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Paul Fitzgerald Finds Connection In Public Space

Written by on May 19, 2022

“My work is facilitating the connections that Chicagoans make in public space using music and bicycles.”

-Paul Fitzgerald

As a DJ and the executive director of Friends of Big Marsh, Paul Fitzgerald strives to provide Chicagoans a space where congregation is encouraged.

Raised in the heart of a labor union neighborhood, Paul Fitzgerald identifies with hard work when it comes to bringing his ideas to fruition — whether that be DJing or helping envision a 297-acre natural area and bike park in the city. Friends of Big Marsh, originally a grassroots campaign formed to create the recreational bike park, is now a non-profit organization working in coalition with the Chicago Parks District to realize the potential Big Marsh Park can have on public health and economic development of the Calumet region.

Located on Stony Island Avenue, about 15 miles south of the Loop, Big Marsh Park is home to five different bike tracks and nature trails optimal for bird-watching, trail running or just enjoying the peaceful outdoors. Fitzgerald has help from several others with this project, including Big Marsh’s center director Stephen Bell and bike park project manager Logan Beyhl from the Chicago Park District.

As a native of Chicago, Fitzgerald hopes the development of public spaces will provide others a sense of connectivity— whether through nature or the city’s energies.

Paul Fitzgerald stands in front of a mural at Big Marsh’s “Bike Park Plaza,” one of many painted by local artists.
All photos by Morgan Ciocca.

Once upon a time, Fitzgerald said his dream was to become a “bike-mechanic-youth-worker-DJ.” Having held jobs at the Chicago Freedom School, West Town Bikes, Working Bikes and the People’s DJs Collective, it seems he’s done just that. Although Fitzgerald’s varied interests may seem altogether random, all of his passions trickle down to helping others seek their own version of human connectivity.

For our interview series “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Paul Fitzgerald discusses neighborhood pride, his work at Big Marsh and the intersection of people, music and bikes in public space.

Amid wildlife like frogs and water birds, the park feels so far-removed from urban life, even though its address is still in Chicago. “Big Marsh, it doesn’t feel like you’re in the city,” Fitzgerald said.

Where are you from, and where do you live now?

I grew up in the Scottsdale neighborhood, which is part of the Ashburn community area, near 79th and Pulaski. It’s a mid-century neighborhood. You know, a lot of city workers, a lot of… it’s a heavy union neighborhood, so I definitely grew up with labor being a popular cause. I’ve lived in South Shore since 2010. I grew up on one end of 79th Street and I live on the opposite end of 75th Street. I love South Shore. You know, a lot of people will talk about the proximity to the lake or how beautiful the architecture is. My kids play baseball at Rosenblum Park and… shout out to Lost Boyz [Inc.]. One thing I really like is I know everybody on my block and most of my neighbors have lived on that block since the ‘70s. So there is really a strong sense in the neighborhood of community pride. I love the people of South Shore, first and foremost. There’s a lot of strong leaders in South Shore. It’s a neighborhood that has a long tradition of sort of a blue-collar work ethic, with regards to art and music production. I’m really thankful. I really identify with that, in terms of the way I perform music.

What do you love about Chicago?

What I love about Chicago is the way that we use food and music to connect in a meaningful way that’s frequently unspoken. I love that we have the same argument every month on Twitter about pizza, you know… for the record, Vito and Nick’s, AKA Nick and Vito’s, is the best pizza in Chicago. Italian Fiesta is good, too. I have to represent both of the South Side neighborhoods that I’m from. I love the way Chicago sounds. I love the way Chicago tastes. But, you know, Chicago sounds like the repetition of house music and steppers and JB Music for, for skate, you know, the skating rink, because it’s, it’s a vehicle that we… travel on, you know, it’s the way that repetitive sound, that funk, is how people kind of connect with that spirituality with themselves. I think that house music is spiritual. Gospel music is more up-front spiritual. I like it when the line between gospel and house music is blurred, because I feel like people feel the spirit.

Big Marsh bike park includes an environmental center, bike rental facilities and six bike trails — plus, a few man-made hills, one of which has a giant metal tube running through the middle. They installed it mostly because it looks cool, Fitzgerald explained.

What do you do? 

My work is facilitating connections that Chicagoans make in public space using music and bicycles. Big Marsh is a 297-acre Chicago Park District natural area and bike park, and a former industrial site on the Southeast Side of Chicago, at 115th and Stony Island. And the Chicago Park District does a tremendous job planting the native plant species. Big Marsh, it doesn’t feel like you’re in the city. We see birds at Big Marsh that I never knew were connected to Chicago. There’s a nest of bald eagles, just on the other side of Stony Island’s Lake Calumet, so we see bald eagles frequently.

So we have about a 50-acre bike park, which also contains the Ford Calumet Environmental Center. It has an exhibit space that tells you the history of the region, as well as the history of the project. And we have this bike park that it’s, you know, it’s like a skatepark for bikes. We got dirt jumps, we have single-track, [which is a mountain biking style], and we have the city’s first asphalt pump tracks. It’s almost like a linear skate park. It’s really designed for bikes, and we see a lot of rollerbladers and roller skaters.

I think that we have a real lack of public space in the way that we’ve understood it in the 20th Century. I think that young people do not have a lot of places that they are encouraged, let alone allowed, to congregate. As somebody who grew up in Chicago, those spaces are so vital. 

On one of the early warm weather days in Chicago, only a few bikers could be seen bobbing over jumps on the park’s bike trails — but there was no shortage of wildlife, including herons, red-winged blackbirds and native plant species.

How did you come to music, DJing, and working with bikes?

In 2007, I told the lovely woman that would become my spouse that my goal was to be a bike mechanic-youth worker-DJ. You know, I was really fortunate to work for Chicago Freedom School the first year that it existed, teaching how to build a mobile sound system. That was sort of a very formative space for me to be able to be in, to work with young people and talk about music and beats and, you know, taking advantage of public space to perform music or listen to music. I worked for West Town Bikes in Humboldt Park, then Working Bikes in Little Village. My friend, who went by the name Brotha Onaci, contacted me about founding the People’s DJs Collective in 2008. And that was a way that we really plugged in with a lot of community organizations. People’s DJs Collective, really, was a super encouraging project to work on. I was at Working Bikes for eight years. I think I needed something that was sort of new inspiration that felt like a related project.  

I spent my 20s and 30s biking all over the city, and with my relationship being the bike as a method of transportation, I hadn’t really done recreational biking because it wasn’t an opportunity that existed in Chicago. So I think that having a space where Chicagoans get exposed to more recreational riding, I think is really special. I think that us making trails that connect to all these different neighborhoods of the Southeast Side is really important. 

Big Marsh is open every day for bikers, runners, birdwatchers and other explorers from “dawn to dusk,” according to their website.

How do you experience your work and interests as connected?

It can seem like I have all these projects that I work on that are not related. It can seem strange that I spent my weekend doing sound for a church service and then hanging out at a bar playing records and then we’re talking about bike trails, but, to me, it really is all the same thing.

And I see myself as facilitating the connection that people already have or already want. So, at Big Marsh I am trying to facilitate a connection between these neighborhoods and neighbors and green space that’s in their backyard. And when I do sound at church, I’m trying to facilitate, in my own small way, that connection that people have between themselves and God and their spirituality. And when I’m at a party, I’m trying to facilitate whatever connections people are trying to make with themselves and with a friend, you know, or group of friends. I know that I have a role in that. It still is about connecting with people, sharing music, sharing the space. Sharing bikes and movement.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction written by Milo Keranen

Photography by Morgan Ciocca

Transcript edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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