Wheeling to Winter Wonderland

pretty lights and "lighter" connections abound
My family rolled in to Elgin's Downtown "Winter Wonderland" tonight, and I remembered there is no way not to make a high profile arrival on a cargo bike (at least outside of Denmark and the Netherlands as far as I know). When we first bought the bike this was a startling realization. We were not prepared to be cargo bike ambassadors every time we took a trip to the library or the grocery store. Now we are growing used to it and even embracing the easy conversation starter it can be with total strangers on the street.

When we crested the hill around Villa we saw the welcome sight of people spilling off the sidewalk into the middle of closed Spring Street. Substantial lines were already forming for the food trucks and vendors. It was a 50 degree December evening and our city was coming alive. Getting to these events on foot or two wheels was one of the pleasures we dreamed about when we searched for a place to live when we moved here two years ago. Being part of a vibrant community just feels good for my soul, and it seems I'm not alone.

In the book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design journalist Charles Montgomery writes about the work of sociologist Peggy Thoits on "lighter relationships," meaning the non-intimate social ties we might develop with say our mail carriers, folks in our volunteer groups, our barristas, some of our neighbors, or even people we greet often on the street. Thoits interviewed hundreds of people about the many social roles they played in life, both intimate and non-intimate, and what she discovered was that these lighter, non-intimate relationships mattered. She found that having a healthy level of lighter relationships "can boost feelings of self-esteem, mastery, and physical health." Using this sociological perspective, Montgomery claims that "life's lighter, breezier relationships soothe and reassure us." He writes, "the uncomfortable truth is that our spouses, children, and co-workers can wear us out." Imagine that! I'm sure my family has no idea what he means (she wrote with total sarcasm). In other words, talking about the weather with strangers on the bus and waving to your neighbor across the street is good for your overall health and the health of your more intimate relationships too. One of the over-arching themes of Montgomery's book is that a well-designed city, which includes well-designed access to active transportation, can be a vehicle for happiness.

credit: Tim Mossholder via unsplash.com
Elgin may have room for improvement in terms of active transportation and other aspects of design, but it is very much a city with great avenues for supporting the development of healthy social ties and cohesion. Along with "the city in the suburbs," Elgin goes by the tagline "a community that cares," which Mayor David Kaptain gave further evidence of tonight at the tree lighting ceremony when he lauded the substantial amount of money given to Elgin non-profits this past week through a special city-wide initiative. It is evidenced by the fact that because of the relentless efforts of countless volunteers any hungry person can find a warm meal at an Elgin Cooperative Ministry Soup Kettle any night of the week, 365 days a year. It is evidenced by the ethos of our incredible Gail Borden Public Library, which is incredible in my mind not just because of the resources it is able to offer but because of the way it uses its resources to benefit the health and wholeness of our community. It is evidenced by our U-46 Public Schools where "all" really does "mean all." It is evidenced by our Elgin Police Department and their forward-thinking, community policing philosophies. It is evidenced by the growing ecumenical, interfaith, and cross-cultural ties our faith leaders are working hard to strengthen and create. These common-good-seeking people and institutions combined with the infrastructure bones of a city as old as Chicago, when folks had no choice but to choose active transportation, combine for a place where life-giving, caring community has more than fighting chance to succeed.

Over the past two years, I have had the enormous good fortune to meet the caring people of this community at the speed of 8-10 mph, which is just the right speed for making "lighter" connections with the white guy who stands on Chicago Street with no shirt and his toy dog on a leash or the Black guy on Channing who works on cars in his driveway and waves or asks if I left the family at home today. No one knows my grey Mazda not just because I hardly ever drive it, but also because in a city of 110,000 one silver car looks a lot like another. My bright blue helmet gliding down the block however, marks me. Whether they're marking me as "that crazy chick" or "the biking pastor" or whatever it may be, we're becoming more familiar to each other.

We had not gone far walking our bikes through the pedestrian traffic tonight when someone neither my spouse or I had ever met before called out from the line for the Boy Scout's fresh cobbler in a cone (unfortunately, I did not get to partake of that fabulousness), "Hey, I see you and that big green bike all over town! You've probably heard me 500 times, rolling down my window and screaming 'that's awesome!'" You're awesome, guy whose name I didn't get because the crowd kept swelling. You're awesome.

that big green bike and its friends
Nearly every time I ride our family's Yuba Mundo this is my experience. Someone invariably comes up to me to talk about the bike or yells out a car window about it. Mostly these are positive comments and curious questions. People want to know if we made the bike or if it came that way (Thank the Manufacturer! Yuba that is). People want to know how to get one themselves or if it's heavy (yes and no). People want to know how the boys like it (they love it). Occasionally, folks will make varying degrees of veiled statements about my parenting choices relating to carting my kids around on a cargo bike. Those aren't always so pleasant. But only rarely do I have obscenities hurled at me--an experience that's much more common when I'm by myself on my little Trek cruiser. Ok, so it's not all sweet neighbors and cute little dogs out there! But tonight I am happy to take the good with the bad as I roll home happy if not entirely anonymously through my beloved city.

My dream is that someday it will be perfectly normal to see a family of four wheeling home by bicycle. When that day comes I know I'll lose my conversation starter but it will be well worth it to gain a whole population of new "lighter" connections to smile and wave at or at least ride with along the way.


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