“We’re going to point out little details you’ve never noticed in buildings you probably go by all the time,” promises tour guide Tom Drebenstedt, straddling an old-school Fuji Sandblaster. For 25 years, he’s led the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Bike the Lakefront tour, showcasing the history of Chicago’s shoreline. Today, he’s leading me on a new route he created with fellow docent John Paige. We’re headed through Chicago’s “green necklace,” a series of parks, streets and leafy thoroughfares in Humboldt Park and Logan Square.
ROLLIN' ON THE RIVER Near the Humboldt Park boathouse, our starting point, stands an 1892 statue of Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt, complete with an adorable bronze lizard crawling on a manuscript by his feet. In 1869, West Side residents petitioned to name the 207-acre park for the famed naturalist. But his is not the only influential name I’ll learn today. Crossing Von Humboldt’s namesake boulevard to the west side of the park, Drebenstedt points out the man-made river created in the late 1890s by Danish immigrant Jens Jensen, who quickly rose up the Chicago Park District’s ranks to become its foremost landscape architect. We spy a few solar- and wind-powered pumps in the river, installed recently by the Park District to create a current and prevent stagnation.
COMING UP ROSES Two blocks south is the circular rose garden Jensen designed, flanked by bronze bison and Japanese-inspired light fixtures. We roll across Division Street to one of the Humboldt Park Stables, with gables that could be plucked from Hansel and Gretel. Built in 1895, the structure houses the Institute for Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, which took over most of the stables in the ’90s.
BOULEVARD EMPIRE Rolling north along the park’s perimeter, we catch a whiff of roast pork from La Esquina del Sabor, a neighborhood food truck. But no impromptu stops today; instead, Drebenstedt pulls over by a kiosk outlining the development of the boulevard system. In 1870, the West Park District hired architect William Le Baron Jenney to design the major western parks, including Humboldt, with tree-lined thoroughfares to connect them.
FOR THE SCHWINN As we pedal north up the quiet service drive along Humboldt Boulevard, Drebenstedt shows me the occasional mid-1800s wood-frame house. “If you ignore all the other buildings around them, you get a sense of what it was like then—farm houses in the middle of a prairie,” he says. Bicycle magnate Ignaz Schwinn’s mansion used to stand at the southwest corner of Humboldt Boulevard and Palmer Street, and bike racers competed on the roadways around adjacent Palmer Square Park.
FULL CIRCLEBack in the park, Drebenstedt points out a 1901 bronze sculpture of Viking explorer Leif Erikson, bankrolled by the local Norwegian community. Continuing back to the boathouse, I spy old men fishing off a pier, with the Willis Tower looming in the distance. Although I’ve lived in Logan Square for years, I feel as if I’ve just seen the neighborhood in a whole new way.