Professor shows city landmarks in alternative history lesson
For all its bustle in the daytime, Chicago becomes eerily quiet on average weeknights.
History professor Timothy Gilfoyle sees Chicago’s late nights as a special opportunity to explore the city through bike riding.
On Thursday, Sept. 11, Gilfoyle will be leading an extensive bike tour of Chicago that will leave Norville Athletics Center at 9 p.m. Riders will spend the night exploring the history of the city through its landmarks and neighborhoods, returning to Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus around 7 a.m. the following day.
Gilfoyle has been doing bike tours since before he came to teach at Loyola, 25 years ago. During his time working as a graduate student at Columbia University, he organized and participated in similar tours in New York City.
“When I came to Chicago, I thought [bike tours] would be a great way for me to learn about Chicago and for students themselves to learn about Chicago,” Gilfoyle said. “I found that many of the themes I was interested in in New York were also applicable to Chicago.”
Gilfoyle, who has been hosting rides in Chicago since he began teaching at Loyola in 1989, likes to pick places that are interesting visually, but that also reflect a greater aspect of Chicago history.
“Perhaps the most interesting place we’ve been to has been the Finkl Steel Mill, which unfortunately has moved from its location at Courtland Street and the Chicago River, where it had been since the 1860s,” Gilfoyle said. “It was a very vibrant steel mill that specialized in making plastic molds. They created a particular kind of steel that requires a more specialized process that wouldn’t be profitable for other mills to produce, so they found a niche.”
The tour does not go inside most buildings, but Gilfoyle said getting into many places is just a matter of knowing the right people who work there. In the past, Gilfoyle’s connections have gotten the bike riders into the Finkl Steel Mill and a ComEd Power Plant.
“More often than not we traverse around the streets and neighborhoods and stop at various sites outside of them and talk about different historical points related to the site and Chicago,” Gilfoyle said. “For example, we stopped at Carl Sandburg’s home where he wrote the poem ‘Chicago’ and we try to stop in Grant Park to talk about its importance.”
Though it is has been 25 years since he started doing these tours, Gilfoyle is hesitant to call this year’s trip the “25th annual,” as there have been years where it has been rained out or years where he has held more than one ride.
“I’ve gotten as far south as Chinatown,” Gilfoyle said. “We might make it on this trip — I’d like to get down to Prairie Avenue. Many times students don’t get to the South Side as much. I’d like to show them a bit of it and get them out of their comfort zones.”
Some of Gilfoyle’s favorite stops on the tour are Michigan Avenue and the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Lincoln Park.
“I love going down Michigan Avenue at three or four in the morning with no traffic on the Magnificent Mile, zig-zagging back and forth across the street,” Gilfoyle said. “The site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, I enjoy bringing people to that. The building no longer exists — it’s actually a parking lot. I have students stand in the spot where all those people were shot. That always freaks people out a little bit.”
Aside from the occasional flat tire, Gilfoyle said they have not had too many incidents of bad luck on the late night bike tours. Thursday nights work best as there is a relatively small number of people out late driving or on the streets.
“I recognize it’s difficult for people to do it, because sometimes they work the next day [or] they have classes that I encourage them to blow off, which my colleagues probably aren’t too happy about,” Gilfoyle remarked.
Students can come late or leave early if they need to and there are planned bathroom and snack breaks.
Sophomore Thea Rossmiller said while she doesn’t think she could handle the entire trip, she would want to ride at least until 1 a.m.
“Seeing the city through a bus window or a trolley car only allows you to see the sites for seconds, while this allows you to stop and actually see what Chicago’s history is all about,” said the 19-year-old social work major. “This is such a cool and unusual way to experience the Windy City.”
For Gilfoyle, the tour is all about learning to appreciate the city’s past.
“It’s an introduction to the history of Chicago using the physical landscape and the physical environment to explain and discuss American history and urban history. Chicago is a very historic city, one of the most important cities in terms of its history in the United States,” Gilfoyle said.