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At annual gathering, Better Streets Chicago unveils new Community Blocks campaign, inspired by Barcelona’s Superblocks

Advocates showed up in force to support the grassroots organization, which promotes safe, accessible, and equitable street design for all residents.

Better Streets cofounder Kyle Lucas discusses their new Community Blocks campaign. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

Last week, for the second year in a row, local transportation advocates showed up in force for a gathering to support Better Streets Chicago, a grassroots organization that promotes safe, accessible, and equitable street design for all residents. The group was formed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by Kyle Lucas, Brittney Lane, Jim Hodapp, and former Streetsblog co-editor Courtney Cobbs. Some of their key projects have included fighting to convert North DuSable Lake Shore Drive into a people-friendly surface boulevard, and a successful campaign to pilot #PlowTheSidewalks, a program to have the city clear walkways.

Last year's event was specifically a launch party for the Better Streets Chicago Action Fund, described as "a sibling-organization [that] will provide additional flexibility to engage more directly with elected officials." The recent gathering was billed as an Inaugural Annual Fundraiser for Better Streets, and so far at least $40,500 has been raised for the group's goal of $50,000 this month.

Last week's event was held at Revolution Brewing's Logan Square location, 2323 N. Milwaukee Ave. The company, launched by early Chicago Critical Mass rider and former Handlebar owner Josh Deth, has hosted many sustainable transportation events over the years.

Bikes parked outside Revolution Brewing during the gathering. Photo: John Greenfield

The party which featured food, drinks, and entertainment from DJ Tigermilk, was attended by many key players in the local safe streets scene, including bike- and transit-friendly alderpersons Andre Vasquez (40th) and Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth. There seemed to be at least 100 people there, and there were a number of speeches by Better Streets organizers and supporters that inspired the transportation advocates present.

Ald. Vasquez is vice chair of the City Council's Committee on Transportation and the Public Way, as well as holding many other titles at City Hall. He credited Better Streets with encouraging to him to become a champion for better walking, biking, and transit. He said that early in his aldermanic tenure, it was common for "a Better Streets advocate, cyclist, or urbanist [to be] lighting me up on Twitter about how I wasn't doing enough to make bike infrastructure safer, I wasn't doing enough to push for safer legislation, to add protected bike lanes, to pedestrianize streets, and the list goes on... To be honest, at times it got under my skin. At times it affected my own mental wellness."

"One day I got into an advocate's DMs, and really dug into asking why if this person felt that this was a way to have any level of discourse in hopes of creating change," Ald. Vasquez continued. "The person responded, 'Well you're one of the only alders who answers and actually responds and engages enough for us to make these points directly to.' That point remained with me for some time, as it gets to the core of what I believe good government needs to be."

Ald. Andre Vasquez. Photo: John Greenfield

Near the end of the evening Better Streets cofounder Kyle Lucas announced a new Better Streets campaign called Community Blocks, inspired by Barcelona's successful Superblock iniative. "They have really kind of modeled what the future of neighborhood streets can look like," he said. "This could work really well in Chicago."

"Right now out neighborhood streets are really unsafe," Lucas said. "I know this personally. I've faced traffic violence twice this week. There are a lot of people in this room who understand that... who have lost family, who have lost children, who have lost friends and family members to traffic violence. And many times on neighborhood streets, and that's just not acceptable."

Lucas blamed rising numbers of traffic injuries and fatalities on increased vehicular traffic in recent years. "We can tackle it a bunch of different ways, through legislation to regulate things," Lucus added. "But we can also do it with infrastructure." He noted that many of Chicago's underserved communities not only have dangerous streets but also a lack of plentiful green space and recreational opportunities. "So we see a real opportunity to actually create some of this space in our neighborhoods."

"Community Blocks are just blocks of neighborhoods between arterials where there isn't any through traffic," Lucas explained. "There's still access to the neighborhood. You can still park your car in front of your house if you want to. We're not taking away your parking, if that's so precious to you. [The crowd laughed.] But the big thing right now is not your parking spot in front of your house, but how many people are getting [to other places through] your neighborhood. And so we're looking to [use] different kinds of infrastructure so that people aren't cutting through neighborhoods."

Shooting a selfie of the crowd. Photo: John Greenfield

At the end of the evening the crowd gathered for a group photo, taken from the stage by Ald. Manaa-Hoppenworth. It was a fitting closure for an impressive turnout of safe streets advocates from many different walks of life.

Thanks to bike and pedestrian attorney Michael Keating, a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor, for help with this piece.

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