Wanderlust. Is there a gene for it? Could the change of seasons trigger some synapse in our brain that makes us want to plan and take a trip? Is it discontent with our lives at some primal level? The price of gas, worries about international safety, and the inconvenience of airports have collectively impacted the reality of travel and led many of us to explore ideas for adventure closer to home. Meanwhile, increasingly limited and expensive options for parking in urban areas make public transportation more inviting.
Years ago, I took weekly field trips with my friend Leona Maren from LaGrange. Our purpose was cultural enrichment and enjoyment of the natural world. Leona planned one that turned out to be unforgettable. It was a display of quilts in the lobby of a factory-like building not far from the Chicago River. The woman, who had died some years before, had lived in the South and was so poor, so without resources, that she did her work in cast-off pieces of denim fabric interwoven with real silk ribbon she collected from the floral pieces in cemeteries. Her stunning quilts were a testimony to how ingenious a creative person can be even under impoverished circumstances. Viewing this obscure exhibit lifted us from the monotony of our daily routines that afternoon.
The field trips could be a destination as close as North Avenue Beach and involve sitting in camp chairs reading and listening to the sound of the waves, feeling the breeze and sun on our faces, and the sand beneath our feet. Quiet interludes like this felt like storing up a positive charge in the fall in advance of the impending sunless days of winter ahead. It also had that delicious feeling of playing hookey from our responsibilities, the privilege of being an “adult.” We returned to our families feeling refreshed as if we had been on a vacation. The price was right, too. We made it our practice to bring one of those coupon books and each field trip included a half price lunch at some nice restaurant. Simple pleasures.
Recently, the memory of those days came back when a pinched nerve sent me in search of relief to local acupuncturist Jackie Eckholm. We had a conversation about Chicago and Jackie told me she and her husband, a CTA employee, would go for long walking tours of the city. The night they met, they discovered that each had gone out for a walk on that historically cold night in 1982 when the temperature was 30-plus degrees below zero. Each had taken a walkabout in the frigid cold simply to experience that historic event. This foreshadowed their walking life together.
David Wilson enjoys talking about his tours and how best to get around on public transportation to see the parks created by Frederick Law Olmsted, the lakefront, our world class architecture, museums and street life. Walks provide the opportunity to meet people, plus the health benefit of low-impact exercise and getting around the city in a “Green” way. Wilson’s interest seems to have grown out of an interest in understanding human behavior and its interrelatedness to our built environment. “For 40-plus years,” he wrote in an email, “I have been ‘nosing around’ Chicago neighborhoods seeking to understand their dynamics and how they developed the way they did.”
Several days ago, Wilson spent much of his day riding the CTA bus down Halsted, end to end. He is a senior planner for the CTA and his job responsibilities include site visits-inspections really. When does school get in and out? What is the experience of the bus driver while he is at the wheel? Is payment mostly in cash or cards? What influences the rhythm of the bus? Is there a bicycle lane or not? Where do the greatest number of people get on and off? Is the lift for special needs used or not and how often (because this increases the travel time of the bus from start to finish)? These are just some of the questions planners pose to themselves, then answer to make the routes more efficient.
Born in Pennsylvania, Wilson’s route to Oak Park, where he has lived for the past quarter century, befits a person whose primary interest is transportation-circuitous. After Pennsylvania, he lived in Riverside, Ill., moved to Wyoming, then to a farm in Nebraska, returned to Riverside and then to Oak Park. The return to Riverside in May of 1958 happened when he was in fourth grade, not long after his father died unexpectedly in Wyoming.
His passion for history, travel, and sociology began with his father, who would take David and his brother, George, out to look at and contemplate their surroundings in his own unique way. A uranium analyst working in Casper, Wy., his father would drive them into the mountains to search for uranium-all the while posing questions about natural land forms, people, and the built environment. He had contacts in remote parts of the area, people who would be on the lookout for uranium samples for him. These rides into the mountains sometimes led to unpaved roads that ended somewhere in the wilderness-all before the days of four-wheel drive.
Wilson also credits a person he never actually met with giving him the foundation for much of his philosophy of life. That was his grandmother, his father’s mother, who lived in Pennsylvania. Ada Rockey Wilson was a single mother of three boys and a schoolteacher who taught and loved the English language. She died 11 years before David was born, but still had a profound influence on her grandson, instilling in him an appreciation for and celebration of the commonplace.
While some boys outgrow their childhood loves, David’s love of trains and fascination with transportation remained constant through youth into adulthood. In eighth grade, seeing that her son found school unfulfilling, his mother signed him up for a drawing class at the School of the Art Institute. Wilson describes the unsupervised Saturday visits to downtown Chicago as his ticket to paradise. He would take a “faith leap” as he describes it and try a different route each time he went back and forth. He rode the Lake Street el, the Douglas el, the Burlington commuter train, and even the Bluebird Bus, studying how the different lines developed. He remembers on April 9, 1967, the moment he committed his life to trains when he was down around the area of the Water Filtration Plant near Navy Pier.
In 2002, after 30 years working in freight rail transportation logistics, David Wilson was downsized and lost his job. After casting about for a while, he attended a community outreach meeting at the U. of I. Circle Campus, conducted by the College of Urban Planning and Policy, on a cold February night in 2003 where he said it took him 90 seconds to decide to pursue a degree in urban planning. It took him three years to earn a master’s degree in urban planning. After a brief period as executive director of Main Street Blue Island, a not-for-profit economic development agency, he began working for the CTA.
And he continued walking. One of the elements of a good walk, he says, is variety. “The walk will feel draining if it is monotonous. A neighborhood changes as you walk through it-shapes, coloration, nature, lighting-the more mixed, the more fun.
“Variation,” he says, “can be sociologically, architecturally, texturally, compositionally, socio-economically mixed, mixed in terms of land use, such as residences together with light industry. It all adds to the interest.” For those just starting out, he says, “Walking begets walking. The more variety you experience, you won’t be tired. You will be intellectually and physically renewed.”
Of course some places are just more interesting than others. Wilson prefers walking in Oak Park, his home for the last 20 years, to walking in the suburb of his previous home, Riverside. “The reason Oak Park is more interesting,” he says, “is that the homes are closer together.” So there is more to be seen in a shorter time looking at the architecture of the homes and the activity in and around them as you pass them.” The blocks are too long in Riverside, he said, and you don’t see as much, so it doesn’t feel as stimulating. Apologies to Frederick Law Olmsted and Riverside.
When he was a young man traveling to the Art Institute for his class, Wilson would get off trains at random sites. When he took the Jackson Park CTA train in January of 1963, he felt a sociological awakening. He was the only white person and there were no buildings at one point on the route. What he witnessed there he says “seemed to be desperate squalor, desperate people and desperate institutions wondering if they could survive.” It took him 40 years to understand how and why that happened.
Wilson designs trips through Pilsen, Bronzeville, Bridgeport, the UIC area and Taylor Street, Lincoln Park, Bucktown and more. Oak Parkers can find some of his walks posted on www.chicagowalks.com. Pilsen, for instance, was named after a town in Czechoslovakia, he explains, but is now a Hispanic gateway community. “For some time it has had an artist colony, the first step on the road to potential gentrification,” according to Wilson. “The life of a neighborhood”, he says, “followed the old streetcar line. The commercial life of a neighborhood gravitated to the streetcar line. Churches and taverns throughout the city were the two major social service agencies.” He notes that “gentrification in migration, the developers’ crazy-quilt, and the moral dilemma of recertification” are significant factors in the growth and change of Chicago. “The city is a stew, not a casserole.” Wilson says. “Things are not stationary. They move around.”
Wilson wondered why there seemed to be a Greek restaurant on so many corners of the city, such as the corner of Milwaukee-North-Damen. He realized it was because those were transfer corners where people would stop to disembark from one transit line to get on another. It was a customary place to take a break and have something to drink or eat.
He advises us, as we walk around, to think of people who have passed this way before-like Florence Scala, whose memorial service Oct. 20 at Holy Family Church was posted many places in and around Little Italy. She was a tireless advocate for the West Side-a controversial figure to some. He reminds us to think about Pullman where whole areas of workman’s cottages were below grade. The entrances still are as we pass through Bridgeport, where the infamous Bubbly Creek, a little tributary of the Chicago River was so named because runoff from the slaughter houses infested the creek and bubbled causing cholera epidemics from raw sewage.
Wilson notes the removal of benches to prevent homeless squatters is punishing all who simply need to sit and rest throughout the day. He and wife once stopped at a tavern and had a beer on one of their very lengthy walks, just to use the restrooms. The object of a walk, however, is not to create a forced pub crawl, though the idea may have a certain appeal to some. With an increasing senior citizen population, having places to sit and rest between spurts of walking is a sensible accommodation-or for anyone with special needs who wants to get out and walk and enjoy the outdoors.
In Wilson’s final project for his master’s degree, he analyzed the prospect for a return of streetcars. He has given lectures with slides at public libraries on: “The History of the West Towns Street Car System;” “Riverside and Its Railroads;” and “The Evolution of our Highway System.”
In his next life, he muses, he would like to be a professor of transportation history.
He’s already that, and more.