[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, John Greenfield's column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
I’ve walked the entirety of 11 Chicago streets in order to experience aspects of the pedestrian environment, plus local architecture and culture, that I might have overlooked using faster modes. So when Rob Reid, who writes the history blog Avondale Time Machine, invited me to join him and his friends to hike all 9.5 miles of Elston Avenue last month, I couldn’t say no.
The street’s namesake was Daniel Elston, a London merchant who immigrated to Chicago in the early 1800s. By 1830 he’d bought a 160-acre parcel in River West, located along a meandering wagon road then called the Woodstock Trail. The multitalented settler established several businesses, making soap, candles, bricks, beer and whiskey; he also served as a school inspector and an alderman, and founded a bank. While Elston was first living by the trail that would later bear his name, it was a plank toll road owned by Amos Snell, who charged travelers 2½ cents per mile to travel it. Displeased with this, local farmers staged a Boston Tea Party of sorts – they dressed up like Indians, chopped down the toll gates and burned them.
Nowadays, Elston parallels the Kennedy Expressway, and it’s a popular alternative for drivers trying to avoid expressway traffic jams, but it’s also a useful bicycle route, providing a relatively mellow alternative to hectic Milwaukee Avenue. Last year the Chicago Department of Transportation installed one of the city’s nicest protected bike lanes on the street from Milwaukee to North. Elston and Milwaukee are the only two streets in the city that intersect twice; pedaling north on one and then returning via the other is a circuit called “biking the knife,” for a reason that’s obvious if you look at a map.
I show up at the south intersection of the two streets, just north of Chicago, a few minutes after the 5:30 p.m. meeting time and don’t notice Rob and his crew, so I hang out for a few minutes observing the massive amount of rush hour bike traffic on Milwaukee. Assuming the others have taken off already, or else that I’ve gotten the date wrong, I start walking north on Elston solo, hoping I’ll catch up with them at a tavern up the street.
The protected lane features smooth pavement, green paint at conflict points, and lines of flexible posts and parked cars to keep motorists out, but I see only a handful of bikes here, since it’s not as direct a route northwest as Milwaukee and has far less retail. Elston is generally an unwelcoming environment for pedestrians, with narrow sidewalks, some dangerous street crossings, and views mostly of industrial buildings, garages, gas stations and big box stores, but there are some gems along the way. Climbing a small hill to Division, I turn around and enjoy a stunning skyline vista.
Just before Division, Elston began curving northwest. I pass by the Morton Salt umbrella girl logo painted on the roof of the company’s massive riverside factory, and then arrive at North Avenue, where men with cardboard placards are asking motorists for change. Above them, the spinning sign for Stanley’s Produce features a caricature of the founder smoking a pipe, riding an airplane shaped like a watermelon. North of North, the protected lanes disappear and the street has a more desolate feel.