blt (boulevard lakefront tour) bike tour in chicago
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Since living in this new reality and currently in Phase 4 ‘Gradually Resuming’ here in Chicago (July 2020), I have been riding my bike quite a bit. Mostly by myself, but sometimes meeting friends for socially distanced picnics or other outside activities. I don’t own a car (by choice) and not quite ready to get on public transportation yet so it is my main form of transportation. Here’s some good news, at least bike sales have skyrocketed since the pandemic hit. Less cars & more bikes, always a good thing.
I miss organized bike tours terribly so here is a post from the Boulevard Lakefront Tour (BLT) that a few friends & I went on last year. Having taken this tour for many years now, the routes and format have changed slightly but it’s still good fun and a great way to explore the city.
Bikes. History. Beer.
What could be better on a beautiful summer day than traversing through the city with friends, checking out and learning about some cool, historic landmarks along the way? We met at REI’s new store on Clybourn to begin the ride. From 3 different routes to choose from 16, 23, or 37 miles, we chose the 23 miler which was perfect for the riders in our group. Rain was threatening when we started but we decided to go for it anyway and glad we did because it cleared up nicely.
Our route was clearly marked with colorful stickers, a rest stop about half way through and plenty of restrooms along the way. The map provided 15 highlighted points of interest with brief descriptions. Here’s what we saw.
Lincoln Yards is a private riverfront development by Sterling Bay that will have major implications for walking, biking & transit. It’s a 55-acre project that will run between North & Cortland Avenues. This project will extend the 606 to the Chicago River and add separated paths for people walking and biking along the river.
The Bloomingdale Trail, aka the 606, (similar to the High Line in NYC) is a 2.7 elevated railroad running E/W that was converted into a walking, biking & running trail. It offers beautiful landscaped experience to bike without fear of cars and connects the communities of Hermosa, Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park & Bucktown. It will be extended east to the Chicago River as part of the first phase of the Lincoln Yards development on the river.
Palmer Square Park
As elegant residences began developing along Palmer Square & Humboldt Boulevard between the late 1880s and early 1900s, Chicagoans often used the thoroughfares for strolling, carriage rides & cycling. At the time a bicycle craze swept through Chicago, Palmer Square became a popular spot for “wheelmen,” local clubs & national biking organizations. Biking enthusiasts used an ovular paved road surrounding the parkland as a track, plus the boulevard connection with Humboldt Park was also used in city-wide bike routes, races & parades. This trend is especially curious, considering that Ignaz Schwinn, founder of Schwinn Bicycles, lived at the corner of West Palmer Street & North Humboldt Blvd during the 1910s.
Humboldt Park – Fieldhouse rest stop
Named for Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a German naturalist & geographer. The park has 3 major historical public buildings, the Boat House (designed by Schmidt, Garden & Martin), the Field House and the Historic Stables that currently houses the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture. One-quarter of Humboldt Park’s residents are of Puerto Rican descent. The neighborhood hosts an event that draws more than one-million people every year, the Puerto Rican People’s Parade. It is one of the highest attended Latino celebrations in the country.
Beer Baron Row
Many of these mansions were built by German immigrants who made a fortune in the brewing business. Because of the concern for fire, most residents built their mansions of brick or stone. Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833 and that same year, the Haas & Sulzer Brewery, the town’s first commercial brewery opened. German immigrants poured into the Midwest, bringing along their yeasts, lagers & biergartens!
Named for Charles Wicker, an alderman who purchased 80 acres of land in the area to create a park & a subdivision around it. Even though the area around the park was wealthy European immigrants predominately Germans & Scandinavians, the surrounding areas were the poor working class. In the 1930s, wealthy folk abandoned the mansions & the working-class residency grew, especially the Polish community. By the 1980s, gentrification began with an influx of artist & yuppies becoming the heart of Chicago’s hipster scene. If you are interested in hiring me to give you a tour, click here and search for Mimi in Chicago. This area is covered in my Bucktown & Wicker Park neighborhood route.
In the summer of 2017, the Chicago Department of Transportation did a series of quick fixes to make Milwaukee Avenue safer for people biking & walking. For example, they added curb bump-outs at key intersections, added dashed advisory bike lanes & closed a dangerous ‘slip lane’. Since those improvements, 52% fewer cyclists are riding in the door zone than before the lanes were striped; 37% fewer motorists were observed driving in the bike lane than before the striping. At locations where new bump-outs were added, 10% more motorists are yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk than before. And the number of people driving at or below 20 mph has increased by 16% since the speed limit on the corridor was lowered to 20 mph as part of the project.
An artificial island formed by the North Branch of the Chicago River on the west and the North Branch Canal on the east. The name originated from a small natural island located on the Chicago River that was home to seasonal flocks of birds. In the 1920s, industrial plants took over the island, which gained the nickname of “Little Hell” due to all the smoke produced. Major land sites and warehouses have now been converted into modern manufacturing and creative loft-offices. Names used to market the island’s rebirth include Goose Island 2.0, Silicon Island and Innovation Island. Amazon, Inc. has a warehouse there to serve as an ultra-local distribution hub for “Prime Now” to Chicago residents.
Division Street & Clybourn Avenue
In 2015, the Illinois Department of Transportation put in a concrete barrier protected bike lane on Clybourn between Halsted & Division and on eastbound Division between Clybourn & Orleans. After the death of cyclist Bobby Cann on this stretch, this was the first time IDOT worked with the city to implement protected bike lanes. This was the second location in all of Chicago to have protected bike lanes.
One of the early landowners in the neighborhood was Potter Palmer, who played a significant role in the development of Chicago business & the Gold Coast. When most of his contemporaries were living on Prairie Avenue (in the South Loop), Palmer began to buy up land on the north end, which was only lightly populated & still mostly swamp. By 1882, the Palmer family had started building one of the first mansions on the drive, this block became known as the Potter Palmer Homestead.
Noteworthy Homes: Original Playboy Mansion (1340 North State Parkway) Purchased by Hugh Hefner in 1959, features included a pool in the basement with a swim up bar, hidden passageways and a two floor “Bunny dormitory.” The property was turned into student housing for the School of the Art Institute in 1989, but that didn’t last long. The Archbishop’s Residence (1155 North State Parkway) House of 19 chimneys, of which three are in use, rise through surrounding trees to form a unique silhouette, plus a coach house & landscaped grounds complete the Victorian setting. The Residence houses a small chapel, sitting rooms, rooms for resident priests and guests, a kitchen, a dining room and the Archbishop’s private quarters are on the second floor.
Behind the Archbishop’s Residence and built in the 1850s, is an alley that is one of only two wooden alleys remaining in Chicago. The pavement would have been constructed of four by five-inch wooden blocks, filled with gravel and sand and covered with coal tar. As the city’s large lumber market made wood much cheaper that other paving materials, we decided why not have wooden buildings, streets & sidewalks. These combustible materials meant that during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the streets were literally burning! This alley was preserved and restored in 2011 using original alley blocks and salvaged blocks from around the city.
Note: I was wondering why I didn’t take any photos in the Gold Coast and remembered that once we got to the Archbishop’s House & Playboy Mansion, my tour guide mode kicked in! I started giving my friends a tour of the area and really couldn’t take any photos. I can’t help it, something in me just takes over. Maybe because I have been giving tours for over 10 years. If you are interested in hiring me to give you a tour, click here and search for Mimi in Chicago. This area is covered in my North Michigan Ave, Gold Coast & Old Town neighborhood route.
This area began as a small public cemetery on the northern most boundary of Chicago where victims of cholera and smallpox were buried in shallow lakeside graves. Aware of the public health threat, citizens began demanding the cemetery’s conversion to parkland in the 1850s. To this day, the Couch mausoleum is the most visible reminder of the historic cemetery, standing amidst trees behind the Chicago History Museum. Partially due to the Chicago Fire, it was difficult to remove many of the remains and recent construction in the park has revealed more bodies left over from the 19th century. Current park size is 1,208 acres with 20 million visitors per year. Lincoln Park is the second most visited in the United States.
Theatre on the Lake
Originally built as the Chicago Daily News Fresh Air Fund Sanitarium in 1920, the breezes through these wooden shelters were believed to cure babies suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases. Free health services, milk and lunches were provided to more than 30,000 children each summer and reason for the area’s nickname Picnic Island. The Chicago Park District converted the building to Theatre on the Lake in 1953 but could only have performances during the summer. It shut down for a 5-year renovation, and opened back up in 2017 with the Lakefront Restaurant, event venue and theatre space.
Lakefront Trail separation
Creating a continuous high-quality, Lakefront Trail has been one of Active Transportation Alliances’ top priorities since our founding more than 30 years ago. We started organizing for creating separate space for people walking & people biking along the full length of the trail in 2014. Once the Park District made a commitment to separation in 2016, we joined the Chicago’s Runners Association (CARA) in regular meetings to provide feedback on different segments. The Park District completed the project in December 2018.
It is the home of the Chicago Cubs, but first opened in 1914 as Weeghman Park for Charles Weeghman’s Chicago Whales of the Federal League. The Cubs played their first home game at the park on April 16, 1916, defeating the Cincinnati Reds. Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. of the Wrigley Company acquired the Cubs in 1921. Wrigley Field is known for its ivy-covered brick outfield wall, the iconic red marquee over the main entrance and the hand-turned scoreboard. Second oldest stadium in the nation behind Fenway Park!
We ended the tour with a complimentary beer from Revolution Brewery at the BLT Block Party right where we began the ride at REI’s new store on Clybourn. It turned out to be a super fun ride exploring & learning about different parts of the city with friends (new & old) on a beautiful day!
If you, like me, are missing organized bike tours you are in luck. The BLT 2020 is on! Sure, it’s a little different than in the past (like everything else in 2020) and to follow COVID safety measures there won’t be a packet pick-up or an after party but there are 5 routes from which to choose. Ranging from an 8-mile family friendly course to a 75-mile city-wide course, you can ride whenever and with whomever you want. Routes will be emailed on August 7th so make sure to sign up before then. Click here for details.
When you are ready to travel to Chicago, after we get a handle on this pandemic of course, and you are interested in hiring me to give you a tour, click here and search for Mimi in Chicago. Here you can check out all the routes I offer & my reviews. If you don’t see exactly what you are looking for, please message me & I’d be happy to create a custom tour for you.
Until the next adventure my friends! Be well & stay safe.