Bicycle Diaries: Street ballet - Part I

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Street ballet - Part I

The Cycling Dude's ego-boosting review of this blog yesterday has motivated me to write something that brings together bikes, books, and Isaiah Berlin in one nice package.

The challenge is that I'm a fox who wishes he were a hedgehog. Like a hedgehog, I've got this one big question about Critical Mass. But I have all these possible and different answers knocking around in my head like a fox.

In case you're not familiar with hedgehogs and foxes, Berlin was well-schooled in classical Greek literature. One of his favorite poets, Archilochus wrote, The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. This inspired Berlin to write in 1953:
[that t]here exists a great chasm between those, on the one side, who relate everything to a single vision ... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory ... The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.
So my one big question is ... eccck ... NPR just announced it's 97 degrees in Chicago with a heat index of 107 ... and more to come. I thought I was melting in my top-floor apartment %( Off to cooler climes.

Ahhhhh ... I'm back now, having relocated to the refrigerated environs of Goose Island Brew Pub in Wrigleyville. I come here quite often because the 20something, hipster bartenders slide me beers while I read or write. I guess I've added a goose to Berlin's hegehogs and foxes.

And so ... Why does Critical Mass thrive in large cities?

Commonly accepted wisdom declares that cities are immensely impersonal and often dangerous things. Just check out the episodes of the classic 70s sit-com, Barney Miller. Folks won't talk to each other on buses or trains. Nervous women cross the street if approached by unsavory characters. Nobody interacts with their neighbors except to complain about the stereo. So life on the streets is nasty, brutish, and alienating.

I've found that such wisdom is particularly widespread among our fellow citizens who live in the suburbs. While they might like visiting Chicago for a weekend there's no way they would ever want to live here. I must confess that I found Chicago a bit overwhelming when I first got here. I didn't know anyone nor did I quite get the urban Midwestern approach to life. Luckily, a co-worker took me to Mental Graffiti, the Wicker Park poetry slam, which became my social gateway to friends and urban community.

What all those hipster poets and patrons of the arts taught me was that cities aren't impersonal or alienating in the least. There are literally 100s of little (and not so little) communities out there if you have the patience and enthusiasm to look. Cities that work like Chicago attract people who don't quite fit in back home. Miles and miles of small, distinct neighborhoods, 100s of coffeeshops and bars, museums, music venues, as well as lots and lots of public space in the form of parks and beaches provide enough refuge for even the most peculiar personalities.

Jane Jacobs, the well-know urban activist noticed this about NYC back in the 70s. As she fought to keep developers from putting a highway through Washington Square she observed the ballet of the sidewalks. People from every walk of life; who wouldn't dream of interacting with one another in the hermetically sealed environment of the 'burbs, met and willingly engaged in a complex social dance as they strolled the streets of NYC. In her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great Cities, she wrote,
I was brought up to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress has largely been owing to experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and freedom for chewing over odd ideas.
Certainly a similar ballet of the streets exists for bikers in large, vibrant cities like Chicago ... but how exactly?

Yikes, another question; the inner fox wants to know!

Part II tomorrow...

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