UPTOWN — "Who's the weird guy on the trike?"
Gene Tenner imagines a lot of folks in Uptown ponder that when they spot him on the road — reclined, wearing gloves, a helmet and a headlight — riding his tricycle, the one with the flags and pink stuffed toy flamingo attached to it so motorists can see him better.
That "weird" guy might be one of Uptown's most active residents. He's a bike activist, CAPS Beat 1915 facilitator, board member for the Buena Park Neighbors and artist.
He's also communications director at the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters and a former candidate for state representative. His son Sean Tenner is an accomplished political consultant who has worked on campaigns for Democrats such as President Barack Obama, Attorney General Lisa Madigan — and Uptown's very own Ald. James Cappleman (46th).
Gene Tenner lived in Naperville for about 30 years before moving to Uptown five years ago to be closer to a son studying at DePaul University. He said he wishes he had made the move "30 years ago."
"I ride down the street and wave to people, and I never did that" in Naperville, Tenner said. "Yeah, you see neighbors and say: 'Hi Bob, hi Mary,' but you don't know 'em."
The Oak Park native studied art and economics as an undergrad at Blackburn College and studied printmaking as a grad student at Northern Illinois University.
He is a bald, clean-shaven man about 6-foot-4 with an unhurried, precise but affable way of speaking. His one-bedroom condo, its walls lined with his prints and watercolor paintings, bears a slight scent of cigarette smoke. You would think "that somebody who rides a bike six days a week would not be a smoker," he admitted while sitting in his living room — which also includes a life-sized cardboard cutout of Hilary Clinton with an "Obama '08" bumper sticker adhered to it.
Tenner doesn't own a car and said he has been riding a trike for eight years. He said he first bought one so "I don't fall over when I hit ice" in the winter, but also because his scoliosis (a curvature of the spine) makes two-wheel bike riding tougher on his body.
As a member of the cycling avocacy group Bike Uptown, Tenner has been able to work on initiatives aimed at making the neighborhood safer for everybody using Uptown's streets, whether they're traveling on a trike, bike, in a car or on foot.
One of those initiatives is the SherMon Plaza project, which 46th Ward residents voted for during the participatory budgeting process. The project includes using paint, restriping, bollards, planters, barriers and fencing to close Sheridan from Broadway to Montrose for the creation of new pedestrian space and future mini-park.
Neighbors have complained that the three-way intersection is confusing for motorists, and dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Tenner said the project makes the intersection safer.
"You can just stand there for an hour and see problems develop," Tenner said.
The SherMon Plaza project, scheduled to kick off by spring, was helped at the polls by robocalls to area residents seeking their support. Tenner got help orchestrating the calls from his political consultant son Sean, political director of the 46th Ward Democrats.
Gene Tenner, no stranger to political tactics, ran against the late Mary Lou Cowlishow for the 41st District seat in the Illinois House in 2000 and finished with 30 percent of the vote. He went on to work as communications director for the Democratic Party of DuPage County, and also worked on the Gery Chico campaign for Senate in 2004, the year "everybody got crushed by Obama."
In Uptown, Tenner said he believes he has "a set of skills," that can be put to use bettering the community, which he said is "on the rise," despite some of its issues with crime and poverty.
"Uptown is on its way up, and I feel like I can be a part of that," he said.