Twenty-eight cyclists and one little dog convened outside the Federal Express building at Division and Hooker earlier this month for a three-hour tour of Chicago’s grimy, smelly industrial corridors, courtesy of the city’s monthlong Bike Chicago 2001 celebration. “It’s a little unusual,” said tour guide Rachel Weber, a professor in the urban planning program at UIC. “We’re not going to be going to Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright houses. There aren’t a lot of beautiful natural vistas. But I think you’ll find that there are some interesting stories and issues to discuss about urban manufacturing and urban industrial activity.”

Weber, 33, has spent the last six years studying urban political economy and the ways cities try to attract or retain businesses–tax-increment financing, tax incentives, subsidies, workforce development grants. She moved here three years ago from Ithaca, New York, and got interested in the city’s manufacturing districts while biking to work from Ukrainian Village.

“This was my route,” she explained, “and I would just slow down and talk to people sometimes about what kinds of businesses were there. I would smell all these different smells, and I became curious about: What are these companies? Where did they come from? Who do they employ?”

After a few safety tips from Ben Gomberg, the city’s bicycle program coordinator, we all–including the dog, now wearing a helmet and riding in a milk crate–set off for…a parking lot on the other side of Division.

“After the fire of 1871,” said Weber, “industry began spreading west from what is now the Loop along railroads and rivers….There was easy access to roads and easy access to the river, so for those reasons a lot of manufacturing came to Goose Island: rendering plants taking carcasses from the stockyards, soap manufacturers, tanneries, and mass distributors. Today you still see those distributors, because it’s so close to the residential areas. But we also see a lot of trucking and warehousing, fabricating metal products, and lighter, more commercially oriented kinds of industrial activity.”

For instance, there’s Republic Windows & Doors, housed in a clean, airy “Milan-style” building just north of us that was designed by Booth Hansen Associates. Republic was attracted to Goose Island in the mid-90s, after the city designated much of the area a tax-increment financing district. The TIF allowed the company to consolidate several parcels of land and reduce the cost of the new construction and also provided funds to repair part of the river’s crumbling seawall.

We swooped around the west side of Republic, crossed the railroad tracks at Blackhawk and Cherry, and then headed south down North Branch Street–past Essanay Studio Lighting; past Chicago Scenic Studios, the theatrical construction company that built the sets for the Democratic national convention in 1996; past Fletcher Chicago, another rental house for film and video equipment; past River North Sales & Service, a beer distributorship owned in part by Jesse Jackson’s sons Yusef and Jonathan; and up to the busy intersection of Division and North Branch, where a Cow on Parade has found a permanent home. We crossed over the river on the sidewalk, breaking the law, and turned north again onto Elston, whizzing past a billboard for the high-tech incubator Divine Interventures, Chicago’s most notorious “dot-bomb.”

Our next stop was the rubble-strewn lot just north of Morton Salt. “There’s been a lot of talk,” said Weber, “from the mayor and other people affiliated with City Hall about how we can’t be so concerned with the old economy and old-style manufacturing–we should be trying to attract computer software companies. This is why there’s been this push for beautification and streetscaping. They’re trying to attract people who work in these high-tech industries–”

“Yuppies!” cried a woman in the crowd.

“–to our ‘silicon prairie,'” continued Weber. “But what’s interesting when you think about industry is that it’s very hard to characterize a particular industry as high- or low-tech.” The salt company, she pointed out, has been in business since 1848, but in the 1930s it discovered that inorganic chemicals could be extracted during the salt-making process. In 1968 it got into the pyrotechnic chemical business, and now it’s the world’s largest developer of air-bag inflators. Morton International has spun off an aerospace division, acquired two-dozen-odd salt mines and chemical companies, and endowed an arboretum–but in 1998, shortly after celebrating its 150th anniversary, it was bought out by the Philadelphia-based chemical company Rohm and Haas.

We pulled back out onto Elston and pedaled north, two abreast in the bike lane. I reached down to pull my water bottle out of its cage, lost control, and veered knuckles-first into the driver’s-side mirror of a shiny New Beetle.

At Gutman Leather Company, on Webster at the North Branch of the river, Weber provided a brief primer on the tanning process–the pickling, soaking, cleaning, and “scudding” of animal skins. “There used to be 15 to 20 tanneries on Goose Island, and they would all pour their runoff sludge into the river. If you lived downwind, like in Bucktown, you were basically held hostage to these noxious winds.” But, she continued, “If you go to Italy on vacation and you buy yourself a nice leather jacket, there’s a good chance that the leather actually came from Chicago.”

We heaved ourselves around the back of the Webster Place multiplex and rode south down Southport and Kingsbury, past the slag heaps and rusted cranes along the perimeter of the steel manufacturer A. Finkl & Sons. Established at Southport and Cortland in 1902, Finkl is now the heart of the near north side PMD (planned manufacturing district) formed in the late 80s to counter the exploding residential development around Lincoln Park. Standing on the pedestal of the Finkl flagpole, Weber explained, “For many years a lot of these buildings had remained vacant, but in some cases there was still industrial activity taking place. But developers were coming around to these older industrial firms and offering them lots of money to sell their properties–to turn them into lofts. Then Finkl and other manufacturers approached the city and, working with local industrial organizations, tried to have the zoning for this area changed so that it would only allow for industrial uses. Now this is very controversial, right? It’s a way in which the public sector is stepping into the private market for real estate.”

Initially Mayor Daley opposed the zoning change, but eventually he came around. Now you can’t buy an old industrial building in a PMD and turn it into condos, although some preexisting residential development has been allowed to remain.

Land-use battles have been raging along the Clybourn corridor ever since: residents complain about noise and pollution, industrialists defend their right to operate in the city, developers jockey for available property, and everyone bitches about the traffic.

“You can see how close we are to the residential area,” said Weber. “What they did [to address this] was they created a commercial buffer. They did not expect in a million years that this commercial buffer would have taken off in the way it did. If you drive down Clybourn and see all these big box retailers–this was supposed to be a kind of intermediary space between the heavy industry and the residential….

Now it’s just kind of a pain for everybody.”

Across Cortland to the south lay General Iron Industries, where a giant apparatus was pulverizing a large pile of scrap. For years Lincoln Park community organizations have been watching the metal recycler like a hawk. In 1994 the city took General Iron to court, charging it with noise pollution, and the company wound up erecting barriers to muffle the sound. In 1999 the firm came under fire from the EPA after it was discovered that appliances processed at the yard were emitting chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants. According to Weber, General Iron has tried to be a good neighbor and helped sponsor last year’s Flatwater Classic and Friendly Float, a canoe and kayak race on the Chicago River.

The most athletic segment of the ride took us down Elston to the Kinzie Industrial Corridor. After a brief standoff with a tractor-trailer at Cortland, we headed south past Morton Salt; past the Lexus dealership; past the marina, the Yellow Cab garage, and some brick town houses. Jogging southeast on Milwaukee, then south onto Ogden, we passed the Matchbox, Bone Daddy barbecue, the Twisted Spoke, and a windowless brick cube hung with a Budweiser sign. We ducked under the Metra tracks and turned west onto Carroll, coming to a stop at Laflin under a broad, leafy tree.

It was remarkably quiet, the hot afternoon stillness punctuated only occasionally by the clatter of a passing train or the insistent beeping of a truck backing up. Two- and three-story brick buildings lined the streets; most of the businesses in the area are small, some supporting as few as ten employees. There are a few larger companies: Benrus Watch Company still employs 150 people at its Carroll Street headquarters.

“Not only are we in the PMD,” said Weber, “we’re in the EZ as well.” The “west cluster” of Chicago’s empowerment zone, established in 1994 as part of President Clinton’s plan to revitalize “distressed” urban areas, stretches from Racine to Laramie and includes the land once occupied by Sears Roebuck in North Lawndale. Companies inside the zone are entitled to a bouquet of tax incentives and wage credits for hiring locally; Weber described the program as “not terribly successful.”

A bit farther west lay the Fulton-Carroll incubator, started in 1979 by the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago with a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior. “It’s about hatching new ideas and new startups,” Weber explained. “Often there’s not just cheaper space but there’s access to cheaper loans to buy equipment or new technology. There are shared resources so you don’t have to buy your own; it’s a way of nurturing smaller businesses.” The incubator hosts not only traditional manufacturing enterprises like Fort Dearborn Screw & Bolt but also small companies like Hors d’Oeuvres With Panache, Bukiety Flowers, and Wood Work by Lou.

The group had begun to dwindle: some riders were thirsty, some were sunburned, some had to get back to work. We cycled east on Randolph Street, past the empty Richter’s Food Products building, a dizzying example of “industrial deco”; past the Wholesale Florist Building, which is no longer a florists’ center; past Fulton Cold Storage, the facility used by area food distributors, which reportedly contains ice that’s seven years old. We turned north on Halsted and soon reached the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center–the largest printing and distribution center in the world. This site on the river, at Chicago Avenue, was chosen because it offered access by rail, road, and barge; if striking workers were to block the land routes, the papers could always be shipped by water.

Then the tour was over. “I don’t usually like to support anything Daley does,” Joan Hersh, a freelance pastry chef, had remarked on the ride back. “But occasionally our needs overlap. Bikes are extremely abused in the city, and people in cars don’t know what to do with us. So anything that gets us out in the street is a good thing.”

“I wanted to call it something like ‘Where Brown Meets Green,'” Weber says later. “There’s something about being a biker that implies this commitment to environmental stability. But I wanted to take people into the dirty underbelly of Chicago, and to understand and appreciate that these are jobs and–not to stop people from being environmentalists–but to consider how you balance the economic need for jobs with environmental concerns.”

Two days after our odyssey she took a bike tour of Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Oak Park and was a little surprised that there were only about 15 cyclists. Maybe, she says, “there’s a kind of nostalgia for industry. For the time when there really was industry, and we actually produced things in this country.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.