On Sundays when the temperature is above freezing, you can hear praiseful singing ringing through the air for several blocks around 87th Street and S. Burley Avenue in South Chicago.
That’s because in the parking lot next to an abandoned velodrome — an outdoor bike racing track — as many as 80 cars full of worshippers from Pilgrim Baptist Church of South Chicago gather. The congregation has been meeting outdoors at the site since May 2020, with only a few months break for the worst of the Chicago winter.
At these services, preachers and singers take turns at the pulpit set up in the open back of a truck, and members of the congregations sit in their cars and honk their horns rather than shout “hallelujah.”
And it all rings out through the neighborhood, the COVID-19 era equivalent of church bells chiming before worship.
An abandoned velodrome
Next to the parking lot church is a banked oval of a 544-foot-long bike track. The South Chicago Velodrome was built in 2011 and shut down five years later. The track is chipped and cracked. Weeds fill much of the infield, and the parking lot around it is broken up and weedy.
This is the second time the site has been abandoned. The bike track was built on a small piece of the old U.S. Steel South Works, a 430-acre scar on the city’s Southeast Side. In its heyday, the giant steel works employed 20,000; it closed for good in 1992.
The mammoth lakefront parcel had sat empty for two decades when, in 2011, developer McCaffery Interests rolled out plans to extend South Lake Shore Drive for two miles through the property and create a vast new neighborhood called Lakeside. As sort of a christening for the site, the developer hosted a three-day music festival featuring the Dave Matthews Band on the property in July 2011.
Also that year, an entrepreneur and bike racer named Emanuele Bianchi led a group that wanted to build a bike-events campus on a small part of the South Works land. The $40-45 million plan once called for an indoor velodrome and other tracks for competitive mountain and BMX biking.
But five years later, all that had been built on the site was the outdoor velodrome, and there was never enough money raised to keep it going. The McCaffery development plan for the larger site also shut down, as did a subsequent one. The velodrome, closed in 2016, sat empty and unused for years.
Then COVID-19 shut down church services, and the Rev. Corwin Lasenby, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church, arranged with the velodrome site’s owners to hold drive-in church services.
The congregation is 104 years old. In the 1980 Blues Brothers movie, the Triple Rock Baptist Church, presided over by James Brown as the Rev. Cleophus James, was modeled after their sanctuary. With that many years in South Chicago, Pilgrim Baptist has outlived many changes in the neighborhood.
“The bike track wasn’t really by or for people from the community,” Lasenby said, adding that he feels “blessed” to use it to allow the church to meet safely.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.