Skip to main content

Slow Roll Highlights Biking, Neighborhoods

Slow Roll Chicago riders head north on Halsted toward 55th Street to begin a September 2 ride in Englewood.

Photos by Gordon Walek

"Slow Roll Chicago!"

That’s the response that bicycle riders shout to mystified neighbors and motorists as more than 30 cyclists wind their way through the side streets of Englewood. It’s a Wednesday night and that means Slow Roll Chicago is leading another neighborhood ride, this one focused on Englewood’s urban farms and the upcoming conversion of the 59th Street rail viaduct into a nature trail. 

“Woo hoo! What’s going on?” shouts a group from the steps of a brick two-flat as riders roll by with lights flashing and music blaring. The cyclists are all ages, from three to 73, on all sorts of bikes. Many are African-American, suggesting a shifting bicycle culture in Chicago’s inner city. 

“We’re Slow Roll Chicago,” comes the response from several riders. “We ride every Wednesday.”

Slow Roll’s co-founder Oboi (pronounced o-buy) Reed leads the pack, pulling a boom box on wheels, “to make it fun, like we’re a moving disco.” He and co-founder Jamal Julien have been organizing Slow Rolls since September 2014, in a different community each week, always with the intent to “get people in the neighborhood to come out and ride.” 

Gaining momentum

Slow Roll started with a handful of riders in Detroit in 2010, seeking to build the cycling culture among African Americans and to improve the street environment in neighborhoods that often lack bike lanes and other cycling amenities. The movement blossomed – it now attracts 3,000 or more a week in Detroit – and spread to other cities from Buffalo to Berlin. The Chicago rides attract 20 to 200 cyclists each, depending on weather and neighborhood outreach. 

Anton Seals, Jr., of Grow Greater Englewood points out a rail viaduct near Growing Home's urban farm at Wood and 58th streets that's slated to be converted to an urban trail. Video recording him is Waymond Smith, who's making a documentary about cycling on the South Side.

“Our vision is equity around bike riding in Chicago,” shouts Reed to the group before the September 2 ride starts rolling from its starting point at Dream Café and Grill, 748 W. 61st St. “We see Slow Roll as a vehicle for social change. Our target is people of color and low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.”

Slow Roll sponsors include Kozy’s Cyclery, sporting goods outfitter REI and New Belgium Brewing. LISC Chicago supported the Englewood ride and four others (the “September Sustainability Series,” details below), providing mini-grants to Slow Roll and neighborhood partners to shine a light on local business districts and sustainability projects. 

Before the group sets off, Reed lays out Slow Roll’s code of conduct. The pace is slow. Riders stick together and keep to the right. Hand signals and verbal cues guide riders through traffic and around potholes. Regulars are designated as “sweepers,” riding the left flank and shouting “Push right” when cars need to pass. At intersections, “corkers” position their bikes to block cross-traffic. Today those duties are managed by Jashaun Julien, 13, who wears a jersey of Englewood basketball legend Derrick Rose, and Eric Cathcart, 25. After chatting up the car drivers until the group has passed, they uncork the intersection and zoom back to the front, where their balletic moves are repeated.

Such structure makes the rides comfortable and safe, attracting participants that include a couple of kids in a bike trailer, pre-teens riding BMX bikes, moms and dads, regular riders from other neighborhoods, and Waymond Smith, a retiree in spandex who captures the action with GoPro cameras for an upcoming documentary about biking on the South Side. 

It’s a hot evening, so Englewood’s streets and stoops are busy with residents. Many shout encouragement or ask what the ride is about. A teenager runs alongside the pack for more than a block, and a boy on a scooter keeps up nicely. 

“Slow Roll Chicago!”

Oboi Reed (orange shirt), who co-founded Slow Roll Chicago with Jamal Julien, leads the pack past Growing Home's urban farm as the sun fades. Reed's boom box on his bike trailer establishes him as a contemporary urban Pied Piper.

The ride stops briefly at Growing Home’s urban farm on Wood Street between 58th and 59th. Sonya Harper, executive director of the ride’s co-sponsor, Grow Greater Englewood, tells how Growing Home uses organic farming as a vehicle for employment training, then her colleague Anton Seals, Jr. points out the adjacent railroad viaduct, slated for conversion by the City of Chicago into a nature trail. Seals says many blocks of Englewood have experienced “economic devastation” and housing loss, but notes that the trail and adjacent urban agriculture district could become drivers of a locally controlled healthy-food economy. The group stops later at the Eat to Live Englewood garden, 71st and Princeton, where another farm is in the works. 

The following Wednesday, Slow Roll moves to North Lawndale and Little Village, attracting an exuberant and diverse group of more than 60. From the start point at the Green Tomato Café, operated by Lawndale Christian Health Center, the cyclists roll past community gardens, greystone two-flats and corner stores before stopping at the 21-acre La Villita Park. It’s 8:30 p.m., but hundreds of residents are still enjoying the well-lit skate park, basketball courts, fields and playground. Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa of Openlands, one of the ride’s co-sponsors, speaks briefly about “10 years of struggle” that created the park. Formerly occupied by an asphalt-products factory that contaminated the land, the site was capped with clay and now sits elevated above the neighborhood, with access ramps on all sides. 

Other partners for the Lawndale ride included Universidad Popular, Enlace Chicago, Lawndale Christian Fitness Center, 22nd Ward Office and Little Village Public Library. 

Humans aren't the only participants in the weekly Slow Roll rides. This puppy awaits the beginning of the Little Village/North Lawndale ride on September 9.

Upcoming Slow Rolls

Slow Ride’s Sustainability series is sponsored by LISC Chicago’s Commercial Corridor Roundtable series. All rides begin at 6 p.m. Remaining rides are: 

Austin – September 16: Riding to BUILD Chicago!” Starts and ends at BUILD, 5100 W. Harrison St.; co-sponsored by BUILD Chicago. 

Bridgeport – September 23: Growing Food, Growing Justice, Growing Power.” Starts and ends at Iron Street Farm, 3333 S. Iron St., traveling to Growing Power's Roosevelt Square Urban Youth Farm, 1250 S. Loomis; co-sponsored by Growing Power. 

Uptown – September 30: “From Roots to Fruits: Exploring Uptown’s Historic Landmarks and Community Gardens.” Starts and ends at Clarendon Park, 4501 N. Clarendon Ave.; co-sponsored by Institute of Cultural Affairs and Go Edgewater.

Please RSVP to noting the ride(s) you plan to participate in. For more information, contact Slow Roll Chicago or LISC program officer Dionne Baux, (312) 422-9564.

Posted in Placemaking, Englewood, Little Village


Stay up to date with the the latest news and events related to LISC Chicago.




About LISC Chicago

Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

More about LISC Chicago »
Contact our staff »