Home SHAPE When the gyms closed, the gym rats moved to a patch of...

When the gyms closed, the gym rats moved to a patch of workout space in Lincoln Park — and some locals don’t like it

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Brendon Lemon, left, in Lincoln Park. The fitness area has been crowded at times this summer with gyms closed.

Christopher Borrelli
Chicago Tribune
(TNS)

Summer 2020 is officially gone, and as it leaves, in a normal year, the shirtless young men of Grove 13 would leave with it, driven indoors by the chill of autumn. Grove 13 is the Chicago Park District’s official name for the patch of Lincoln Park at Wellington and inner Lake Shore Drive, just north of the Diversity Driving Range. Here, beneath the watchful glare of nearby apartment buildings and senior living facilities, there is a small workout space. It’s nothing exciting to look at. It’s smaller than a typical playground and the equipment is so spartan — parallel bars, gymnast rings, some stairs — you might say it looks more like a playground that someone lost interest in midway through designing.

Yet, for Lakeview gym rats, bulked out, V-shaped, intense, this fitness area — which has no name itself — became a respite early into the pandemic, a gym away from gym.

A gym that, according to the Chicago Park District, remains closed.

So stay out, OK? Please?

But hold that thought a moment. Certainly everyone else has.

Back in the spring, Ben St. John, a Columbia College theater student, anxious to maintain a semblance of a daily routine, became a regular here. He’s far from alone. He sees the same 15 or 20 guys here, almost none are wearing a mask, and maybe two are wearing gloves.

Think prison, he said.

“Basically, it’s a prison workout,” he said. “Sort of prison style. Because of a lack of equipment, you’re making up a work-out, you’re creating a routine out of what’s here.” He picked his phone from his backpack, checked it then dove back into his exercises.

A guy passed in head-to-toe Under Armour, mirrored wraparound sunglasses, a bike chain around his neck, a headband that scrunched blonde hair into a Guy Fieri sunrise. He headed for the Assistant Step Trainer, which was near the Assistant Balance Walk, which was found a few steps from the Assistant Step Around. This space is beside a jogging path, close to street traffic, as if it were a Park District window display for fitness. It’s rectangular and compact and set on wood chips — a German minimalist theme park.

But the routine is the thing, not the equipment.

Without routine, a day feels wrong.

You don’t have to do squat thrusts to relate. The exercising regulars of Grove 13 arrive on bikes and plop their backpacks in the grass. They queue music on AirPods, they lunge at the bars and pull, they step and step and step, twist their torsos, drop their bodies like sacks of flour and rise, then drop and rise. Then they pace the perimeter of the workout space like they’re at a house party and they don’t know anyone. They seem nice; they have the diversity and quiet good manners of a superhero team. Still, you imagine them noticing you, shaped like a rotting pear, and wincing inwardly, spiritually.

Julian Roldan rolled up on his bike, leaned it in the grass and strapped gravity boots around his ankles. He wore a sweatshirt, a White Sox cap and loose red camouflage pants. Music pounded from a speaker strapped to his backpack. He pulled himself up on a bar, inverted his body and hung like a bat, then did several pull ups, upside down.

Reader, children gasped.

Joggers braked.

Bikers slowed.

Roldan, however, didn’t seemed to notice. He lifted himself down and paced the area for a minute then reset for another set of lifts. He began coming here in April because he missed the routine of a gym. “It’s just not as motivating to work out at home. I was definitely a gym rat before this pandemic. Being from Chicago, the weather won’t last for long, but I’ll see how it goes. It’s my first experience with exercising like this, outside of a gym. And frankly, it’s made me reconsider when I even want to go back inside a gym.”

Health and fitness centers — of which there were 41,000 in this country, as of January, according the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association — were never well suited for a pandemic-fearful nation. You have to touch everything. If you’re doing it right, you’re sweating and breathing heavy and exhaling like a buffalo. Never mind that you’re likely working out beside young people and God knows where they’ve been lately. So, since spring, Peloton bike sales are soaring, the market for at-home exercise gear is booming. Bike shops are killing it. Also, supposedly, there’s a dumbbell shortage.

And if you’re not improvising indoors, you’re exercising in parks, running in the streets.

The fitness area of Grove 13, though, is something else.

Again, like playgrounds and other public fitness areas in the city, it’s closed. Commercial gyms reopened weeks ago at reduced capacity, with social-distancing measures. Yet this outdoor space in Lincoln Park is both closed and busy. Which makes it part of another national trend: the speakeasy gym, the underground spot operating outside guidelines. This being Chicago, a city proud of its fabled history of flouting prohibitions, here is a speakeasy gym proudly above ground, in broad daylight, built by the city itself.

The city, understandably, sounds frustrated.

According to a Park District statement: “Securing this facility has been an ongoing challenge as the public consistently disregards and removes tape and signage installed to discourage access.” They ask that, for the sake of its own safety, the public listens.

Sure thing, Park District.

When plastic fencing went up around the space, fences were trampled; when tape was wrapped around, tape was tugged away; when signs went posted, signs were removed. Steve Waichler, who has been coming to this fitness area since it opened in 2017, said, “the freedom types, the ones who don’t want to be told they can’t do something,” they moved into the workout space in the early days of the lockdown and decided to stay.

Thirty-two years ago he was struck on his bike by a car, and he’s been coming to Lincoln Park to recuperate ever since. He was a gymnast; now in his 60s, he’s lean and muscular. He hung from rings and fell forward, his body becoming a dangling C-shape.

He stood up.

“For a long time, nobody was coming here, nobody but me really, then the shutdown happened and the place started flooding, with personal trainers, with the gym people.”

Indeed, the Park District confirmed what many regulars here already know: A few of the neighbors are not their biggest fans. The city has received complaints about people removing the fencing and police tape. “People are on edge,” Waichler said. He’s heard passersby complain about a lack of mask-wearing and social-distancing protocol. He’s heard people call out, “You’re all going to get COVID and die.” Others using the space say they’ve heard worse. Daniel Kim, who began using the space after the Lincoln Park Athletic Club closed temporarily, said he needed “something to maintain physical and mental health.” He comes five times a week; he doesn’t want to exercise in a gym right now. He’s also heard “strong arguments” from joggers and dog walkers concerned that some of the men using the fitness space are coming in “from outside neighborhoods.”

He casts a knowing smile and returns to his workout.

For the record, said Ellen Isaacson, director of the Lincoln Park Advisory Council, the park is “no one’s private club.” Across the street from the fitness space, a group of neighbors sat in an apartment courtyard. They don’t love the lack of masks (they wore masks as they spoke). They don’t love the congestion that the space adds to the park. They don’t love the kettlebells left behind by regulars, chained to nearby park benches.

“But the exercise guys are better than the bike people,” said Gery Weichman.

“Oh, they’re the worst,” said Rachel Keiser.

“No, these electric things, these scooters riders we got now, they’re worse,” he said.

“Right, I mean, show some courtesy,” Keiser said, agreeing. “I saw someone jumping rope right in the middle of the sidewalk here. In the middle of the sidewalk. It’s like we got our own little Venice Beach down here now in Lakeview — except no, not really.”

Some of the regulars don’t want to be here.

They miss their old gyms. They miss the clank of metal and smell of chlorine. Besides, Zoom exercise classes suck and moving the couch out of the way to get in a workout was never going to last. So, for the time being, it’ll be plastic Dr. Pepper crates for steps and milk jugs full of concrete for dumbbells. Brett Heimann, who lives nearby and works for the State Department, began researching home equipment on eBay; now he plans to come here all year, even into the winter.

Steve Waichler, shirtless, his white curls of chest hair spotted with sweat, grabbed the rings and dangled. The people he talks to here aren’t ready to go back inside just yet, regardless of weather.

But this fitness area is closed. Technically, anyway.

He laughed. “Closed? It is? So are the beaches and there’s people on them, too. People will find a way around things. Now excuse me, I got to get back to this — don’t want to lose my routine here.”

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