A fresh ride through urban renewal

Travis Hugh Culley doesn't yield at yellow lights. As a brash bike messenger, he speeds through bone-chilling weather, Chicago potholes, and urban gridlock.

As the author of "The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power," Culley displays the same derring-do, pedaling through Gen-X angst and street ethics with a steady cadence of incisive sketches.

Weaving through metaphors as easily as he does oncoming SUVs, he depicts his struggle to maintain relationships, find artistic satisfaction, and pay the bills, with intense, irony-free passages.

Just as the musical "Rent" sweetened social commentary with hummable tunes, Culley uses over-the-top poetry to mask his Bohemian polemics. He even describes a crash with a lilting tone: "Suddenly I was thrown, good-bye, into the clear blue sky, like a white egret launched from mangroves."

It's pretty in places, but Culley's struggle for le mot juste often obscures rather than enlightens. Describing the symbolic import of the messenger, he writes, "With his seamless warp and woof of form and function, the messenger seems as timeless as human communication itself. The image of the messenger persists in the postindustrial mind as a flashback, the vision of Mercury." It's a flashy - and totally needless - observation. But when the rubber meets the road, this book presents an important message about making cities friendlier.

What's so refreshing about Culley's work is that he overcomes the temptation to hold his graduation from the school of hard knocks as an advanced sociological degree. He doesn't hesitate to point fingers (especially at brutal police and backward laws), but suffused throughout his book is a genuine spirit of modesty.

Culley's indictment of automobiles - not just the ones that have struck him - is part of a larger treatment on urban sustainability that keeps his sharper remarks in tune. His analysis of Chicago's malaise is superior to his suggestion-box solutions: Cities need more economic integration, more commercial and residential density. As a map for urban renewal, "Immortal Class" intrigues, and its vignettes of life on two wheels make it one heck of a good ride.

Joshua S. Burek is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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