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A wrench in the works: How are Chicago’s nonprofit bike shops coping with COVID headwinds?

A youth program participant at Blackstone Bicycle Works. Photo: David Johnson, D.W. Johnson Photography

One thing that makes Chicago a great city for bicycling is the fact we have five different nonprofit bike shops, spread across town from Woodlawn to Rogers Park. These de-facto community centers teach mechanics, riding, and life skills to underserved youth; outfit local residents with affordable refurbished rides; and/or ship cycles to partner organizations in far-off lands.

But, like all retail operations, these shops have faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic due to health concerns, labor shortages, and supply chain issues. We contacted the leadership of these five nonprofits to ask how they've been dealing with these difficulties.

All of these shops are currently accepting donations to help keep them running smoothly. Go to their websites to see how you can help grease the wheels.

Blackstone Bicycle Works, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., Woodlawn

Founded in 1994 in the Experimental Station green business incubator just south of the University of Chicago, Blackstone is the city's oldest community bike shop. It offers programs for youth eight to eight to 18, including an earn-a-bike program where kids get to keep the cycle they overhaul, a racing team, and homework assistance.

Normally the shop also offers sales and repairs to the public, but that's been on hiatus since April 2021 due to staffing and management issues, according to Experimental Station executive director Connie Spreen. "We decided at the time that it offered a good opportunity to take a step back and evaluate the program and do some strategic planning." On the bright side, as the pandemic has eased, Blackstone returned from remote programming to in-shop instruction. "We really enjoyed having young people back in person again this summer."

Working Bikes, 2434 S. Western Ave., Little Village

Launched in 1999 and located in a large warehouse-style space, Working Bikes has collected and shipped roughly 100,000 bikes around the world to help empower people in developing nations, as well as getting tens of bicycles in the hands of Chicagoans, including many refugees. Its retail store is a great place to shop for a second hand cycle.

According to executive director Trevor Clarke, the nonprofit is on track to redistribute more than 10,000 donated bikes this year, and they've already sent 13 shipping containers of bicycles, tools, parts, and accessories to partners in Africa and Central America. They'll be holding three different Community Mechanic Training seminars – paid five-week basic skills sessions – in late 2022 and early 2023. "We're also looking forward to getting a bunch of children's bikes refurbished for holiday donations, then catching our breath a bit in the frigid season while building up a stock of bicycles for donation and for sale in 2023."

West Town Bikes / Ciclo Urbano, 2456 W. Division St., West Town

Founded in 2004, the West Town Bikes nonprofit and its retail shop Ciclo Urbano are located on the vibrant Paseo Boricua Puerto Rican business strip. West Town offers youth programs, as well as mechanics classes for adults, plus Women, Trans and Nonbinary workshops.

"The pandemic hit West Town Bikes pretty hard," said founder Alex Wilson. They had to switch to offering online youth programs until summer of 2021, when they were able to offer in-person, outdoor or socially-distanced activities. "Returning to in-person activities for youth has been difficult for them in many ways, especially adjusting to being with others again after being isolated for so long." The center also lost many staffers during the shutdown, as well as revenue from adult workshops, but fortunately Paycheck Protection Program funding helped keep the doors open. On the plus side, Ciclo benefitted from the COVID bike boom, although supply chain issues were a challenge.

Wilson says WTB has rebuilt its youth program back to about 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels. "I am most proud that we're still here and have weathered what's hopefully the worst of it."

Bikes N' Roses, 4600 W. Palmer St., Belmont Cragin

Launched in the early 2010s by four young friends who loved bikes and the band Guns N’ Roses, BNR is a project of the racial justice organization Communities United. The shop teaches mechanics and job skills to kids and holds community rides for neighbors, and it normally offers repair services to the public, but those have been on hold since the Stay at Home era began in March 2020.

However, from November to June of 2021 BNR partnered with the Illinois Department of Human Services to provide programming for 15 youth, in addition to city of Chicago-supported After School Matters programming, according to program director Joel Campbell. The shop hopes to expand its programming to Roseland in the near future, and eventually establish bike clubs in all of Communities United’s service areas. "These clubs are a return to BNR’s mission of a youth-led advocacy organization," Campbell said.

The Recyclery, 7628 N. Paulina St., Rogers Park

Started around 2010 in an Evanston basement by members of the Reba Place Fellowship Christian community, The Recyclery is currently located a stone's throw from the Howard 'L' station in Rogers Park. The shop fixes up old bikes for sale and offers youth programs, classes, and open shop nights, with a special focus on helping Rogers Park's refugee community. 

"This year we’ve succeeded in bulking up our weekly program schedule while taking measures to keep our community safe from COVID," said staffer Tzippora Rhodes. In 2022 the shop set a new record for adult earn-a-bike sessions completed, as well as surpassing its previous record for bike donations, and it ran its first series of Mobile Open Shops, meeting residents in their neighborhoods to provide tools and repair know-how. "For 2023 we’ll be pushing our annual Tailwind for Tools open house fundraiser to the spring in order to have it more indoor/outdoor," Rhodes said. "Stay tuned for that!"

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