On Saturday I dropped by the 9th annual Bike the Boulevard health expo, bicycle ride and bike rodeo hosted by 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas. His Near South district includes parts of Back-of-the-Yards, Brighton Park, McKinley Park, South Lawndale and Little Village. This fun block party took place in the parking lot of a big box store at 47th Street and Western Boulevard, which demonstrates that you can make interesting, positive things happen when you commandeer a few dozen parking spaces.
The bike ride was an inspiring sight, with about a hundred kids from the community, family members and neighbors taking to the street. We cruised north on Western and then west on 31st Boulevard, led by the alderman on his bike and shepherded by police on bikes and in squad cars, pausing for a water break by The Hub, a housing co-op founded by cyclists, before backtracking to the expo. Before the ride departed I asked Cardenas a few questions about why he does this event, and his thoughts on the city’s bike plan.
What’s the value of this event to 12th Ward residents?
I think it sends a clear message that we want healthy communities, we want engaged communities and we want parents to be engaged with their kids. It’s a day when you can say, “Let’s go bike riding, let’s come together as a community and do something positive with kids.” Obviously you hear about the violence and the gang activity but this is really where you can show that there are good things happening in a community that wants to improve, wants to do better and wants to go forward.
And this is something that this city will embrace more and more, biking and walking. With obesity and all these things, over the last thirty years we have really gotten away from the basics. We’ve gotten fat and lazy and we don’t exercise as much. We’ve got the TV generation. It’s time to revert back to basics and say, “Look, we need balance.” Healthy lifestyles are very important for our communities and for our kids, and that’s the message that we’re going to drive home time after time.
In Spanish, and I’m going to borrow a phrase from the Hispanic Health Coalition, the message is “Vive tu vida,” which means “Live your life.” Get a bike, get going, get moving. That’s what this is about.
How does doing a bike ride with your constituents help you as alderman?
It connects you to them. A lot of people here may say, “You know, I haven’t seen you for a while.” This is a way to engage with the people who support you. So people know that we are doing positive things in the community. And this is a way that people can support you in that endeavor. They know that this is important. They’re out here with their kids, taking the time, and obviously this is a beautiful day, and they’re here for a positive cause.
We also want to showcase all these community organizations and all these sponsors. They’re bringing their resources to bear to a community that obviously needs it. Again it’s something positive and companies want to be part of this. This is our ninth year doing it and it’s catching on to other communities.
And we’re hoping that next year we can connect north and south, Humboldt Park to here, and share our beautiful Boulevard System that connects the city north-to-south.
Are you talking about doing a ciclovia, like the Sunday Parkways and Open Streets events [which took place on the boulevards between Logan Square and Little Village in 2008 and 2009]?
Right. So we want to connect different neighborhood, like connecting this neighborhood to Logan Square for example, using Chicago’s great Boulevard System. We have to take advantage of those things. They’re great resources and yet we let cars control them and we shouldn’t. We should take them back by closing the streets on Sundays. It’s one way to help people live better lives.
As you probably know, the city is creating a plan for 110 miles of protected bike lanes, 40 miles of buffered bike lanes, and hundreds of more miles of bike routes, as well as thousands of bike-share bikes. Any thoughts on what that might do for your constituents?
It’s phenomenal. Again, how do you affect positive change in people’s lifestyles and the obesity rate? It’s by a city changing its environment, making an effort to modernize and improve the public way so that people have different options. If you look at the some of the streets on the Boulevard System it can be impossible for a bike to safely maneuver. Cars go so fast, and we need to change that. We need to change the environment by changing infrastructure and by investing in it. And that’s what we’ve been pushing with the mayor and we’re going to continue to do that. Because it has come to a head that we need to do things differently.
Anything you’d like to tell me about biking, walking or transit in your ward?
Investing in a bicycle is very inexpensive and investing a little of your time to exercise is good for you. You don’t have to have a membership at a fancy club. You can do this. You can get out of your home and go bike riding with your family. I think we’ll see this trend continuing to improve. And this city will see this change over the next ten years in that we’ll be more urban-centered and there will be more transportation options for people. That will make it easier for people to live healthier lifestyles.