An Experimental Station
Aaron Davis is 19 and building bikes to build his future. Should you be cycling through or near the south side of Chicago and happen to need help fixing a flat, repairing a chain or more generally overhauling and rebuilding your bike in any way, Aaron is your man. He’s a mechanic at Blackstone Bicycle Works as well as a bike messenger, delivering packages all over the city in all sorts of weather, and for fun, he races on weekends.
He wasn’t into bikes or cycling growing up, he tells me. His first love was skateboarding. Sponsored at 12, I say, “Wow, you must be pretty good!” He says, “Yeah…I mean, thank you.”
When the skateboard shop that had been sponsoring him closed, his 14-year-old-self went looking for something else to do to stay off the streets and out of trouble. That’s when he found Blackstone and met the guys who would end up mentoring him through the hard years of high school—teaching him the mechanics of life and bicycles simultaneously. Nestled next to the Metra tracks, between the 59th and 63rd Street stops, the workshop is a fixture in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
READ / Woodlawn was named '2016 Neighborhood of the Year' by Curbed Chicago, in part because Obama's Presidential Library is going in next door in Jackson Park where Tiger Woods is renovating a golf course as well.
The building itself was a parking garage in the 50’s until Ken Dunn transformed it into the city’s first recycling center in the 60’s and 70’s. As such, it attracted the attention of the young Dan Peterman, then a University of Chicago MFA grad student, just a few years before his sculpture work using recycled plastic and post-consumer waste received enormous attention and global acclaim (the 100 ft. running table at Millenium Park (1990), one such example).
Having amassed a pile of abused and discarded bicycles, Ken and Dan had the idea to engage young people and unemployed adults in the neighborhood to rehabilitate the bikes as both craft and commerce. Thus, in 1994, the first grant application was written and the bike workshop casually began.
The building’s name, Experimental Station, was adopted in 2002, inspired by a speech Chicago-based architect Frank Lloyd Wright gave a hundred years earlier.
Since then, executive director Connie Spreen has imagined, launched, and anchored innumerable independent art projects, cultural events, small businesses, community initiatives, and educational endeavors here. At the core of Experimental Station, however, is Blackstone Bicycle Works—a 23-year-old experiment through which about 175 youth—like Aaron—learn the art and business of bicycle mechanics each year.
But if, out of twenty determined students, a ray of light should come to one, to light up a single operation, it would have been worthwhile.Frank Lloyd Wright
Getting Around + Through
“For me, when I first started coming here, Blackstone was like a second home,” reflects Aaron. “Now I come to help the kids, to show them how it’s done. I couldn’t imagine if it hadn’t been here. I wouldn’t know anything about mechanics, I know that. Being here at Blackstone definitely made building bikes a fun hobby for me—and I think that’s true for most of the other kids that come in too.”
No doubt the early impetus for teaching bicycle mechanics was the fact that there were hundreds of bikes lying around—heroically saved from the landfill yet wasting space as a cluttered, clunky mess. Beyond solving that problem, however, in the 23 years the shop has been running (minus a couple for the building fire in ‘01), the significance of bicycle mechanics as empowerment and economic opportunity has crystallized.
For kids in all kinds of contexts, let’s consider that the bicycle is essentially a first car—a first mode of independent transportation. In my own case, from third grade on, my little blue Huffy got me to and from school, sports practice, and friends’ houses. And it was a hunter green mountain bike that got me to babysitting and waitressing jobs through high school and to class in college. In simplest terms, my bicycle meant freedom and opportunity. I can only imagine how much more it means to the girl who builds her own bike.
My biking youth was spent in the suburbs of Cleveland and Chicago—a very different reality than that of Woodlawn and other South Side neighborhoods. Here, while many kids might learn to ride really young, as teens they’re more likely to be pulled over and questioned when seen riding a nice bike through the neighborhood than assumed to have built it or bought it.
“That’s why I love having 25 of our youth bike down the street in an orderly manner, with our youth acting as ride marshals, blocking traffic, communicating with other drivers, to get them to the swimming pool every week during the summer,” says assistant director, Matthew Searle. “We take them to the beach or for rides around the area. It’s sort of a form of advocacy, to say, ‘This is normal. Young people should be on the street, on bikes, and they should be able to have nice bikes.’”
Teaching rules of the road is another important aspect here as well, and nothing demonstrates the learning and teaching that happens on this front better than this 3-minute gem:
The Apron System of Empowerment
Empowerment begins day one at the shop. Kids ages 8-18 are welcomed into the family and immediately put on the apron training track. Everyone starts with a grey apron and sets out to master eight skills (four business, four mechanical) in order to earn their green apron.
“First thing kids do is go to the kitchen for a snack and we just talk about their day, see what’s goin on, just check up on them. And then they work on their homework. When that’s done, they have a choice to go outside and play basketball, or do production work (bike mechanics), or they can give new kids a tour of the shop. When you first start off in the program you get an ID number and a skills sheet. You clock in and clock out and keep track of hours with your skills sheet,” Aaron explains.
Matthew works mostly with the beginners he tells me: “I think it’s a privilege. I’m setting them up for the rest of their experience. Orienting them to the shop and the expectations. And then teaching these really basic skills which they will use forever, with us or otherwise. The beginning mechanical skills are things like doing a safety check on a bike, cleaning and oiling the chain, filling a tire with air or fixing a flat.”
To move ahead to a red apron, youth will need to learn 25 skills, proving they can replace and adjust brake pads, replace cable and housing, toe-in pads, take the wheels on and off, adjust and overhaul a hub and a headset, test tension on a single speed chain and overhaul a one-piece crank, give a tour, answer the phone, and clean tools and the workspace.
The next rank is the purple apron, requiring 40 skills (mostly referring to components I’ve never heard of, like cantilevers, pulls, cassettes, and derailleurs) as well as more professional participation in marketing and customer service, like planning an event or ride and assessing a bike for repair. Earning a purple apron also marks the point where youth can apply for paid internships and externships—which is how Aaron was first introduced to Kozy’s Cyclery, where he is now on staff.
And finally there’s the black apron, requiring 75 skills (55 mechanical, 20 teaching) and the ability to build a bike from the frame up. “It’s kind of an equalizer—we’ve had a ten-year-old get a black apron. They came in at eight-years-old and hustled. Within two years they had earned a black apron,” says Matthew.
No matter their apron status, after 25 hours working in the shop, kids have earned (and get to choose!) a bike from the refurbished collection, along with a helmet and a lock.
“It’s empowering, to have your own vehicle that you can take care of. It’s empowering to have a transferable skill, whether that is going to lead into, you know, something like auto mechanics or an interest in science, or it just means that you’re riding along the beach and you can fix your own bike or someone else’s bike,” explains Matthew.
When I built my first bike, it was the best feeling I ever felt in my life. And I’m pretty sure a lot of the kids have the same feeling as well.Aaron DavisApprentice MechanicBlackstone
As evidenced in Aaron’s story, mechanic skills provide real employment opportunities, while also creating a revenue stream for the workshop itself. In fact, about a third of the program is supported by the sales of bikes and repairs.
Walking into the shop you’re greeted by a young boy: Welcome, smile, handshake, shop introduction and ‘how may I help you?’ You watch as he mounts your bike and begins diagnostics…oh, and while you’re here, “Can I tell you about our program?” He looks 12, but how can that be?
30% of youth have been at Blackstone three years or longer.
It really is impressive: These young boys and girls take ownership and real responsibility, developing skills both hard and soft. “I think it’s kind of a cool thing that happens when you walk into the bike shop and you’re confronted with young people who are empowered, who are knowledgeable, who are maybe more knowledgeable than you are about your own bike, who are trusted with tools, who are trusted with helping customers,” reflects Matthew.
“We get donations of bikes, we fix them up for sale to support the program or we strip them down to individual parts to use on bikes that we are fixing for customers, building up for sale, or bikes that youth earn in our program. We’re a place where you can buy one used brake lever for two dollars. In every way, we are a community bike shop,” says Matthew.
Once rebuilt, the bikes are priced according to labor and parts, but generally fall between $95 - $400. “We try to keep everything affordable,” says Aaron. “It’s a great feeling seeing a customer out riding a bike that I built. I just greet them with the biggest smile in the world.”
If we can produce great mechanics and put them in shops all over or make it possible for them to move to a new town and get a job, that is a very interesting role to play.Matthew SearleAssistant DirectorExperimental Station
Off To The Races
What I’ve not told you yet is that Aaron and the entire Blackstone racing team took first place at the cycle cross state championships in 2017! What’s cycle cross, you ask? Think all-terrain bicycle racing with obstacles and lots of mud.
“Our youth are out racing in the suburbs with people from all over the Chicago area. They stick out like a sore thumb. We’re often the largest group of minorities that participate, from my understanding,” says Matthew. “What’s happening in this little space, in a neighborhood, has much bigger implications. It ultimately is about creating opportunities for these youth, but I think it also is a form of advocacy. Young people from the South Side of Chicago should have a place in the broader cycling community.”
Through sponsorships and team support, Blackstone makes it possible for their youth to participate in a sport that many wouldn’t have the resources to pursue individually.
Racing is a great motivator as well: Team members need to be at least 10-years-old, a purple or black apron and ‘in good standing’, which Blackstone defines as having good grades (A/B/Cs) and no disciplinary problems at school, home, or in the shop.
It's easy to see in both the young kids in apron training and the older alumni now on staff that Blackstone is building futures, one-on-one and bike-by-bike.
"But, we struggle a little bit because we take a holistic approach, and that is not in vogue," confesses Matthew. "We are not specifically an anti-violence program, a STEM program, a job creation program—we are all of those things, all wrapped into one that’s just called 'Blackstone Bicycle Works'. Youth come, and they have the whole experience. There’s mentorship that happens, and there’s tutoring that happens, and there’s college advising that happens, and there’s a racing team, and it’s all mixed in there."
With no shortage of youth to invest in and bikes to build, I ask Matthew what Blackstone most needs at this point in its journey: “At the end of the day we need money to keep the doors open. And in some cases, you know, other ways of supporting the program through expertise or in-kind donations that have a multiplying effect for the shop.”
He goes on: “We’re trying to do right by the program and the longstanding youth while taking this opportunity to find ways to make the program more effective, more sustainable, make it easier for youth to see how they can have a hand in the systems that it takes to run it. There’s something about this that just fails miserably if youth aren’t a part of shaping it.”
Five years from now? I want to see the kids running Blackstone—like the kids that I taught and the kids that I’m teaching now. I want to see them running the program and taking over everything that they were taught to do.Aaron DavisApprentice MechanicBlackstone
The transformation and empowerment that Blackstone makes possible is obvious upon a simple, single visit. The shop itself reflects community warmth and the youth bring a lively, curious energy that's restorative in its own way—a joy to experience, really.
Experimental Station is truly a fixture in the neighborhood and no one has worked harder than Connie Spreen to ensure it remains so. Having also started the 61st Street Farmers Market and a LINK Up Illinois program to ensure high quality produce is affordable to the neighborhood's low-income residents, the team's holistic approach to building cultural infrastructure is surely a model to learn from.
Our Chicago story team, David Johnson and Brandon Ritter, spent dozens of hours at Blackstone over the past several months and together we would like to extend our profound thanks to the entire Experimental Station staff and family for welcoming us in and allowing us to share about their inspiring work.
I never imagined how empowering the nuts and bolts of bicycle mechanics could be—now I know.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly