It’s my belief that urban explorers need not be limited to transport solely by foot or town car; enter the noble bike tour. While hardcore cyclist friends dismiss this mode as gimmicky, I disagree. Bike tours allow you to survey noteworthy spots in a condensed time span with the cliff notes included. Just as a vantage you drive past daily appears different on foot, cycling by shows you another side. Finally, for unseasoned city bikers like myself, there is much to be said for biking in the safety of a pack even at the inconvenience of the general populous at each intersection.
After enjoying such a tour of downtown a few months ago, a few friends and I decide an autumn tour of Hyde Park is in order. The Southside – I’ve been embarrassingly few times, and the dreary drizzle of a morning can’t dampen my enthusiasm to venture down.
We depart from the Hyde Park Art Center, and moments later chilling rain cuts through our sparse layers. “Not so bad” becomes unbearable as we struggle through the lakefront path downpour. Heads down, we focus on following the guide and forgetting the cold. Massive Lake Michigan waves pummel the shore and we notice a few surfers struggling to get up. Later that day, the local news reports a capsized sailboat and a cargo ship that has to be rescued.
The glimpses I manage of Jackson Park, the Statue of the Republic, the Wooded Island, and the Japanese Gardens further inspire me to return for another round with the area. Like much of the area, they were first created for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and exemplified an era of rebirth for the city after the devastation of the Great Fire. Many who have read The Devil in the White City are similarly intrigued by the impact of the Columbian Exposition on Chicago and much of America, which gave us inventions such as the Ferris Wheel and Cracker Jacks as well as Pabst’s definitive (and only) blue ribbon.
The elements let up slightly by the time we hit the picturesque University of Chicago’s campus. We’re intrigued that it seems so pictorial yet sits blocks away from a major urban area and also so far from downtown – a pseudo-urban aura. Breezing by the Rockefeller Chapel, our group stops to see the site of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. On December 2, 1942 Enrico Fermi first split the atom under the football stadium bleachers. Twenty-five years later, the sculpture Nuclear Energy by Henry Moore was dedicated at the site.
“When in Rome, I guess make fun of the Romans,” our guide advises a vocal anti-Communist DC/Chicago leadership member of the group. Despite his grunting, we peer through the foliage and barricades to see the First Family’s house. Although the Obamas haven’t visited this residence since Memorial Day, guards stand at each end of the street at all times – pity for their neighbors’ house parties. Louis Farrakhan’s house around the corner exhibits some interesting architecture, as do the nearby pod-like compounds he had built for his children years ago.
As we cycle throughout the neighborhood we are struck by the diversity of Hyde Park. It’s inhabited by students, politicians, professors, the extremely disadvantaged, owners of mansions and of one-story ranches, and even a commune – our tour guide’s former residence. He explains that the neighborhood is experiencing gentrification at the hands of the university and the effects are debatable.
Despite the weather limitations, the bike tour affords the opportunity to cover a lot of ground in two hours with the narration of another navigator. The downside is we haven’t strayed far from the tree-lined paths, and I’m left wondering at the full flavor of the neighborhood beyond the scripted route. While not a full-fledged exploration,the taste of Hyde Park was enjoyable and I have an appetite for more.