Life of the Mind—On a Bike

South Side History Bike Tour brings community together in annual 15-mile event
Even as you get to a site and you’re talking about what used to be there, you’ve gotten to that site by passing through everything that is there. That is exposing you, even just passively, to the richness of what’s going on now.
Chris Skrable
UCSC Associate Director

What do bikes, professors, and Chicago history have in common? Every October, the three converge in a five hour, 15 mile event: the University of Chicago’s South Side History Bike Tour.

Established more than twenty years ago by two professors as an extracurricular component of their classes, they sought to blend the topics of Chicago policy, sociology, and history that they covered in class with a real-world understanding of how the city functions--block by block, mile by mile. the bike ride soon grew with the support of the University’s most famous cyclist, Dean of the College John Boyer. Now, the event which regularly gets around 50 or 60 participants, is hosted by the Chicago Studies program at the University Community Service Center (UCSC) and by the College.  

It’s a different kind of life of the mind. It’s the life of the mind—on a bike.

“[The bike tour serves] to introduce people to the city and to the fascination and potential for serious knowledge building, about how cities work, their economics, politics, social life and to see how the legacy [was formed],” Professor Terry Nichols Clark of the Sociology Department explained. “This is the most studied city in the world.”

This year, Dean Boyer, Professor Clark, and Political Science Professor Mark Hanson led the group of 45 students and community members to a range of sites, including the DuSable Museum of African American History, Hull House, the Chicago Stockyard Gate, and the Kenwood home of President Barack Obama.  At each stop on the route, the scholars took turns giving short lectures about the significance of the structures they saw, while staff members from the UCSC passed out snacks and the marshals helped repair any bike-related mishaps.

Fifteen miles is a significant distance to travel via bike, but the greatest significance of the event for many participants came from the community interaction they experienced—a level of intimacy possible only through bike riding.

“In Bronzeville, there was a guy holding his hand up and slapping hands, high-fiving everyone going by,” Clark said. “I bike 12 months of the year and it’s a great way to keep seeing things all the time. I learn as I bike.”

“You really get a sense of how these different Chicago neighborhoods flow from one neighborhood to another and the ways in which neighborhood identity evolves from block to block,” explained Chris Skrable, UCSC Associate Director, Chicago Studies program manager, and organizer of the bike tour. “The pacing of a bike ride is so different than driving.”

“Even as you get to a site and you’re talking about what used to be there, you’ve gotten to that site by passing through everything that is there. That is exposing you, even just passively, to the richness of what’s going on now,” he added.

The bicyclists passed through 10 different communities, but along the way they ended up creating one of their own.

“There’s this really wonderful opportunity for informal conversation…while we were riding—‘we have a mile, let’s talk, let me ask a question about what you just said’,” Skrable said. “You were part of a different community almost every time as you’re around different riders. By the end, you have a good sense of having built something together, you were all part of a common story.”

This story will continue at next year’s South Side History Bike Tour, but stay tuned for the launch of a spring bike tour coordinated by Chicago Studies and the University’s Office of Sustainability. This event, tentatively planned for late April, will focus on sustainability at the former U.S. Steel Plant on the south end of the lakefront.

Tagged: South Side History Bike Tour