[Publisher’s note: Elly Blue is on a trip through the East Coast. She’s got a Brompton folder, a backpack, and one of my old cameras around her neck. She’ll be posting dispatches and photos from the road. I’ve created a special section for all the articles and I’ll share some of them here on the Front Page. You can also follow Elly’s adventures on Twitter.]
(Photo © Elly Blue)
Courtesy of the weather, mechanical delays, a freight derailment in Minnesota, one medical emergency, and the priority of freight over passenger trains, I’m unexpectedly in Chicago for the day.
So here I am sitting in a coffeeshop in Wicker Park, enjoying excellent espresso and fast WiFi. It’s sunny out and “above zero” as my host optimistically put it. Sleet is expected after 5, just when it’s time to head back to the station.
Josh Korby is an old friend of some old friends of mine, who I’d only met once before, and he’s been amazingly hospitable. Despite having a cold, and a full days work messengering in bad weather the next day, he greeted me warmly when I arrived at his apartment at 1am.
On arriving I walked past the kitchen into a room full of computers and rediscovered something I’d somehow forgotten — Josh’s living room doubles as the office of the 4 Star Courier Collective, one of only a few worker owned bike messenger companies in the nation (another is Magpie Messenger Collective in Portland).
(Photo © Elly Blue)
4 Star consists of Josh and five other owner/riders, three of whom were part of founding the company three years ago. They all share in all the work, whether riding, or dispatching, or handling accounts. The Chicago Reader published an excellent article a couple years ago about how they got started.
This morning the household woke up around 8, and by 8:30 we were drinking coffee in the kitchen with Rene, another owner/rider. Josh layered up while they discussed the day’s lineup of deliveries, speculated about the weather, and made some plans. The phone started ringing around 9.
The apartment/office is on the second floor of an 1890s building. Dispatching is run off a Mac (“of course,” says Josh), and is presided over by a cat named Diesel, who is the only cat I have ever seen actually fetch something on demand (a shoelace she wanted to play with). A well-cared for fish tank provides soothing background noise, and coffee is always on. Clearly, these guys have their act together.
Somewhere in there we got a chance to chat briefly about bike advocacy in Chicago. Josh says that there are good things happening, thanks to a Mayor who is willing to speak up for bikes, and the Active Transportation Alliance (formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation) which has the clout and the initiative to hold him to his promises.
A problem for biking lately has been that budget cuts at the city have meant a reduction in plowing and salting the roads. It used to be, Josh told me, that riding in the winter in Chicago was no problem because the roads were always clear. This winter it’s been more difficult.
The economy has also taken its toll on business — things have been a little slower, and competition among Chicago’s plethora of messenger companies is getting a lot tighter. Josh isn’t too worried — their main clients are lawyers, who never seem to stop producing documents, and media professionals, who can’t proof their documents properly over email. And 4 Star’s owner/riders have a strong reputation.
One thing they didn’t have, though, was a bike map, which surprised them. “They’re not really that useful you know” Josh said, and gave me verbal directions. And it’s true. Chicago is flat, and it’s a grid. This could be a dream city to bike in — I’ll find out more in a couple hours when I hit the road again with the Brompton.
— Read more from Elly on her East Coast Tour special coverage page.