The Pioneers’ inaugural ride: Khari Reed, Keith Bevans, Oboi Reed, Larry. Photo by Neeketta Dotson.
Recently Steven and I received an e-mail from a Chatham resident named Olatunji Oboi (“O-bye-ee”) Reed with the cheerful greeting, “Trusting y’all are both well and this note finds you in great health!” Bicycling has become part of Reed’s own strategy to maintain good physical and mental health, and this summer he launched The Pioneers Bicycle Club in hopes of spreading the gospel to his family, friends and community. I caught up with Reed last month at the Valois Cafeteria in Hyde Park to talk about the importance of cycling in his life, the history of the club, and his ideas for getting more South Siders and African Americans on bicycles.
Reed outside the Valois cafeteria in Hyde Park
How did you get involved with cycling?
When I was a young person growing up on the South Side of Chicago in Chatham, my mom bought me and my older brother bikes when we were pretty young. So we just loved the idea of riding bikes through the neighborhood. It was never something I would say we were truly passionate about but we just loved riding bike and hanging out with friends.
When I became an adult I didn’t bike ride a lot. I’m 37 years old and I was probably about 25 and I was living in Champaign when a friend said he was leaving and asked if I wanted his mountain bike. I said, of course, I’d love to take your bike. I really didn’t have a dependable car at the time so I felt like it would be a good opportunity to get around Champaign. When I got his bike I started riding around again and loved it but I still didn’t do it consistently.
So, five or six years ago I was looking for ways to relieve stress and get exercise. I still had my friend’s bike. I took it out of the basement and got it tuned up and got some things fixed. On that first ride I fell in love with biking all over again. It was unbelievably beautiful early morning on the lakefront. The sun was out, it was warm. I loved the water, the people. I was going at a very leisurely pace but I still felt like I was getting exercise. It was just a beautiful experience.
After that I tried to ride as often as possible, especially when I was stressed out and needed to get away. That was kind of like my escape. So I biked on and off for a few years, mostly through the summers. During wintertime I would put the bike away and it would sit for much of the year.
About a year ago I got the idea of asking people to join me. On different occasions different people have joined me, a friend here or a family member there but it was never very consistent. I normally rode by myself. But I just thought, I could be more consistent and it would be more fun if people rolled with me on a regular basis.
L. Anton Seals, Jenelle Alexander, Michael Muhammad, Reed. Photo courtesy of Reed.
So I had this idea and it was just something I thought about for a long time. So one day this summer I’m riding with a friend, a young lady named Jenelle Alexander. The plan is to go to a bike shop near my home, John’s Hardware and Bike Shop on 74th and Halsted.
It’s a very interesting place because it’s in the heart of the South Side, not really where you’d expect to find a good-quality bike shop. It’s a hardware shop in the front and a bike shop in the back. I’ve recommended them to a lot of people.
We planned to go there and get her bike fixed because the chain was slipping, and then we were going to go riding on the lake. We get to John’s and they say they can fix her bike but it’s going to take them a couple of days. So she says, “Let’s go to Beverly Bike Shop – that’s where I normally go.” We go there and they fix her bike. And then we want to go ride but instead of heading east I ask the owner if there’s a trail around there. He told us to go right on 83rd and Western, to the Major Taylor Trail.
When we’re riding on the trail we run into this long line of young people on bikes, maybe as young as 11 or 12 up to 18 or 19. There’s about 50 or 60 of them on this trail. And I’m blown away because I’ve been dreaming of this bike club for a long time. So we get to the end of this line of young people and I see this older guy who’s obviously the leader of the group. His name is Coach Ron Moore and he tells me this is a basketball camp operating out of a church but one element of it is this bike club that goes riding a couple times a week.
Before we ran into those young people, Jenelle and I had been talking about this idea of starting a club. I told her I’d been dreaming about it for a long time. Through talking to her that day I decided, all right, I’m going to do it. And then literally minutes later we run into this bike club with all these young people. For me that was confirmation I was on the right track and I should go forward with my idea.
[flickr]photo:6192340262[/flickr]Reed with his brothers Nate and Mike on a ride from the south end of the Lakefront Trail to the north end and back, 37 miles. Photo courtesy of Reed.
So that was on a Sunday. I sent a e-mail to all my family and friends that Tuesday inviting them to ride in this club and we went riding the next Saturday, July 30. We started at 55th Street at the Point and we rode north north on the lakefront to Navy Pier and came back south. There were five of us and we all loved it and had a great time. It was a blast.
I think the second week we were rained out. We rode that third week and then this past Saturday was the fourth week. The plan is every Saturday.
How many people have been showing up to ride lately?
On average about five. I would love to get those numbers up. I would love to have a hundred people riding with us.
Is it mostly your family members?
It’s family and friends. My brother and his fiancée ride with us, a cousin rides with us and then a number of friends have ridden with us as well.
In your e-mail inviting family members to ride you said that bicycling was part of your “healing journey.” What were you healing from?
I was healing from a number of health challenges, specifically depression, stress and anxiety. And I found that when I’m exercising, when I’m eating right, when I’m socializing with family and friends, I feel better than I’ve ever felt before. Bike riding is a way to get two out of the three in one shot. And I love being on the lakefront, being out in the early morning, 7, 8:00 in the morning, the sun is peeking out over the clouds, you’re looking at the blue sky and what appears to be this infinite water, the waves. And you’re seeing beautiful people working out, exercising, smiling and saying hello to each other. And it really has helped me to heal. It truly has made a difference in my health.
And I’m all about health. I’m all about my health, and health in the African-American community. I’m actually a holistic health practitioner, working out of my home. I try to help people live a healthier, more natural life. One of the things I talk about is exercise, because I don’t feel our people, African Americans, get enough exercise on a regular basis. So I wanted to go beyond suggesting you get more exercise and actually offer a venue to do this, because there aren’t a whole lot of people riding bikes on the South Side yet.
Why do you think there isn’t as much ridership on the South Side and what can be done to get more people on bikes?
I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on this but I’ll just tell you some of the things I’ve observed. Number one, most of our communities are not “walking communities.” They’re not the kind of neighborhoods where you walk around and do shopping or you walk to the park. There’s just not a lot of that on the South Side, or the West Side.
I’ve found that a number of predominantly white, or diverse, or downtown neighborhoods are walking communities. Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Wicker Park – these are walking communities. The thought is not to drive first, the first thought is to walk. If you’re a few blocks from Whole Foods you walk there, or you ride your bike there, or you skate there. We just don’t have that sort of luxury, that convenience in our communities, so that hinders us a bit.
[flickr]photo:6191823165[/flickr]The end of the Reed brothers’ ride at 71st Street. Photo courtesy of Oboi Reed.
What makes a neighborhood a walking community – why do more people walk in Lincoln Park than Chatham?
It’s the tremendous strength of the retail in a Lincoln Park. There’s so much good-quality shopping: food, interesting bookstores, clothing shops, shoe stores, cafes, good quality grocery stores and restaurants. And it’s cultural – these communities have been walking communities for a long time. And the parking situation doesn’t help. In Lincoln Park if you move your car, you’re in trouble.
On the South Side there’s a chance that when I come home I’m going to get the same parking spot I left this morning. In those North Side communities people don’t have cars or they don’t want to move them often. So that encourages people to find other forms of transportation.
Public transportation is much better downtown and on the North Side than it is on the South Side. I don’t think we have the same diversity of transit options on the South Side. For example, in Lincoln Park there are several arteries where you can catch a bus within a mile radius. In Chatham there’s only a few. There’s 79th Street and there’s State Street and then there’s the Red Line.
So I think it’s the retail, public transportation, and cultural differences. If you grow up in a family of walkers, when you come of age and have your own place you come with that perspective of walking or riding or running or jogging or skating. Whereas in our community we’re usually driving or catching public transportation.
There are some walking communities on the South Side. Hyde Park is not as strong as a Lincoln Park or a Wicker Park but it’s certainly a walking community. Bronzeville has the potential to get there. Some would consider Beverly a walking community. But there’s just a few of them and we need so many more.
If you had the power to influence these communities through neighborhood planning, what would you do differently to encourage bicycling on the South Side?
I would create some strong retail destinations where there are quality grocery stores and restaurants, and interesting, compelling shops. Let’s say a 43rd Street – create an awesome retail destination up and down 43rd, just a whole slue of businesses from cafes to bookshops to traditional retail, quality grocery stores and clothing stores. 43rd Street is surrounded by residential areas, so people that are near this retail bonanza would potentially be encouraged to bike there.
So one is great retail. Two is some more bike lanes. Maybe there’s some opportunities for increasing safety. I hear the city has been building bike lanes with a divider between the bikes and traffic. Maybe we could get some of those on the South Side.
Those are coming. They’re talking about putting in one on Stony Island Avenue, between 69th and 77th Street. [After our interview the Chicago Department of Transportation announced plans for a protected bike lane on 18th Street between Canal Street and Clark Street.]
That would be great. I think it would encourage more people to ride. Because one of the challenges I face when I go for a ride is I have to put my bike in my trunk and drive to the lakefront. I do ride in the street but it’s not my ideal riding scenario.
Why don’t you like riding in the street?
Safety. I’m worried about getting hit or getting doored.
[We talk about the Chicago Bike Map and websites that offer local bike directions like Ride the City and Google Maps, as well as the new temporary velodrome at 8615 S. Burley as a possible ride destination for the bike club.]
[flickr]photo:6191752217[/flickr]Reed and Marshall Nelson in Lincoln Park. Photo courtesy of Reed.
So what’s in the future for The Pioneers. Are you going to stop doing these rides once the weather gets cold?
Yeah, we’re estimating we can go until late October, and we’ll just see how the weather plays out. We want to ride as long as we can. We certainly want to increase our numbers and get some matching t-shirts. I have a dream of our club riding in the Bud Billiken Parade and doing some of those big rides like The Late Ride and Bike the Drive.
I want our club to be an integral part of the larger Chicago community and to be an inspiration for African Americans on the South Side to ride more. I could imagine us starting a nonprofit organization around the bike club to encourage young people to ride and to teach them how to ride safely. Maybe we could work closely with the city on planning and things that could be done on the South Side to get more black people riding, using it as an opportunity to help people improve their health. So the bike club is just a few weeks old now but I have some grand visions for where it can go.