Bicycle Diaries: Finally some thoughts on Chicago Critical Mass

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2.7.06

Finally some thoughts on Chicago Critical Mass

... I've had some down time and regular sleep to get my thoughts in order. Unfortunately, I didn't make it to the Chicago Critical Mass last Friday. Just too washed out. But I'm in the mood for doing it up at the Evanston Critical Mass next Friday. For any readers in Chicagoland, you should go. This will be Evanston's third. There are around two dozen committed critical massers. Since it's a university town there's a totally different vibe: smaller and more enthusiastic in that "we're not Chicago" kinda' way. So they could use some support from the big shoulders to the south %)

As for Critical Mass in general: it lies in the middle of a continuum between a riot and a special interest group. The Bicycle is its single issue; everything from share the road activism to freakbike welding. That said, Critical Mass isn't all that organized. There's no mission statement or strategic plan. Leaders, if you can call them that, come and go. Copy shops, websites, listservs, and old school word of mouth provide a minum of structure.

Xerocracy is its only principle. Critical massers are free and encouraged to advocate (usually progressive) social, political, and economic causes through flyers, stickers, t-shirts, and outrageously tricked out frankenbikes. Like much of alternative America, Critical Mass is middle class but not middle-aged. Twenty-somethings dominate. Grey-beards and braids are conspicuous. Forty-soemthings are rare.

Like most American activitists, critical massers think globally and act locally. Equality across all categories is expected. I don't think massers would ever hand out flyers calling for a constitutional amendment protecting heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, freedom, that signature American ideal, is fundamental to Critical Mass. The most admired massers belong to the Rat Patrol. They've gone off the urban grid riding their freakbikes on regualar dumpster diving expeditions for parts and food.

Needless to say, diversity of opinion and lifestyle, as long as they lean leftward, is essential. Intolerance, when it does happens, tends toward the clash of competing freedoms. After last Friday's Chicago Critical Mass, the listserv debated a post from a woman who, although a dedicated biker, criticized some of the massers who stuffed flyers into her borrowed car. She was driving her mother to the doctor. While some of the responses were symapthetic, most repeated the usual abstract anti-car declarations. Clean air and the open road clearly trumped a daughter's obligation.

Xerocracy also refers to zero organization. In other words, Critical Mass is anarchy in motion. Massers loudly and enthusiastically embrace an alternative lifestyle to middle class, 9-to-5, consumerist, and car obsessed Chicago. You may think this is another tired urban hipster attempt to piss off parents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quirky anarchism has a honored tradition in Chicago. Long after the historian Jackson Turner announced the death of America's physical frontiers, freedom-loving youth have crossed Chicago's social frontiers on bicycles. Instead of Go West Young Man, young men AND women are going to the streets of Chicago.

Critical Mass in Chicago is all about tension. On the one side you have massers who passionately believe that The Bicycle is an end in itself. On the other side are those who recognize that bicycles are a means to some other end. I am the latter. I don't hate cars. I do my bit for air pollution everytime I fly overseas. I really don't want to see a bike-only Lake Shore Drive. Basically, I'm cheap. Except for tires, grease, and maintenance (all waist-deep in petroleum products), biking costs me nothing. And I'm genetically impatient. Consider how long it takes you to drive in Chicago, add in the time it takes to find a parking place for your car, and you soon realize that biking anywhere up to 5 miles will get you there quicker than driving a car.

Decartes is another way to think about the two sided tension of Critical Mass in Chicago. It's I bike therefore I am versus I am therefore I bike. Or better yet, consider the difference between the anarchists of the Rat Patrol and the Wright brothers who started their aviation careers as bicycle mechanics. In the best of all worlds, both sides should be tolerated. And they should be aggressively encouraged because the energy of Chicago comes from the tension between them.

I guess I need to pass out some flyers at July's Critical Mass!

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