District

Stop 5: Coliseum Park
Early twentieth-century U.S. political history was routinely made at the Chicago Coliseum, where the Republican Party held its nominating conventions from 1904 to 1920. At the park opposite the site of the Coliseum at 14th Place and Wabash Avenue, Hansen recounted how in 1912 “Theodore Roosevelt and his delegates walked out after the convention nominated Taft for a second term and formed the Progressive [Bull Moose] Party, which nominated Roosevelt for president at the Coliseum weeks later.” The 25 national major-party conventions held in Chicago, he noted, are more than any other city has hosted.

Biking from Coliseum Park to Hull-House Museum
Tour riders took over the bicycle lane on Wabash Avenue, traveling north to Harrison Street on their way to Hull-House Museum.

Stop 6: Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
A glimpse of the collective tour hardware, parked outside the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (Halsted and Polk Streets). 

Stop 6: Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
Operated by the University of Illinois, Chicago, the Hull-House Museum commemorates the work of the pioneering social worker (and SSA teacher) Jane Addams. Hansen spoke about the tremendous ethnic diversity of the Near West Side, which was home to Jewish, Italian, Bohemian, Greek, and other enclaves.

Stop 7: Daley House, Bridgeport
The tour stopped at the home of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the last of the old-time machine bosses. Bridgeport was home not only to Daley but also to the powerful Chicago machine, Hansen said. How powerful? “Many believe that the Chicago machine threw the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy. Daley withheld the vote from Cook County until early the following morning, at which point the 450,000-vote plurality for JFK put him over the top in Illinois by 8,858 votes.”

Stop 8: Union Stock Yard
The Union Stock Yard, which once saw 15 million head of livestock pass through annually, closed in 1971 and is now a national historical landmark and the site of Chicago Stockyards Industrial Park, where a few tiny meatpacking operations remain.

Stop 8: Union Stock Yard
The stockyard gate was designed by famed Chicago architecture firm Burnham and Root. “The bull at the top,” Hansen explained, “is said to represent Sherman, a prize-winning bull named for Stock Yard founder John B. Sherman. As many as 45,000 people worked in the Yard and meatpacking houses, most of them “unskilled and semiskilled laborers drawn from the newest immigrant groups, first Irish and Germans and then Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Bohemians, Hungarians, Russians, Finns, Jews, African Americans, and Mexicans.”

Stop 9: Harold Washington Cultural Center
Former third ward alderman Dorothy Tillman made a guest appearance at the cultural center, where her daughter Jimalita is executive director. Clark spoke about his personal relationship with Mayor Washington, who read Clark’s 1983 book City Money and then hired him to work with his top staff. “The best fieldwork I ever did,” Clark said, was training for a marathon with Washington’s chief of staff Ernest Barefield, talking “about all manner of city policies while we ran through these neighborhoods.”

Stop 10: Barack Obama Home
Though tour participants were duly warned, nobody was actually searched outside the Obama home in Kenwood. Security has been taken down a notch, at least when the first family isn’t there. Also in Kenwood, Hansen pointed out the homes of Julius Rosenwald, Elijah Mohammed, and Muhammed Ali, as well as the scene of Leopold and Loeb’s abduction of Bobby Franks at 49th Street and Ellis Avenue.

True colors: a closer look at Hansen’s Biological Sciences Collegiate Division-branded cycling gear, complete with phoenixes. Hansen and Clark both wore jerseys from the U of C Velo Club, to which they belong. The club welcomes new members for training, racing, and recreational cycling.