The Siren Call of Blue Island


Not long ago I received an email from my friend Paul in NY. Paul, among many other things, is an enthusiast of great beer and was writing me for some assistance with a recent discovery.

Apparently Guinness is testing a Black Lager beer in the Chicagoland market. Paul, knowing my passion for good beers knew this would piqué my interest and it would take very little coercion to get me to track it down. Sure enough I did, however the only place where it’s available for purchase that isn’t a bar was located in Blue Island Illinois, just south of Chicago. Seeing as I’ve never been there before I figured this would be a good opportunity to explore and photograph.

I hopped on I-94 and briefly followed signs to Memphis and made my way there. My first impression of the town upon my arrival was that it felt like a city lost in time. Much of Blue Island has a beautiful 1950’s charm to it, the downtown area (along Western Ave – yes, the same one) is filled with historic buildings and it would be easy to imagine it bustling with people going to the local Woolworth’s back in the day.

Sadly it seems time and the economy have not treated Blue Island especially well and many of the building are empty with historic companies long since closed. Despite all that, Blue Island’s charm shines through in it’s decay. Maybe it was just the light on this particular day but the sun seemed to shine on these old buildings and give them an air of urban friendliness.

In some ways Blue Island feels eerie with it’s charm. Like the dinner party scene in “The Shining”, almost as if the ghosts of what once was here were still hanging around inviting me to join them. I felt drawn to the area, wondering to myself: “could I live here?” The answer of course is no but something made me want to ask.


Friendly Walk – Ravenswood


I’ve mentioned before that although I am typically a Canon shooter I love my Panasonic GF1. I first learned about the camera from my friend James (who has posted here before.) Since that purchase almost all my photos on this site have been using this camera and it’s fixed focal lens.

Recently I was introduced to James’ friend Bradley, a passionate Leica shooter. The three of us swapped ideas and opinions on our respective cameras and decided it would be fun if we spent a day wandering a neighborhood together and shooting to sort of get three different perspectives on the area.

We met at noon right after James got off air from CHIRP radio and started walking right from the CHIRP offices in Ravenswood, an area most of us where not very familiar with.

For me this was a good opportunity to learn. Although I consider myself a very experience street shooter and technical photographer, I always love taking the opportunity to pick the brains of others. Walking with my two friends was something I found challenging at first as very often the three of us would wind up shooting the same thing and it was important to me to have some originality. However as I walked I noticed I was taking significantly less photos than the two of them. The question I then began to ask myself was why?

The problem with street photography over time is that there are only so many stop signs you can shoot before you bore your audience and yourself. I suspect that the reason my shooting was more conservative is that I’ve developed more of an eye for what interests me, and ultimately this means there is less I am attracted to, but the photos that come out as a result are stronger because I’m not wasting shots on things I don’t love.

Selectiveness is a discipline and a skill that is not to be taken lightly and one that it has taken me years to develop. In the age of digital cameras and nearly functionally unlimited storage I believe we’ve lost the selective process in the craft. In the days of film we would be limited to 24-36 exposures and that would be it, as a whole we were forced to be much more selective with our shots and it taught us to be better photographers, now we can throw away shots that are bad. I like to limit myself to a number of exposures as if we are limited to a single roll of film. This is something I will explore more in the future.

As we ventured through Ravenswood we found a good mix of parks, restaurants and industrial space. This diverse mix caught our eyes and intregued me. What follows are my photos from that day. All shot on my GF1. I will try and get Bradley and James to share their shots as well, I find them particularly interesting as we often shot very similar subjects with very similar cameras and wound up with very different results.

Little Bit of Cicero


Recently I spent the day visiting a friend at the Academy for Global Citizenship and found myself with some free time down on the south side. I decided to take this time to opportunity to wander around some of Cicero.

My experience with the south side of Chicago has been limited thus far, something I’d really like to change. If there are some great neighborhoods you think I should check out please let me know in the comments.

This particular day was a very clear and sunny one, what attracted my eye was the uniform houses and old 1950s feel of the buildings themselves. I was pleasantly surprised to stumble on an auto yard with some tires left out that made for some incredible texture. Admittedly I know very little about this area as I just sort of wandered in but I’m certainly glad I did.

I’ll let the photos do the talking from here.

Critical Mass 6/10 – Part 2


(On Wednesday I published a photo set and article discussing the perception around, reaction to and purpose of Critical Mass. This is a follow up to that piece with my account of the Mass.)

On the last Friday of every month Chicago’s cycling community descends on Daley Plaza and around 6 they take to the streets in an effort to overrun and control traffic in an event called “Critical Mass.” Last Friday, June 25th was no exception to this tradition.

When I first moved to Chicago I had a mountain bike, I learned quickly that while this worked out great living in the Northeast it was terrible for the roads out here. I eventually purchased a new bike, started riding to work daily and eventually taking part in several community bike rides. However last year when winter set in I stopped riding for almost a year.

Last Friday I pulled my bike out of storage, filled up the tires and intended to make it to Daley Plaza in time for the ride. I have taken part in three ridings of Critical Mass since moving to Chicago but this one was different for me. I barely made it in time.

On my way to the plaza I blew out a tire and had to make a pit stop at Johnny Sprockets to get it repaired. The staff there was helpful and had me quickly back on the road.

I got down to Daley Plaza around 5:30, surveyed the crowd and picked up a map of this month’s route. Around 5:45 the other cyclists started circling and by 6 it was time to “mass up!” The group took off down south, eventually touring through Chinatown and then back up through the west side of the city before heading back towards the loop.

All the while the event was pretty mild. There seemed to be no large disruptions and the majority of the drivers that found themselves delayed due to the event seemed to take it in stride as riders passed them shouting “Happy Friday!” while waving a smiling. There were of course a few exceptions but overall the experience was welcome, jovial and friendly.

The two previous “masses” I’ve ridden in went through the North side. The different course of this trip was a welcome one for me as my experience with the South side has been limited. I was pleased with what I saw. As we passed under the highways I found parts of Chicago that reminded me of Brooklyn and others of San Francisco. It was profoundly eye opening and exactly the kind of experience that Critical Mass should be about. After the route looped back through the loop it head east to towards the lake. From there the riders went over to the museum campus and along the Lakeshore path. This was decidedly my favorite part of the trip. I watched people fish along the lake and walk the path waving and smiling. It was shortly after this that I saw the other side of Critical Mass reared it’s ugly head.

As I mentioned in my previous entry Critical Mass sometimes gets a bad name due to the actions of a few individuals, well it was after the Lakeshore path when that happened. The road from the path turned up towards the road again and as few riders took off. At that point more and more riders followed their lead, mob mentality took over and much of the Mass attempted to take over Lakeshore Drive.

I, like many, held off and watched the Police block off the path, begin knocking people off bikes and saw this as my cue to exit. It’s moments like this that make me understand why there are those who dislike Critical Mass.  All in all the bulk of the riders used their better judgement but the actions of a few can tarnish the perception of the whole.

Now that I’ve had a week for me to collect my thoughts I’ve decided I still very much value and appreciate Critical Mass and what it offers to our great city, I just wished everyone did, riders included.

Critical Mass 6/10 – Part 1

From my experience, Chicago’s monthly Critical Mass bike ride can be a divisive topic for many of this great city’s residents. I’ve found people typically have one of three responses to it:
  1. They love it
  2. They hate it
  3. They don’t know about.

That may seem like I’ve covered all the bases but the truth is virtually no one is indifferent to it. Just doing a search for it here on ChicagoNow yields a variety of responses, few of them neutral.

Although I have participated in ‘Mass’ several times, my opinions are mixed. I find the event to be fun and mostly positive. Above all, it’s a great way to see Chicago and feel like a part of the community. The organizers, on their website describe it as follows:

Critical Mass is a bike ride plain and simple. The ride takes place on the Last Friday Of Every Month (in Chicago anyway). A Critical Mass is created when the group of riders comes together for those few hours to take back the streets of our city. The right of the people to assemble is guaranteed in the Constitution, and Critical Mass helps people remember that right. The Mass itself has no political agenda, though, no more than the people of any other community do. Critical Mass is open to all, and it welcomes all riders to join in a celebration of riding bicycles. Why? Because bikes are fun!

Sure, as with any community, you’ll see people of all types. Some people see Critical Mass as a forum for grassroots political change. Some people see it as a protest against cars. Some people just like to ride. The Mass, however, is just that…a bunch of bike riders. You can drive a car the whole month and ride in the Mass. You can be an anarchist and ride in the Mass. The point of the Mass is the Mass, nothing more. Critical Mass has no leadership. It is a ride where no one is in charge. At any time, riders are free to leave, stay, stop, or even help out. Everyone is responsible for themselves and the Mass.

The spirit behind Critical Mass is one I can get behind and I do believe it still stands for that. I think those who are annoyed by it and call for it’s abolition need to lighten up.

However, I do see the other side. There are many who participate that act irresponsibly and push a political agenda through the event. After a while Critical Mass leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths as they start letting a few bad eggs influence their opinion of the whole community.

My first experience with Critical Mass was actually years ago in New York while walking through Times Square and seeing thousands of bikers holding up traffic. I didn’t understand it at the time. I just saw it as people acting irresponsibly and behaving recklessly. I remember writing a harsh blog entry at the time criticizing them. Now I find myself years later actively participating and realizing that the actions of the few do not necessarily represent the motivations of the many.

Last Friday I participated in the June riding of Critical Mass, it had been well over a year since I last participated so I figured this would be an excellent topic to focus on here. Attached to this entry you will find twelve photos and on Friday I will post twelve more and my account / findings of the ‘Mass’. Enjoy!