Working Bikes / Blackstone Bikes

I needed a new bike for the spring.  'Ol Blue was in rough shape after the winter.  The front chainring got bent; the rear wheel was bent; the frame was showing a lot of rust; and the gears stopped working.  The old-school caliper brakes were rough in any kind of wet, even just riding through a puddle.  But, mostly, I was tired of the weight.  It was so heavy.  People zipped past me on modern road bikes, smooth as you please.  One-speeds, fixies, all the snobby hipsters -- everyone was passing me like I was standing still.

Now, some of this had to do with my backpack -- drill, driver, batteries, block plane, square, tape measure, lunch, water bottle, lock.  But, I was getting stronger, and better at navigating traffic all winter, and I felt like the bike was holding me back.  

The new ride.  I've since added a rear rack and a tool bag.  The bicycling carpenter.

So I upgraded for spring.  I ended up with a 1987 Schwinn World Traveler, snappy in black with gold and pink accents.  It has new straight-across handlebars, new brakes, new tires, tuned-up wheels, and restored original derailleur.  The12 gears and shifter are SunTour, a solid, sought-after component group.  I added the bar ends and zip-tied flashlights for nighttime visibility.  The difference is amazing -- I felt like I used to be pedaling through mud, constantly uphill, wheels rubbing the brake and chain wobbling off the gears.  But the real story has less to do with the bike itself and more to do with where I got it.  

Page from 1987 Schwinn catalog.  My bike, same color scheme, is in the upper left corner.  Image courtesy of  bikecatalogs.org.

A few Saturdays ago, the lady and I headed off in search of a new bike, beginning, in a bit of unintended irony, with an epic fill-up at the gas station.  Due to my west coast trip, and good weather, I hadn't filled up my car since just after Christmas.  A blessing, I suppose, in the abstract, but there was a healthy dose of immediate pain as my small tank drank upwards of fifty bucks.  


We started at Blackstone Bikes, a small, non-profit under the umbrella of the Experimental Station, in Hyde Park.  Experimental Station was formally founded in 2002 by Dan Peterman and Connie Spreen, but was seeded much earlier, in the nineties, as Peterman used his property on Blackstone Avenue to host events and exhibitions.  After a fire in 2001, Peterman and Spreen took the opportunity to redevelop the now-gutted building, using a variety of recycled materials and sustainable techniques.  

Panorama of the Blackstone Bike yard, replete with shipping containers full of parts and bikes for sale on the rack.

Inside the old industrial space, tree trunks were used as structural columns; wine bottles were gridded into windows; and reclaimed wood was used thoughout.  The building fell very much into the slightly post-apocalyptic, salvage-heavy aesthetic of the Rural Studio, Butch Anthony, the Dorchester Projects, and Arcosanti.  Peterman's art, and history of salvaging, apparently goes back at least a decade.

Inside the shop, with recycled bottle windows and tree-trunk columns.

I had heard of Blackstone Bikes at the ReBuild Foundation, where I work, as we had sourced some old bike wheels there for a project.  The lady and I were met at the gate by a friendly set of folks working on bikes in the courtyard.  Blackstone is an educational program, teaching youth to become bike mechanics while dispensing life skills and business literacy advice along the way.  Each young person moves through a system of colored aprons, worn like badges, as they gain new skills.  They refurbish old and abandoned bikes, donated from the police, condo associations, building managers, and thrift stores.  Once fixed up, they retail for $90-$300, and the money is poured back into the program.  

The apprenticeship system.  Photo by Amanda Buck.

Due to our unusually temperate spring, there was hardly anything left in stock by the time we got down there in early afternoon.  Folks have been snatching up bikes like crazy at the first hint of warm weather.  We availed ourselves of a smoothie at the natural foods cafe next door, then headed out.

Antique crank arm as decoration in the bathroom.

Our next stop was Working Bikes, another non-profit, located on Western Avenue along a strip of auto dealerships, tire stores, oil-change shops, and car washes.  I don't know if they inserted themselves into the heart of Chicago's car district on purpose, but I like it.  They are a bigger operation, operating as a co-op, fueled by volunteers and used bikes.  Nearly half their floor space is behind the counter, filled with rack upon rack of old donated bikes.  The front has a wide selection of refurbished rides, divided into sections: road bikes, mountain bikes, cruisers, and kids.  Huge bins of parts line the edges of the showroom floor, available on an a la carte pricing basis.  

The showroom floor.  Photo by Amanda Buck.
Why did ever we part?  Photo by Amanda Buck.  

Working Bikes main non-profit mission is to distribute bikes to low-income Chicagoans and third-world residents in Africa, South America, and the Gulf Coast.  Old bikes here, with some refurbishment, can be given new life as engines of economic progress in the developing world.  Each year, they give away roughly 5,000 bikes.  

Burned silkscreen of their logo hanging in the window.  Photo by Amanda Buck.

Unfortunately, that Saturday, also due to the warm weather and the lateness of the hour, nothing much was available.  However, I trekked back down there the following Wednesday, riding down through some punishing crosswinds.  I found my new bike pretty quick, put down my license and took a test ride, bought it, and then they took my old bike as a donation right away.  I got a receipt for a tax write-off and faced an eight-mile ride home, into the wind the whole way.  

Back in Greensboro, Alabama, my home for the previous two years, H.E.R.O. and Project M tried a similar project, launching BikeLab in 2010.  While the concept was solid, donated bikes poured in, and kids flocked to the workshops, it failed to take off.  Mostly, it was hampered by a lack of bike culture in the town.  It is hot in Alabama; in a rural area, the distances between things are vast; there is no public transport; and there is no bike lane or even shoulder on many of the roads.  Roaring logging trucks and swerving SUVs left little space for sweating bikers.  It was a possible solution to deeper, systemic problems in the ecosystem of sustainable transportation in Alabama, but, as with the Rural Studio and other community-development projects, it will take years of ground-level commitment to build that change.  

I love the idea of re-using old bikes -- hell, of re-using anything -- and fixing them up through non-profit models.  A new bike store in Chicago, Comrade Cycles, is trying out the co-op model in a for-profit environment, and I hope they succeed.  At the end of the day, biking is just one strategy, one good part of a wide universe of getting from one place to another. Ride on.  

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