Chicago Focal points Photography

Critical Mass 6/10 – Part 1

Cyclists congregate en-mass

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!

Focal points Photography

Guest Post: Reflections – Part 2

Hello dear readers. This week I am out of town on a road trip with the gentlemen of Long Pork for Sketchfest NYC. I will return with a new post on Wednesday 6/16. In my absence my good friend James Vest has submitted two amazing entries for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

Recently, I became a finalist for what I consider to be my dream job. I have been working two jobs almost continuously since moving to Chicago in 2005. One job pays the bills, and the other is what I love to do. This opportunity would be for the company I currently work for, but by moving to California, I would be doing exactly what I was born to do. There are really few drawbacks. Sure, it’d be hard work, but hard work to me is as satisfying and rewarding as a farmer standing in their field.

If there is one thing I would miss, that would be living in Chicago. I have spent the majority of my time residing in Lakeview. I haven’t had a car in so long, I would expect insurance companies to run a special background check to confirm I’m not under some kind of DUI lifetime driving ban. Admittedly, I am afraid of the unknown. What if there’s no good places to eat? What if there are no places to walk to? What if the buses don’t run?

I bought a camera a few months back. It’s the first really good camera I’ve ever owned. I took it on vacation and took a bunch of pictures of blue sky, purple flowers and white sand. When I came back to Chicago, I continued to take similar pictures, except these natural shots were of red brick, gritty cement and marooned bicycles. The city is beautiful. If you don’t believe me, take a look at some pictures.

I have always fantasized about taking pictures of strangers, but I am a coward. I am fascinated by the expressions on people’s faces and the subtleties of character that reveal what’s inside one’s heart. I try to memorize everyone I see on the street. I can close my eyes and see young women grinning from behind large sunglasses. People wearing matching baseball caps, walking their optimistic and grateful animals. I see thirsty homeless men sitting with empty cups, casting long stares.

What I photograph are pictures of objects that look back at me, that speak with the same, subtle character. All I have to do is think of the streets for the people reappear in my mind. Maybe it’s because my father is an architect. Whatever the reason, for people like me, a picture of a building is all that is needed to remember what’s inside.

Chicago will be here forever. No matter where life beckons me to go, I don’t think that I will ever live in a place with so much character that it can be seen stacked in the bricks and paved into every street. Wherever I live, these pictures will place me back on the sidewalk in the heat of the afternoon, or next to the rainwater pools of the morning.

I take very few pictures of myself. All I need is to remember my surroundings for all the memories of these years spent in Chicago to captivate my mind, and retrace, step by step, the path back home. Whatever happens with my work, I will always remember my time in Lakeview fondly.

James Vest is a writer and video editor living in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. To see more from his life, visit his website,

Focal points Photography

Guest Post: Reflections – Part 1

Hello dear readers. This week I am out of town on a road trip with the gentlemen of Long Pork for Sketchfest NYC. I will return with a new post on Wednesday 6/16. In my absence my good friend James Vest has submitted two amazing entries for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

In 2005, I moved to Chicago for work. I lived alone in a 175 square-foot apartment in the Gold Coast without air conditioning and walked down Rush Street every morning to get to my job. In the spring, there were little baby roaches and by winter there were older, wiser roaches. I had a fantastic view of the Sears Tower and made up for not having a counter top by preparing all my meals on a wooden board laid on my bed.

In 2007, I reluctantly moved to Lakeview so my girlfriend could afford a parking space. I wasn’t sure what to make of Wrigleyville back then, considering  the only experience leading up to that point was the nostalgia of walking down Clark Street as a fresh-faced 15-year-old on vacation, witnessing for the first time a woman urinate on the sidewalk. Still today, there is an anything-goes spirit on Clark, but it’s one I still embrace as a local. I mean, what else does a neighborhood need? A mall? No thank you.

We moved into a place on Addison the first week of November. I remember spending the first two months mostly indoors, eventually braving the frigid tunnel under Lake Shore Drive so my girlfriend could take my picture holding up one ice-blue finger to commemorate our first walk to the lake front. I know for a fact it was New Year’s Day. To prove our shut-in nature, the previous image on the camera roll was of a half-eaten Lou Malnati’s deep dish next to a half-empty bottle of champagne.

The following spring came and though I can’t recall the first walk that we went on, afterwards I must have made a pledge to be outside as often as possible. Over that summer, Lakeview changed me. I bought some running shoes and ran along the trails until they ended, and then deep footsteps through sand and back again, across the tops of stoney walls.

Everything had to be explored. As a couple, we walked in every direction from home; down Broadway, over to Halsted, across Clark and up  Southport. We walked mostly in search of the three universal truths: breakfast, lunch and dinner. And though my food expenses take the form of Pacman on, I am proud of being able to recommend almost any kind of food in a two mile radius with enthusiastic pride.

Yet it was the walks themselves that are held close in my memories. It’s always the first thing I think about doing when I am too tired to be entertained and too bothered by work to stay inside. Lakeview has been a womb I have expanded within, a home where I have grown, in relative peace. So it was quite a shock when I found out that I might be leaving soon.

James Vest is a writer and video editor living in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. To see more from his life, visit his website,

Focal points Photography

The Calm of the Storm

The Chicago Avenue CTA Brown Line station in a storm.

I love thunderstorms. I remember sitting on my parent’s porch when I was a child and just listening to the rain. It’s always had a soothing affect on me. Chicago’s storms are fewer and further between but no less beautiful.

Unfortunately these days I’m very often working or sleeping through these storms and my garden apartment does is so well insulated that even just listening to a storm is next to impossible.

Sunday as I was leaving work I got lucky. I managed to get to the Chicago Brown line stop just as it started to rain. I took a few moments to just sit and watch the rain and listen to the sound of it beating down on the wood and metal around me. This is my calm, this is what puts me at peace.

By the time I got up to my neighborhood the rain had stopped and the sun was brightly shining through the clouds. Moments like these are among my favorites, everything just glistens from the moisture before it completely evaporates into the sun.

Focal points Photography

Repetition and Nonsense in the Loop

A few days ago I was downtown to get my license plate sticker renewed. I took this time to wander around the Loop a bit.

The Loop is one of the weirdest anomalies about this city to me. It seems to me that it would make logical sense that the Loop, being the easiest possible place to reach from ANY train would be a bustling active party of the city and it’s nights/weekends. Instead the loop is almost strictly commercial with few things to do after 6pm on a weekday or on the weekends at all. This absolutely baffles me.

In the years I lived in NY I only once rode an MTA bus (and it was because some made me). Not so in Chicago, I ride at least one bus a day. In NY I didn’t need to. I could easily reach any part of the city using the subway system. Here in Chicago if I want to visit one of my friends on the west side I pretty much have to take a bus. The other option of course would be to take a train down to the Loop and then another back up to the west side, which is mind-numbingly dumb. Hasn’t this city heard of “crosstown trains?” This is not a new concept, virtually every other mass transit system has them.

So wouldn’t it make sense that my friend and I could split the difference and meet in the Loop? Too bad there is nothing to do down there. The city almost figured this out with Looptopia, but even then failed in execution. And of course the idea was eventually killed before it really got the chance.

Despite my disappointment with this neighborhood not living up to my ideals of it’s potential there is still a lot to be said for the Loop. One of my favorite things about this city is how even some of the most heavily trafficked and distinguished areas of the city can have a gritty and raw appearance. It’s no wonder that Chicago was chosen as the set of Gotham City two times now. That grit is what I was able to discover in shooting the Loop. There are many signs of life and some beautiful repetition in the architecture of the area. I just wish there was a reason to be down there at night and shoot. Maybe some day.