Archive for April, 2011

While Milwaukee is still a big and important place, one gets the feeling that it used to be a VERY important place.   You are also reminded of the huge amount of wealth created in the United States between about 1885 and 1929.    Living in North Carolina, there is not much evidence of that.     Milwaukee seems to have many times more important urban buildings built in those years before 1930 than in the whole of North Carolina.   Milwaukee in 1905 was a dynamic place.   This is the building they built in 1905  as a station for just the interurban (local – suburban) streetcars.

Milwaukee former streetcar station

Milwaukee looks like a small version of Chicago, spread out over a river fronting Lake Michigan.

River view Milwaukee

Milwaukee City Hall

Downtown Milwaukee is full of impressive buildings.    If you count out uninhabitable structures like the Eiffel Tower,  the 1895 City Hall, which looks like a church, was the tallest building in the world for four years.

Northwestern Mutual (The Quiet Company) building from 1910

Unlike Chicago, Milwaukee does not seem dynamic.   It has the gritty feel of a town that is trying to keep up with change, but it did not impress me as a place that attracts the young and the hip.

Milwaukee, like much of Wisconsin, is a pretty good place to ride bikes.  It has bike trails in the city, as well as marked bike lanes in many major streets.    Most urban bikers in most American cities are men.   One of the signs that a city has a safe bicycle environment is that you see women on bicycles.    While I do not have any photos of them, I saw on several separate occasions helmet-less young ladies on vintage Schwinns on a Milwaukee Monday morning in April.

bike lane on typical Milwaukee street

bike lane along lakefront in Milwaukee

Brady Street in Milwaukee

former American Motors factory, Kenosha

Growing up as the son of a Rambler dealer, I always liked to talk cars with my Dad.   He frequently talked about how Ramblers were unique.  He described how these cars were different from cars of the Big Three.   They were smaller, they had reclining seats, they had vacuum-powered windshield wipers!   One key difference, he would point out, was the Ramblers were only made in one place, which was not in Detroit.   That place was Kenosha, Wisconsin.   As  I left Lake Forest IL early on a Sunday morning, I looked forward to honoring my Dad’s memory on a pilgrimage to the place that I had heard about when I was young.

I also was going to go through Racine, which is the hometown of the father of my buddy Tom Constantine, and this was also somewhere I had always heard about, but never seen.

Through Illinois, there is a bike path the whole way from Lake Forest to the Wisconsin border.   This bike path then continues on and off, mostly on,  through Kenosha,  then Racine, all the way to Milwaukee.  This whole distance is about sixty five miles.   Most of this path follows a former rail line.   It is paved part of the way, and fine smooth gravel in other parts.   For early April, the weather was astonishing; high in the low eighties and brilliant sun.

When I got to Kenosha, for all my sentimental feelings about it, what is now a Chrysler engine plant is not really much to look at.   Like other old factories, it comes right up to the street.    There was hardly even a sign saying what was in the collection of buildings.  I has been continuously producing cars or car parts since 1902.

There was also a blustery wind that blew from the south, pushing me along.  Bicycling and wind have a life metaphor; riding with the wind makes everything seems happy and fun,  but riding against the wind is a true grind.   Luckily on this day I had wind with me all the way, and I knew I was going to take the Amtrak back to Chicago the next day, and not have to ride against this stuff.

Because of the lucky tailwind, and the probability of rain the next day, I wanted to get all the way to Milwaukee that day.   I also had delays with flat tires that morning.   Consequently, I did not have enough time to circle around Kenosha and Racine as much as I would have liked.   Both towns seems very clean and organized.  Maybe it is the German heritage.    Biking in Wisconsin is great, and I am already making plans to go back to Wisconsin some day, and seeing stuff I missed, like the Johnson Wax building in Racine.

Wisconsin street

I rode on that afternoon into downtown Milwaukee, with the wind at my back.

Lake Forest IL 4/09/11

Posted: April 18, 2011 in Midwest USA trips

looking back while leaving the Loop by bike

First of three posts: Four day trip Chicago to Milwaukee and environs

One of the contradictions of urban riding is that old fashioned cities usually accommodate bicycle riding,  while the newest suburbs, less dense,  are frequently the most dangerous places.   In Chicago, however, if you stay close to the lake,  both the city and the forty miles of suburbs north of Chicago are laid out in a way that seem to promote safe and enjoyable bicycling.

I had left downtown Chicago about 1:00 PM.  I circled through the various stages of Chicago; first the towers of the Loop, then row houses of northside neighborhoods, then miles and miles of close together houses on city streets.   While all this was pleasant cycling, after two to three hours and still in the Chicago city limits, I was tired.  I had gotten up early that morning to catch the flight from Raleigh/Durham, it had been a long week at work, and it was all catching up to me.    About 4:00 PM in the northern fringes of the city limits I stopped in a bar for a brew.   One tasty craft ale was all I really needed; I felt newly invigorated.     I rode off, ready for new sights and challenges.  I rode for another three hours.

As I headed into the near-Lake suburbs, the scenery changed.  This was now all single family houses, usually large ones.   Biking in these affluent suburbs was generally stress free.  I followed Sheridan Road for miles.  It was like riding on a residential street that kept going.

All the while the political boundaries kept changing, suburb to suburb.   Some areas identified themselves as villages.


Directly across the street from this sign welcoming us to Winnetka is this typical village abode. The inhabitants lived in houses of at least five thousand square feet; many had lawn decorations.  Some had fences around them.  These houses were huge.

typical village cottage in Winnetka

I looked for the inhabitants of these villages. The only people visible were pudgy fifty something guys on multi thousand dollar bikes and  fifty something women jogging.

This affluent scene along the lake goes on and on.   After considerably more riding,  it was about 7:00 PM and I had no idea where I was going to stay that night.  While I like to be picky about the quality of the food I eat, I am not picky at all about hotel quality.  Location, however, is important on a bicycle.   Bicycling back to a freeway motel at night on a dark highway after  dinner and drinks can be dicey.    It is rare in America to find a quality restaurant, bar, and small hotel in the same building, in a bikeable setting.   Dare I say “European style?”   Anyway, the Deer Path Inn in the town of Lake Forest, while maybe a little  pretentious, fills the bill.   This is a railroad suburb.  Across the street from the Inn, you can take the commuter train forty miles to downtown Chicago. It looks like the type of of small downtown that fits everyone’s memory of what a small town should look like, except that the houses that surround the downtown are mostly estates with fences around them.

The bar scene at the Deer Path Inn was lively.   Apparently, everyone wants to eat in the bar and not the restaurant.   I sat at the bar, surrounded by people standing waiting for a table.  The menu looked like something out of a country club, circa 1962.    The menu had everything; steak, seafood, hamburgers, sandwiches, and salads.   There were so many choices I did not know where to start.  The bartender recommended the lamb chops; it was a good choice.  The walls were dark wood, with pictures of hunting dogs with game birds in their mouths.  The whole place felt very Republican.

Portsmouth VA, 3/26/11

Posted: April 5, 2011 in Virginia trips

One High Street Building

Doing an urban bicycle tour of Portsmouth is a conundrum. While Portsmouth has a wonderful stock of old buildings, the whole place is undeniably depressing.  It might have been because of  the cold and gray weather that day.    Contrary to Hampton Roads lore, Portsmouth is not all ghetto.   When I asked Norfolk people about it, they talked desparagingly about  crime.  Portsmouth has  some beautiful neighborhoods,   but there is a grittiness about the place that permeates everything.

I parked the car in downtown just across the tunnel from Norfolk.   There were lots of parking spaces.    Like Broad Street in Richmond, or (I have heard) Woodward Avenue in Detroit, everything in Portsmouth seems to permeate from one street, which is High Street.   It is the main shopping street of  downtown and it goes out to the furthest suburbs.   The commercial part of downtown Portsmouth is predictably dead, with a few spots of life.    There are a few bars and restaurants, there are the typical museums brought in by the government try to prop things up.    The Commodore Theater, a movie theater, is amazingly still up and running.     But eighty percent of the storefronts are empty.  Surrounding downtown on the north side in Olde Towne.   Despite the pretentious spelling probably instituted in the nineteen seventies, Olde Towne is really old, and except for the lack of commercial life, really a town.   Lots of houses are built before 1800, and most of it is before the Civil War.   For Hampton Roads, it is the oldest, and really only intact neighborhood of its kind.   You can walk down to the water’s edge and look out over the Elizabeth River to downtown Norfolk, less than half a mile away.    There are several very narrow streets with eighteenth century buildings.

Olde Towne

Olde Towne seems to have survived the urban renewal efforts of the nineteen fifties and sixties.   I might be because, even then, wealthy white people still lived there.  West of Olde Towne, redevelopment must have taken hold.   Olde Towne ends abruptly into a menage of chain restaurants and empty lots.

Olde Towne abruptly ends

They must have brought the nineteen sixties “redevelopment” wrecking crew up to just that point, and then had second thoughts about destroying the prettiest and most historic parts of town.   After leaving Olde Towne the first couple of miles west of downtown are pretty bleak.

Houses in Port Norfolk

But that is not the end of historic Portsmouth.   This is, or at least was, a pretty big little city.   Like Norfolk, the city  spreads like tentacles over estuaries.  There are bridges.  Water is never far from any of these neighborhoods, and in most you can see the huge container cranes of Portsmouth Marine Terminal in the distance.    The best known of these late nineteenth century Portsmouth neighborhoods is Port Norfolk.   Like several similiar neighborhoods, it is on a peninsula, and the main streets terminate onto the harbor.   I theorize that it is populated in part by families that have lived there for generations.   They live in mostly wooden two story houses.

This is not, however, a yuppie neighborhood.   A Starbucks, maybe thankfully, would not fit in.   The whole neighborhood felt like it was still in the nineteen fifties.  It is well preserved, but not too cleaned up or cutesy.

street in Port Norfolk

I did have high school friends from Portsmouth, and most came from Churchland.   This is a more upscale neighborhood further out west on High Street.  I had been here before while in high school and college, but I do not remember anything at all about it.

Like Port Norfolk, it is on spines of land jutting out onto the harbor.    I circled through the curvy streets with houses looking out over  the water.   These houses were probably built between nineteen thirty and nineteen sixty.  I remember Amy Ostrower’s party when I was a junior in high school, the kind of party we would drive to from Virginia Beach, twenty-five miles away, because her parents were not home.   I took Mary Margaret Evans on several dates.   Eighth grade buddy Ned Barham lived around here somewhere.  I even went to Lou Hollowell’s Portsmouth debutante party.   (Portsmouth had its own separate debutante scene!)  Where did they specifically live?

Before circling back over another of several bridges, I stopped for a sub at a Zero’s in a strip mall.   While the shopping center called itself part of Churchland, it was partly empty, and included a second hand store.    Just beyond was the line crossing into the city of Chesapeake, and miles of suburban sprawl.