Oboi Redd and Eboni Senai Hawkins at Daley Plaza. Photo by Vincent Carter.
Last month I collaborated with Oboi Reed, founder of The Pioneers Bicycle Club, and Eboni Senai Hawkins, founder of the local chapter of Red Bike and Green (RBG) to create a Critical Mass map highlighting African-American landmarks on the Near South Side. Since the majority of Massers live on the North Side, the ride tends to gravitate in that direction, so Oboi, just back from a study abroad trip in Brazil focusing on health and social justice issues, proposed ending the ride south of Madison for a change.
I thought the ride was a great success, with a huge turnout, beautiful weather and a very positive vibe from participants and bystanders. I think many of the riders appreciated visiting communities like Bronzeville, Douglas and Oakland where they may not have spent much, or any, time before. It would definitely be great to see more Critical Mass rides travel to the South and West sides, and to see more involvement from folks who live in these areas. Oboi and Eboni share their impressions of the ride below.
Getting ready for the ride at the plaza. Photo by Bob Kastigar.
Chicago Critical Mass: The Southside Ride
By Oboi Reed
In the not so distant past, it was a dream. And, now it is a dream come true. From idea to execution, we moved at light speed. It was an awesome way to be welcomed back home to Chicago after living and studying in Brazil for 6 months. It was a beautiful way to celebrate Eboni’s one year anniversary of living in Chicago and bringing RBG with her all the way from Oakland, California.
Red Bike & Green + The Pioneers Bicycle Club proposed and led a Southside route for Chicago Critical Mass on Friday, August 31, 2012. Leading a Chicago Critical Mass ride though parts of the Southside was wonderfully special. Nearly 2000 of our closest friends riding through the streets on the Southside of Chicago was an amazing experience. The love on the streets of the Southside was overflowing. We shared love and we received it back in multiples. I know in my heart that we energized biking on the Southside that night. We inspired people – young & old, active & inactive, the naysayers & the believers. We made an important statement. We proudly proclaimed that the City of Chicago is one city and biking is for everyone. We shouted loudly that we all deserve access to biking resources and the myriad benefits associated with those resources.
The Pioneers exist to get more Black folks and Southsiders riding, in an effort to improve the health of our community. Our journey continues and the work begins anew.
Eboni and I connected about a year ago and quickly found common ground around a passion for Black bicycling culture. A very special partnership was laid on day one. Eboni paved the way for me in Brazil with her many friends. And, I introduced Eboni to several key people in Chicago’s bike advocacy community. We both knew a strong partnership between Red Bike & Green and The Pioneers was necessary and simply made sense. As my Brazil trip neared its end, our conversation turned to practical next steps to cement our partnership. We talked about The Pioneers riding with RBG and also about me leading an RBG ride in the near future. We talked about co-hosting a large combined ride, perhaps with other Black and Southside bike groups. Eboni joined The Pioneers and maintained an active presence around energizing Black bike culture during my time in Brazil.
The route map.
One day in early August via Skype (as I was still out of the country) we organically came to the idea of taking Chicago Critical Mass (CCM) on a Southside ride. We quickly reached out to John Greenfield, Willow Naeco, and other CCM veterans for feedback on a Southside ride for CCM in September. John added Steven Lane to the conversation and the train was rolling forward.
There was just one thing; due to CCM’s 15th anniversary in September (and many other great reasons) they all recommended that we consider a Southside ride in August instead of September. Ebony was her normal cool self and was confident we could do it in the given timeframe. I, on the other hand, was still licking my wounds from my first attempt to propose a Southside route for CCM. I was concerned the timing was too challenging given the fact that I’d be in Brazil up until about a week from the August ride.
Sensing my uneasiness with the timeframe and knowing it was the map that gave me trouble last time, John immediately jumped up and offered to create the map if Eboni and I could create a list of points of interest on the Southside along with a description of each. And, boom, now I was every bit as cool and confident as Eboni was. The train was again on the move. Then, Willow raised her hand and offered to highlight our proposed Southside route in the August issue of The Derailleur magazine. Next, Steven Lane jumped through our computers with the offer of promoting our route on the CCM website and Facebook page. The train was flying now and the next destination was Friday, August 31, 2012.
The ride in Bronzeville. Photo by Jjlthree.
Eboni and I arrived at Daley Plaza at about 5pm on a gorgeous day with bicyclists already filing in. RBG’ers and Pioneers started to show up, many who were riding CCM for the first time. John was there and cordially introduced us to some of the folks who had been around when CCM first started. Some were already aware of our proposed Southside route and offered their full support. Many others were supportive after learning about the route through The Derailleur or our many conversations that evening. There was an electricity building and the excitement was palpable. Kind gentlemen stood at the base of the Picasso statue and blew the whistle. Eboni, John and myself mounted up and began circling the statue. We hit the street and The Southside ride was off to a roaring start.
We rolled with a mass of nearly 2,000 riders along a 14 mile route through the South Loop, Bronzeville, Kenwood, Washington Park, Hyde Park, and other neighborhoods. We rolled past culturally important points of interest and official historical landmarks, such as the home of Ida B. Wells, the Chicago Bee Library, the Wabash YMCA, DuSable Museum of African American History, and Little Black Pearl Art & Design Center. We even rolled up to the Obama’s home to say hello. Alas, they were not at home to accept our greeting.
“Massing up” in Washington Park. Photo by Vincent Clark.
For about 2 hours we rolled past residents of the Southside. Some were curious and some were in shock. Imagine how you felt the first time you saw a 2,000-plus-rider mass heading straight for you. Even still, all were joyful in seeing this spectacular sight. They greeted us warmly with waves, smiles, high fives, screams, and more. We found friends on the Southside and they loved our energetic, positive presence in their communities and on their streets.
The ride was not perfect, as perfection does not exist, save for in our hearts and minds. There were many lessons learned. Even still, we felt like it was an awesome ride and many people agreed – both riders and Southsiders.
A big shout out and the tip of the hat to all the folks that loved the idea from the beginning, and to all the folks that needed convincing. Together we put a dent in the universe, however small, a dent nonetheless. For this, we are deeply thankful!
The Monument to the Great Northern Migration on King Drive, one of the landmarks on the ride. Photo by Zol87.
The Most Important Conversation I Had on Critical Mass
By Eboni Senai Hawkins
Critical Mass was the endpoint in a bike-filled week. Between meeting with Active Trans, our CCM test ride a few days before, a job interview for the BikeLAB program at the Better Boys Club, a meeting with Alderman Jason Ervin of the 28th Ward, a collaboration with Outdoor Afro, and several emails about RBG’s fall programs, I was almost at my quota for all things cycling-related. But I was at Daley Plaza, ready with flyers, ready to talk about Red Bike and Green, ready to lead by example.
And then reality washed over me in subtle waves. The push that Oboi and I made traveled only so far. From the Pioneers and Red Bike and Green, there were only about a dozen Black people gathered there specifically from our outreach. At one point, I walked the plaza, looking for other folks of African descent in the crowd, handing a flyer to some, a sticker to others. A quick pass of stickers went to cool kids in multicultural cliques. My experience is that Black kids in said groups don’t appreciate being singled out by race. Black riders content to be by themselves in the midst of the Mass got a flyer and a head nod. I spent the most time talking to parents with children.
Eboni at Daley Plaza with friends. Photo by Vincent Clark.
The two that lifted my heart the most? A mother and daughter sitting at the base of the Picasso sculpture just taking it all in as the Mass gathered. No one was really speaking to them, they didn’t look ready to ride, but they were definitely enraptured. My initial approach was the same as always: “Ladies, how you doing today?” Head nods and “Fine, fine” in return. As I started reaching into my bag for a flyer, I asked, “Ladies, do you have bikes?” Their ready affirmation, “Oh, yes. We BOTH do.” made me do a little dance inside as I explained that RBG leads much smaller “community rides” once a month. The mother scanned the flyer with more nods, saying “Mmmhmm. Yes, THAT one we can do. And THAT one.” referring to our rides planned through Bronzeville and South Shore. My smile could not have been wider as I excused myself to rejoin the Pioneers and RBG crew. “Thank you, ladies,” I said, “Can’t wait to see you out on the ride.” That one five-minute interaction was a very real reminder of why I give so much energy to Red Bike & Green.
The ride pushed off and while we rode down streets that were familiar to me, a transplant of one year, but unfamiliar to so many others, I couldn’t help but think intensely about WHO Red Bike and Green is trying to reach and HOW. John Greenfield’s support has exponentially increased the visibility of Red Bike & Green to the larger cycling community. On the other side of that coin, we have barely raised our profile with organizations that specifically target African-American populations and address RBG’s three-point plan of Health, Economic Development, and Environmental Stewardship. Across three cities, Red Bike and Green toes the line between style & substance benefiting greatly from a solid visual aesthetic which attracts a lot of initial interest. However, it is up to Jenna, Jewels, Me, and Zahra, laden as we are with opportunities (as Black, middle-class, college grads and international travelers) to serve as bridges to the realities present in our communities.
I spent a total of about twenty minutes in Alderman Ervin’s office on Tuesday. In the courteous manner of an elected official, he cut through my cycling-induced idealism. While I thought my question of “Which organizations should I connect with to encourage cycling?” was pretty straight-forward, the Alderman painted a different picture. He spoke of people who wanted to talk about bike lanes when he’s simply trying to get streets repaved. He continued into safety concerns and the psychology of geographic boundaries. The biggest admonishment made things crystal clear. He told me while I could talk about leading group rides, many of his constituents don’t even know how to ride a bike. The meeting ended quickly after that and I left with a re-worked perspective of what Red Bike and Green needs to do here in Chicago.
Pushing Critical Mass to tour the South Side of Chicago was indeed a small milestone and I hope that regular CCM participants continue to think critically about what it means to include the entirety of this amazing city into their future routes. Many of the cyclists hit the Lakefront Trail headed North as soon as the ride ended at 31st Street Beach and I couldn’t help but reflect on one of RBG’s slogans, “It’s Bigger than Bikes.” In the near future, our outreach must extend to health centers and churches, schools and violence prevention programs, community banks and urban farms. While the infectious energy of hundreds of people riding in the street can be a great entry point, if Red Bike and Green’s goal is to get more Black folks cycling, we must think less about the existing cycling community and more about organizations invested in the on-the-ground livelihood of Black people.
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011.
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