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Bikes Deliver as Vehicle for Community Development

Chicago teenagers Jean Carlos Diaz of Humboldt Park and Shirmyia Ward of Washington Park might not seem to have much in common.

Shirmyia Ward, 16, is pumped about Bronzeville Bikes.

 John McCarron

He’s a newly-minted graduate of Roberto Clemente Community Academy on the North Side with plans to study automotive science at Harold Washington City College.

She’s a junior at John Hope College Prep on the South Side with dreams of studying psychology and mental health at Clark Atlanta University.

But here’s the connection – both are working with bicycles this summer. And both credit their two-wheeled training with keeping them focused on career goals and healthy habits.

Diaz says belonging to West Town Bike Club while growing up kept him “off the street” and in school. It also gave him the skills and confidence to land a job at the Ciclo Urbano bike shop on Division Street … and to think long-term about a career in mechanics.

Confidence? Ward said she still can see the look of amazement on her little brother’s face when, using skills learned this summer, she replaced a flat tire – the rear tire, no less – on his mountain bike. “He didn’t trust me when I took it apart. Now he does.”

Oh, and one more thing the two teenagers share: The local bicycle programs that produced their sense of mastery are both supported by LISC Chicago.

West Town Bikes grew out of a program called BickerBikes launched in 2004 by the Bickerdike Revevelopment Corporation (BRC) with funding from LISC’s New Communities Program. Bronzeville Bikes, a project of the Bronzeville Bicycle Collaborative, launched more recently with marketing support from the Quad Communities Development Corp. (QCDC), a LISC partner on the mid-South Side.

The Divvy gap

And this is just the beginning. More bicycle riding-and-repair programs are forming, several with help from LISC Chicago and its local partners, in working class neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, Englewood and Little Village. So while many view cycling as a yuppie thing – a stylish lakefront pastime featuring Italian racing machines and Tour de France bib shorts – a different, more pragmatic bike culture is emerging in the city’s neighborhoods.

Four members of the Major Taylor Cycling Club on a lakefront ride.

John McCarron

Cycling also is gaining fresh attention now that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed to make Chicago the nation’s most bike-friendly city … and now that the city has rolled out an ambitious bike rental program, called Divvy Bikes.

Indeed, it was the much-anticipated rollout of Divvy earlier this summer that got a lot of people thinking about who was going to patronize the $7-a-day rentals and where they would be riding. Journalists who plotted locations of the first 70 Divvy docking stations noted the vast majority are located downtown or in predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods on the North Side. A follow-up by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, which focused on the one lone bike shop serving a large swath of the South Side, led off with an evocative: “There are no bike lanes here.”

City Hall promises that full rollout of all 400 docking stations in the months ahead will bring the single-speed Divvys to such neighborhoods. But it well may be that the rent-a-bike format, with its use of credit cards and its subscription-or-hourly format, will always appeal more to train commuters and tourists.


The LISC-supported programs are more about bicycle ownership, maintenance, safe operation, and ultimately, gainful employment.

“There are clear health benefits to cycling,” said Dominique Williams, LISC Chicago’s program officer leading health-related efforts. “As Chicago becomes a more bike-friendly city, it's important for residents in the communities we serve – and where health disparities are pronounced – to have the opportunity to be a part of this.”

Eboni Hawkins of Red, Bike & Green works to build a sustainable bike culture among African-Americans and advocates for community-building through cycling.

John McCarron

Williams and others are quick to add, however, that biking is more than a get-up-and-go alternative to the sedentary, drive-everywhere lifestyle at the root of the nation’s health issues. For teenagers especially, learning how to ride and maintain a bicycle as part of a goal-oriented group can be a crucial early step toward success as an adult.

“The first impact is freedom – freedom to go anywhere in the city for a lot of kids who otherwise wouldn’t leave their own block,” said Bernard Loyd, who helped start Bronzeville Bikes as an adjunct to the neighborhood’s community garden at 51st Street and Calumet Avenue.

“The second thing is a set of basic skills they can actually use,” Loyd said. “The third is employment. For a lot of reasons bikes are going to be a bigger part of the city’s economy – as personal transportation, as cartage, as recreation, as exercise. So there are going to be opportunities, but we’re still at 1 percent of where we ought to be.

“We don’t yet have the facilities, the bike shops, the bike lanes,” he said. “So it’s a bit of a chicken and egg issue.”

But Bronzeville is getting there.

Help is coming from many directions, such as the group of students from the Illinois Institute of Technology who built the tool shed that stands in a corner of the community garden, and the three-wheeler that doubles as a mobile bike repair shop.  

“We’re about developing a bike-friendly culture,” said Eboni Hawkins, who is former program manager at Bronzeville Bikes and co-founder of a national alliance of African-American cycling enthusiasts called Red, Bike & Green.

She spoke recently on a panel discussion titled “Play time! Planning for Active, Healthy Communities” sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council and held at the Little Black Pearl youth art studio on 47th Street.

“We’re doing pop-up bike repair clinics; we’ve done earn-a-bike; we’ve led more than 40 Sunday morning neighborhood rides,” Hawkins said of Bronzeville Bikes. But a big challenge is making cycling more exciting for boys. One idea: a BMX obstacle course that would appeal to teens the way acrobatic skate parks energize skate-boarders.

“We’re trying to build a hub,” she said of the Bronzeville Collaborative and its youth bike program. “It’s a hub of culture around food, around community activity such as the garden, around transit. That’s something that’s really exciting.”

Young people also need to see more African-American adults riding bikes, such as those who belong to the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago, which operates out of the Blackstone Bicycle Works in Hyde Park.

Jean Carlos Diaz with West Town Bikes Executive Director Alex Wilson.

John McCarron

West Town a leader

Likely the most advanced use of cycling at a community development tool is West Town Bikes and its affiliated Ciclo Urbano shop at 2459 W. Division St.

“LISC has helped grow our organization at every step,” said Alex Wilson, West Town’s executive director. “It all started as a summer earn-a-bike program – BickerBikes – that Bickerdike Redevelopment put together as part of its New Communities Program.”

As more teens and young adults gravitated to the after-school program, formal classes in bike repair were added with the help of a LISC training grant. Then in 2009 a LISC capacity-building grant and backing from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center enabled them to open a permanent bike shop in affordable space offered by the Division Street Business Development Association.

Now the place is humming, with young mechanics like Diaz and his buddy, Anthony Cruz, doing bench work on bicycle rims and frames, gears and sprockets. One customer – a nascent cycling entrepreneur – was seeking advice on how best to rig a two-seat pedi-cab behind her sturdy work bike.  

“My ambition?” repeated Cruz, waving his spoke-tightening wrench at the shop. “Someday, I want to run this place.”

Anthony Cruz tightens spokes at a Humboldt Park bike shop. Eventually, he wants to run the place.

John McCarron

The bike-job linkage

“In many ways West Town Bikes is a great example of what came out of NCP,” Wilson said. “This was a program that became an organization that became a business that is now creating jobs … It’s a stepping-stone for the kids we’ve trained. And not just in bike mechanics. We’ve placed kids in other programs. Our office manager is off to college this fall to study business administration. And two of our kids are working for the Divvy program, assembling and tuning-up the new bikes.”

“We’ve also got kids who’ve started their own businesses – messengering, food delivery, that sort of thing. If you have a cell phone you can deliver for a restaurant. I’ve got other kids making bike-related jewelry and clothing. This shirt I’ve got on was printed by our kids as a fundraiser.”

“Maybe the most important lesson the kids take away,” said Wilson, “is that your job future depends on your skills, more so than some employer just offering you a job.”

West Town’s next undertaking, he said, will be equipping and training for welding operations. Then the shop can build and market its own three-wheeled delivery carts and pedi-cabs. “We’re already seeing a culture shift toward bikes,” he said, “and there’s great jobs potential in staying ahead of that curve.”

“Besides,” said Wilson, “Everyone benefits when there are more bikers. Every bicycle you see, that’s one less car in front of you.”

West Town, incidentally, is one of LISC Chicago's grantees this summer under the "Get In Chicago" program designed to foster community building and neighborhood safety.

LISC pedaling faster

LISC Chicago couldn’t agree more, according to deputy director Keri Blackwell, who has overseen several other active lifestyle initiatives. In 2008, for instance, LISC and the Active Transportation Alliance, Chicago’s leading bike advocacy group, helped five of its local NCP partners stage a Sunday Parkways walk-jog-ride along the historic boulevards that connect Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Little Village. 

Cyclists at Sunday Parkways, in which sections of Chicago's historic boulevards were closed for cycling and pedestrian use.

Gordon Walek

Other LISC grants have supported the start-up of youth cycling programs in North Lawndale and Little Village; advocacy for installation of bike lanes in interior neighborhoods such as East Garfield Park; and an early feasibility study that is blossoming into creation of the Bloomingdale Trail, aka "The 606.". The latter entails conversion of a derelict elevated railroad right-of-way into a biking and hiking path along the border between the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods.

That trail – a spectacular addition to the city’s bicycle landscape – will more-or-less dead-end in the parking lot behind the McCormick YMCA in south Logan Square. If that sounds like an opportunity for LISC and its local partners, including West Town Bikes, it’s because it surely is.

“Things are in the works,” allowed Alex Wilson. “There’s going to be a lot of synchronicity that goes on. A lot of visioning is taking place.”

So stay tuned on The 606. But understand this: There’s no telling what young people can achieve, with a little support, once they’ve learned how to change that rear tire.

View a 2006 audio slideshow about BickerBikes and a 2008 slideshow about Sunday Parkways.

More information:

Alex Wilson, West Town Bikes 773-772-6523

Angela Fird, Bronzeville Bikes 312-656-9154

Dominique Williams, LISC Chicago 312-422-9571

Posted in Health, Placemaking, Humboldt Park, Quad Communities


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