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Where Would Jesus Park?

Church parking--some of it blatantly illegal--complicates a plan to free up Chicago's boulevards for cyclists.

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In mid-April the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation organized an unusual field trip. The nonprofit bike-advocacy group flew community leaders and a couple city officials to Guadalajara, Mexico, for the weekend to see the Via Recreativa, seven miles of major thoroughfares that are closed every Sunday morning to let bikers, joggers, skaters--anyone on the move without a motor--take over the streets.

The Via Recreativa has been going for four years now, drawing 500,000 people some Sundays. Food vendors, yoga instructors, musicians, and preachers line the route, creating sort of a healthy version of Carnival. "From a health standpoint, from business, from community building, from reducing pollution, it's an incredibly dynamic model," says the CBF's executive director, Rob Sadowsky.

Last summer, the CBF tried to launch Sunday Parkways, a car-free program based on the Via Recreativa and the 70-mile Ciclovia in Bogota, Colombia, which is 20 years old and in some weeks draws two million people. The CBF proposed closing off seven and a half miles of west-side boulevards connecting Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Little Village, Garfield Park, and North Lawndale every Sunday from May to October.

Sadowsky says the idea was easy to sell to the mayor's office, the Park District, the Department of Transportation, 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon (whose ward, encompassing much of Logan Square, ranked second to last in an audit of neighborhood open space in 2004), and the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, whose executive director, Josh Deth, owns the bike-themed Handlebar restaurant, where bar stools are constructed from old rims and bike messengers get a discount. Since Sunday traffic on the boulevards was modest to begin with, and since it would continue to flow normally along intersecting streets--bikers and joggers would have to observe red lights and stop signs--the CBF's proposal required little of the city beyond traffic control police at major intersections. CBF volunteers would regulate traffic at smaller cross streets. The chamber, according to Deth, was intrigued by the prospect of leisurely foot traffic from all over the city parading by the boulevards' shops and restaurants.

Lucy Gomez, who represents the Logan Square Neighborhood Association on the Sunday Parkways planning committee, says food and music along the route could bring out the personalities of the neighborhoods it passes through. "We want local flavor, like when you go into Garfield Park you might experience young people performing hip-hop or stepping, or you go to Humboldt Park and they're doing traditional plena dances, and in Little Village you might have cumbia dancing."

Sadowsky hoped Chicago would become the first American city to import the idea of car-free Sundays. But the CBF had neglected some crucial allies: the churches.

One is Armitage Baptist Church, on Kedzie Boulevard two blocks south of the Logan Square monument at the intersection of Kedzie, Milwaukee, and Logan Boulevard. It draws some 2,000 people on Sunday mornings, for five masses in three languages. A lot of those people drive to church, and a lot of them park their cars on Logan and Kedzie boulevards. Not just along the narrow service lanes, either, but on the boulevards, right where the CBF envisioned thousands of cyclists meandering freely.

"It was like cold water in our face, because they were planning this without telling us anything," says Antonio Gomez, pastor of the church's Spanish-speaking congregation. Sadowsky acknowledges a failure of outreach. "There are a lot of churches along the route, and it took a long time to communicate what was going on to all of them," he says.

Gomez says only a third of Armitage Baptist's congregation lives in Logan Square: its parishioners travel from as far away as Gary and Milwaukee and have enough parking problems already. The church rents parking space on Sundays from an elementary school and a bank and shuttles worshippers to the church; a few years ago it demolished one of its own buildings to make a parking lot. Sunday Parkways could threaten the life of the church, Gomez says. "Cars bring people, people bring money, the money makes the budget--without the budget, churches can't function."

Last year Gomez talked to pastors from some 20 other churches along the proposed route (which the CBF isn't releasing to the public until it's nailed down) and urged them to call Colon's office. That's when it quickly became clear that Sunday Parkways wasn't about to happen. Then last month El Paso, Texas, introduced the El Paso Ciclovia--a monthlong pilot program from 7 to 11 AM each Sunday--and the race to be first was lost.

The thing is, signs make it clear that no parking is allowed at any time in the fast inside lanes of the boulevards--not for churchgoers or anybody else. But on Sunday those signs are blatantly ignored and the righthand lanes are clogged with parked cars. "Basically, they're parking illegally," says Alderman Colon. "I call it the pray-and-park policy. It's a courtesy that is provided to the churches, sort of informally. I've been here since '67 and it's always been in place, and I'm not gonna be the one to break the cycle."

Antonio Gomez knows his parishioners aren't parking legally on the boulevards, but he doesn't see anything wrong with it. "Sometimes we get ticketed and we go to the police station and we explain we're from the church, and they say, 'It's OK, just give us the tickets back,'" he said. "I don't know if you can call it fair or not fair. We as a church are very involved in the community. It's just an agreement that we have."

Sadowsky, who believes he needs the churches' support to keep the city's support, would only say, "It's a privilege, not a right."

When the CBF decided to try again this year, Sadowsky wanted the churches on board from the get-go. Flyers in English and Spanish alerted pastors to the proposal and upcoming meetings. In April Lucy Gomez met with pastors from eight churches at the Garfield Park Conservatory to hear their concerns. And Antonio Gomez was among the community leaders invited to Guadalajara to see the Via Recreativa. The location was fortuitous: he's from there. He moved to Chicago six years ago, before the Via Recreativa was created.

"It was a whole different city than the one it was when I grew up," he says. "It is a great, great thing. There are literally thousands and thousands of people out in the street, cycling, jogging, skateboards, rollerblading. Churches are doing services on the street. They lent us bikes and we also got out there in the street."

Gomez says he's behind the Sunday Parkways plan--he says he always thought it was a good initiative, in theory--and he's happier with the outreach the CBF is doing this year. Saint Sylvester and New Life Covenant Church, two other large congregations affected by the proposed route, are now in favor of it too--also in theory. The practical problem of parking, says the pastor, still must be solved.

That burden seems to fall primarily on the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. Asked if he had a solution in mind, Alderman Colon said, "I think Rob would be the best person to ask about logistics." The CBF is working with the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communication to come up with alternative parking plans for churchgoers and it's agreed to consider scaling back Sunday Parkways to reach a compromise. For instance, Armitage Baptist has one round of services from 8 AM to 1 PM and another that starts at 5 PM. Gomez says the church would be willing to dismiss worshippers at 12:30 if Sunday Parkways could be held between 1 and 5 PM. It's an idea Sadowsky says he's interested in.

That would make it much more modest than the Guadalajara and Bogota models, which start at seven in the morning and last all afternoon. "But in Guadalajara, there aren't churches along the road they programmed on," Antonio Gomez says. Lucy Gomez says another option, one that the pastor supports, would let parishioners keep parking in one of the boulevards' four central lanes and squeeze Sunday Parkways into the others.

In addition to figuring out the parking, the CBF has to raise $200,000 in private donations to pay for city services like traffic control and clean-up during a three-weekend pilot program it hopes to stage in late September. Some of the money would be spent to promote the event, and it had better be spent shrewdly: Sadowsky's hoping for such an overwhelming success that the city will not only keep Sunday Parkways alive but agree to pick up the tab.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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