One track mind: In memory of Bill Wendt, bike advocate and monorail enthusiast

Bill Wendt
Bill Wendt

One of the wonderful things about Chicago’s huge, friendly Critical Mass bike ride is that it brings together like-minded people from different walks of life who might otherwise never meet. One unique individual who was a regular presence in the early years of the monthly bike ride was bicycle and train advocate and historic preservationist Bill Wendt, who passed away Tuesday at age 73. While I haven’t yet learned the cause of death, he suffered a stroke about a decade ago, after which he recovered in a nursing home.

Bill was easily spotted on Critical Mass as one of the older participants, sporting a professorial beard on a brown Schwinn Suburban cruiser. He was also a regular at the College of Complexes, a weekly Chautauqua that was held at the old Lincoln Restaurant in North Center, and a popular hangout for contrarians like himself. In particular, Bill was passionate about that futuristic mode of yesteryear, the monorail.

He cut such a distinctive figure that he was immortalized in ex-Chicago bike messenger Travis Culley’s controversial 2001 memoir “The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power,” in a passage describing Critical Mass. “There were a few older people there as well. There was Bill, on his 1960s steel clunker, who had kept his 1960s sense of social responsibility running smooth.”

A 1995 profile of Bill by Robert Heuer in the Chicago Reader, which described him as “Chicago’s one-man monorail lobby,” provides a window into his lifestyle and values. The piece describes Bill, a Near West Side resident at the time, riding the ‘L’, a bus, and walking the last two miles to a meeting of the Schaumburg village board’s transportation committee, which was considering a proposal for single-track transit. He reportedly attended four or five such public hearings a week in those days.

Bill Wendt
Bill Wendt

Heuer described Bill as a libertarian who railed against public infrastructure boondoggles (monorails, of course, didn’t fit into that category), and called for harnessing Chicago’s Stockyards industrial corridor as a strategy to create jobs and fight unemployment. He railed against the University of Illinois at Chicago “land grab” that resulted in the creation of the the new University Village neighborhood, but also the death of the old Maxwell Street outdoor market.

He was opposed to the $300 million redevelopment of the Lake Street branch of the Green Line, money that he felt would have been better spent on a monorail connecting West Side residents to suburban job sites, plus rerouting the branch to the Congress ‘L’ line. The latter idea sort of came true when the Pink Line was launched in 2006. I’m just scratching the surface of all of Bill’s strong positions on public transportation here, but most of his ideas involved monorail technology.

According to the Reader, Bill also published a zine called called Chicago Preconscious, with the motto “What Chicagoans already know–but now know they know!” The publication included history, political analysis, and book reviews, with him as the sole author. “The blend of research, erudition, and wit can be enlightening, but the prose can be dense, as incomprehensible as the title of the engineering text I once found him reading at the library,” Heuer wrote.

Fascinatingly enough, the monorail proposal discussed at the Schaumburg meeting wasn’t Bill’s. Rather, a rep from the San Diego-based Land Eagle Development Company was presenting on an idea to build a six-mile “personal rapid transit” monorail system connecting retail and job centers to a proposed Roosevelt University campus.

Needless to say, Bill was pleased by what he heard. “This isn’t pie in the sky or Buck Rogers,” he told Heuer. “It’s a concrete reality. There’s some apprehension because it’s never been tried in the cold climate. So I told them you start with a test. It would take a 20-foot snowfall to block the cars because that’s how high in the air they are. Ice on the rail shouldn’t be a problem because it’s propelled by magnetic force and doesn’t need a wheel.” Sadly, that project never became a reality.

Button design for Wendt's mayoral campaign.
Button design for Wendt’s mayoral campaign.

Longtime Critical Mass riders held an online wake of sorts for Bill on Facebook today. “Bill Wendt has gone for a ride on the big monorail in the sky,” wrote Chicago Critical Mass cofounder Michael Burton. “Rest in Peace, Bill.” In 2007 Burton recruited Wendt to make a tongue-in-cheek bid for mayor of Chicago, with the campaign slogan “Why not Wendt?”

“He was truly an original,” said another early ride participant. “I’m glad to have known him.”

“I miss CCM and all its lovable kooks,” commented another.

At the end of the Reader profile, Schaumburg transportation planner Tom Dabareiner told Heuer that while Bill’s gruff presence annoyed some officials at public meetings, Dabareiner respected him. “I’ve seen Bill at meetings for years. People who don’t know him might be put off by how he presents himself. He looks a little different, but you have to pay attention to what he says because he lays it out as it is.”

Cremation and visitation will take place next Tuesday, December 15, in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood and Niles, respectively.

Below is some coverage of Wendt’s mayoral bid from the unofficial Chicago Critical Mass publication The Rear Deraillur.

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Chicago Critical Mass cofounder and affordable housing developer Michael Burton campaigned for  mayoral challenger Chuy Garcia in the last election. Photo courtesy of Burton

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