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Monday, December 6, 2004

Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade in Chicago

Yesterday, Michael and I watched an ingenious and fun urban charity event: the annual Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade. Anyone who wants to ride their motorcycle in the parade can, as long as they bring at least one toy to donate to Toys for Tots. Thousands of bikers meet at the Dan Ryan Woods on 83rd (far south city) and ride along Western all the way up to Foster (far north city).

What I like about the parade as a social and civic action is that it benefits everyone involved (save for a few frustrated motorists and pedestrians who want to cross Western that morning), and it costs very little. The motorcycle riders get to show off their bikes, meet other bikers, and most of all to feel like they're doing something important that will make people happy. Numerous Chicagoans get to watch and enjoy a parade that comes pretty close to where they live no matter where they live (Not everyone is close to the Loop, but the length of Western that the Motorcycle Parade covers cuts through a huge part of the city.). Toys for Tots gets publicity and attention. And, most importantly of all, a lot of disadvantaged kids get toys for the holidays. Besides the money spent by individual bikers to purchase toys and travel to the parade, the only big cost of the event is printing posters to advertise it. It's a pretty low cost and simple event, but it's something that makes a lot of people happy. Social and civic actions like that are very important in cities (and everywhere else), and there ought to be more of them.

And, of course, watching the parade was a lot of fun, too.

The kids and adults from our neigborhood who were watching it seemed to really be having a good time. I especially remember one little girl who stood on a bus stop bench and waved and smiled at all the passing bikers. She kept this going for a very, very long time.

The bikers themselves were having a good time, too. Some were outwardly stoic, while others smiled and waved. A few had even decorated their bikes with tinsel garlands and/or antlers. A fair number of them wore Santa hats with their leather, and there was the occasional full Santa suit. Many mainstream parades have one Santa who is The Official Santa, but it was nice to see a parade where anyone who wanted to could be Santa, and they were all considered equally valid and all received the same smiles from children standing on the curb. The relatively unplanned and unregulated nature of the parade allowed a lot of room for riders' personal creativity to shine through, and I found that much more heartening and fun to watch than more professional, polished parades that I've seen. Michael and I spent quite some time later that afternoon talking about how small, relatively informal parades like that are easy to organize and can make a lot of people in a city or neighborhood happy, and how they have great potential for promoting community interaction. Perhaps cities could treat small-scale, do-it-yourself, neighborhood parades much like they do block parties, with easy-to-obtain permits, so that these events could be fairly regular occurences.

Chicagoland Toys for Tots website (complete with photos from the parade)

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