Last Thursday evening in a tidy storefront at the bustling, multicultural intersection of Lawrence and Kedzie in Albany Park, ten teenagers were hard at work wrenching on bikes as pop-punk played through someone’s laptop. One boy scrubbed the headset of a green BMX with a wire brush. Nearby a girl was installing a derailleur cable on a white mountain bike. Another boy in a striped knit cap was installing a crank on a navy-blue road cycle. There was an atmosphere of intense, professional concentration, broken up occasionally by exchanges of repair tips and good-natured ribbing.
Instructor Oscar Antonio Rivera Jr., 24, kept a watchful eye on the teens, participants in the youth employment program of Bikes N’ Roses, a community bicycle program that’s a project of the Albany Park Neighborhoods Council, headquartered upstairs. Although the shop is named after a notorious hard rock band, Rivera is a friendly, mild-mannered guy who patiently helps his apprentices work their way through mechanical problems while they provide free mechanic services to community members.
Although he’s only paid to be there five days a week, Rivera also mans the shop on weekends in order to collect as many cycles as possible from residents, so that his students have plenty of work to do, and to raise awareness of the program. The stated mission of Bikes N’ Roses is “to create a happier, healthier community by promoting the use of bikes instead of cars. We believe biking is good for your health, your wallet, and the environment, and that biking can be a primary means of transportation. Bikes N’ Roses is dedicated to teaching people how biking can benefit them and the whole community.”
Fifteen young people from low-income families, ages 16 to 21, are taking part in the summer-long apprenticeship program, funded by the state of Illinois’ Summer Youth Employment program. The kids started out with a two-week mechanic course, alternating lectures and hands-on work. “There are also kids participating in the program that have just been sitting in, not getting paid,” Rivera said. “They just want to be here that bad, which is kind of fun.”
The employees are currently paid $9 an hour, 20 hours a week for their work helping to keep other Albany Park residents rolling. Rivera wants to continue offering the mechanics classes several times throughout the summer, with kids who have completed the course instructing their peers. Other Bikes N’ Roses activities include community rides and pop-up repair stations at neighborhood events, and Rivera hopes to offer adult mechanics clinics this fall, as well as classes in Spanish.
This Saturday, August 3, from noon to 6 p.m., the shop, located at 4749 North Kedzie, hosts its grand opening celebration, featuring a BMX stunt show, a screening of the bike messenger flick “Premium Rush,” and a performance by Rivera’s band Tarnation Boys. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged to help make Bikes N’ Roses a sustainable endeavor. During the event, the students will receive certificates of completion in recognition of their training.
This is the first year Rivera, who grew up nearby and worked at the for-profit shop the Cycle Smithy in Lincoln Park for several years, has led the youth program. However, his assistant Jose Briceno, a few years younger, helped found Bikes N’ Roses last year with other teens who hung out at the neighborhood council’s space. APNC director Raul Botello found the boys grant money to purchase supplies, and they began fixing cycles for free for community members.
This year Rivera helped them acquire a truing stand, three work stands, a table and a tent for the Bikes N’ Roses bicycle clinic on June 22. “We flipped like 50 bikes that day, and we documented that,” he said. “And they did such a good job – I was really proud of them. It was an amazing day.”
That was supposed to be the end of Bikes N’ Roses. “But I got super-attached to the kids and they wanted to do more stuff,” Rivera said. “Raul said to me, ‘If I got you a grant, what would you do this summer?’ And four hours later I came up with this curriculum idea, a very rough draft.” But from watching the teens hard at work in the well-organized shop, you’d never guess that this is largely an ad-hoc program.
The young participants seem more than happy with the shop environment and the job experience they’re gaining, as well as the chance to earn money while helping out their neighbors. “Everyone’s really friendly, including Oscar,” said Gerardo Maldonado, 16. “I’ve learned a lot of things and if I ever need help I always can count on everyone else, and my boss especially.” He hopes to open a bike store of his own one day.
“It’s a good thing to know about bike mechanics, like how to take a bike apart and how to fix it, and it looks great on my resume,” said Javier Escobedo, 16. “If I’m trying to get a job at a bike shop, this could support me a bit.”
“I love this job,” Escobedo added. “Every time I wake up, I’m like, ‘Sweet, I’m going to work.’ It’s not like, ‘Oh man, I have to go to work.’ It’s a positive thing.” He also likes the reaction he gets when he hands a repaired cycle back to a customer. “They’re like, ‘Sweet, you fixed it.’ Because they come in sometimes with bikes that are pretty messed up. We try our best to make them like brand new.”