Clark Street cuts through a diverse section of Chicago. From north to south, Clark touches all of these neighborhoods: Rogers Park, Edgewater, Andersonville, Uptown, Sheridan Park, Lakeview, Wrigleyville, Lincoln Park, the Near North Side, the Gold Coast, the Loop, Printer’s Row, the South Loop, the Near South Side and Chinatown. Some of those areas are quite wealthy. Some are not. Some are rapidly developing. Some maintain a more steady-state of growth and decay. Some areas are commercial; some are industrial. Many are residential. A number of Chicago’s architectural and civic icons have addresses on Clark Street: Graceland Cemetery, Wrigley Field, and City Hall for three easy ones. Besides that, Clark is an angle street. For most of its length, Clark runs northwest-southeast. There are not a lot of angle streets in the city of Chicago. Most of the city is on a grid of north-south and east-west. My friend Mick has threatened to name all of his children after Chicago angle streets. So if you ever run into a bunch of children with the names Lincoln, Clark, Ogden and Archer you will know whose great idea that was. Anyway, I digress. Simply, I wanted to explore this wide-ranging artery of the city. I wanted to walk the entire length of Clark Street.
So today I walked Clark Street– the whole thing. I started at the northern border of the city at Howard and walked with Whirl and Niqui the twelve-mile stretch of fascinating streetscape to its southern terminus at Cermak Road. Liz and Smokes joined us for significant stretches along the way. It took the three of us five hours and forty-two minutes to complete the trek. That time includes a sixty-five minute lunch break across the street from the Chicago Historical Society. Those of you doing the math at home should come up with an average rate of travel of 2.6 miles per hour. I think that is a fine result.
I am particularly pleased with this accomplishment considering the amount of shock and disbelief I have received over the past two weeks whenever I would talk about it. Every time I would mention the idea my friends, associates and companions would balk. “You can’t do that!” “That will take you forever!” “Why the Hell would you want to do that?” “That’s got to be eighteen miles! At least!” Some wanted to know if I was doing this for charity. Others wanted to know if I had finally gone round the bend. But by far the most common reaction was to shirk away from the idea that something as simple as wanting to walk through the town I live in was utterly daft if not downright delusional.
Soon after the initial shock abated– or my interlocutors decided I was hopelessly immune to reason– came the questions of my own well-being. “Is it safe?” “You know Clark goes through some really bad parts of town!” they would warn me. I don’t really know if either the fear or the claim is true in any meaningful sense. I had not given that particular concern all that much thought. I have traveled up or down Clark Street in one form or another almost every day of the fifteen years I have lived in Chicago. Clark is only a block and a half to the west of where Whirl and I currently live in Printer’s Row. Our previous Printer’s Row home was a block closer to Clark. Before we moved to the South Loop, we lived in Rogers Park in a number of different apartment buildings. Those were further to the east, but traveling on Clark was not an uncommon experience. Clark strikes me as an archetypical Chicago street: neither inherently malignant nor benevolent. It just is what it is: a reflection of a dynamic urban jungle.
Whirl and I do not own a car. I have more-or-less abandoned the idea of ever riding a bicycle again. Exploring for us most often means walking. We like it that way. I remember walking in the Colorado Rockies with sentimental fondness. More than any other form of transportation, walking like this requires three simple things: patience, attention and stamina– and nothing else. And if you do not happen to possess those qualities in great abundance, walking will help you develop them. While a good pair of shoes is helpful, even shoes are not absolutely necessary. The first steps you took in your life were probably taken barefooted. I know mine were. — It’s not unreasonable to suggest you may have been naked, too. (Not that I am suggesting walking Clark Street naked unless you are looking for a slightly different sort of adventure.) I just mean to underline that walking is a fundamental human activity. We have a word for these sorts of tasks. We say they are pedestrian. It saddens me a little to acknowledge that pedestrian can be synonymous with boring. I disagree.
Yes, walking is common. Walking is also exercise. Walking is good exercise. And walking is unpretentious. In comparison to other modes of travel, walking is quite slow. That slowness of pace allows you to explore your surroundings while moving through it at a level of attentiveness impossible any other way. Perhaps being a passenger in a car stuck in rush hour traffic comes close– but being trapped in a car is not particularly fun. Walking also allows you the freedom to change course. When we got hungry, we ducked in to a Mexican bakery for a confection and we never did learn its name. We fooled around in front of Wrigley Field simply because we were there. We struck dramatic poses in front of the expedition’s working title “Nuts on Clark”. We took the name due to what I mentioned earlier, that everyone reacted to our idea as if we were nuts.
For the record Nuts on Clark is a store that sells nuts. They have several stores around Chicago, but their first store is on Clark Street. I feel their name is a testament to truth in advertising, really. Another example of pithy advertising suggestions– and another favorite of mine– comes from the Clark Street Ale House, where a large neon sign suggests with perfect simplicity: Stop and Drink. Now I ask you, how can that be wrong?
Between Niqui, Whirl and myself we had three cameras. We took hundreds of pictures as we walked along. I did not have a particular theme in mind with the photos I took other than to capture some of the sights and experiences of the street as I walked its length. If you are curious, take a look. Niqui has a set, too. We even made a map.
But more than that consider going on your own exploratory walk. Pick a day that is pleasant. Pick a street that is interesting. Walk it. See what your urban landscape has to show you when you are moving a more … civilized pace.