What separates Blackstone Bicycle Works (BBW) from Chicago’s other bike shop offerings? Located in Woodlawn just behind the University’s steam plant, this retail establishment was launched with the goal of community service and runs on a self-described “internal non-monetary economy.” While anyone is welcome to purchase a bike or make use of the shop’s services, members and local kids are especially encouraged to participate in this “economy.” Members enjoy exclusive sales on bikes and parts, as well as access to the tools and the help of friendly expert mechanics.
Youth members help repair bikes and finish other odd jobs at the shop and, in doing so, earn their own bicycle—complete with a helmet and lock. The Earn-A-Bike program is designed to teach kids ages nine and up about bicycle maintenance while training them to be good team-oriented, problem-solving employees. Once youth members complete their 25 hours of service, pass a written test, and claim their bike, they are given the option of continuing on to the Mechanics Apprentice Program, in which they take on more responsibility within the shop, learn more job-related skills, and earn more bike parts.
BBW has been providing nonprofit educational services to the Woodlawn community’s youth since 1994. The shop is located in the Experimental Station, a center for progressive cultural and educational projects and resources. This incubator for innovative endeavors was officially established in 2000 but has been informally developing its reputation since the 1990s, when renowned Chicago artist Dan Peterman managed it. Peterman hosted various activities of environmental and social relevance, and the Woodlawn station soon became internationally acknowledged for its cultural initiative. After a devastating fire in April 2001 burned the building to the ground, all activities came to a halt. With the help of donations and government funding, the center was re-opened, given a new name (taken from Frank Lloyd Wright’s “The Art and Craft of the Machine” speech), and boosted with a new passion for cultural innovation.
Today, the Experimental Station not only houses the post-fire, new and improved Blackstone Bicycle Works, but also hosts an array of projects meant to buck the monoculture. Once a month, the Woodlawn Buying Club gathers here to order in bulk from the nation’s largest supplier of organic foods. The station is also home to the Invisible Institute, a small organization of elusive human-rights enthusiasts who devote their efforts to the “invisible” populations through research, writing, and photography. Just outside of the building, visitors come across a community garden, part of the station’s Urban Farm Project. Even the building itself reflects a concern for the environment, comprising a recycled bowling alley with a tree-trunk rafter shooting through the center of the BBW workshop.
Besides benefiting the neighborhood and its youth, Blackstone Bicycle Works is involved in many activities that support Chicago’s biking community. It is a cosponsor of the XXX Racing team, which provides the shop’s members with various city-racing opportunities. Members of all ages and skill levels are invited to join. The shop is also taking on a new youth-oriented mission, this one targeting the community’s older, at-risk teens. Individuals will be instructed in the art of steel brazing in order to create low riders and “frankenbikes.” These welded contraptions and muscle bikes become a source of pride and self-esteem for the teens.
Increased donations and growing financial stability make the future of BBW and the Experimental Station look quite bright. The bike shop plans on opening new locations within the city, including uptown and at Stateway Gardens, a housing project on the South Side. They are also looking into developing a new project to serve the elderly through bicycle-delivered groceries. If business continues to go well, the establishment hopes to be able to offer scholarships to youth members and graduates of the Earn-A-Bike program.
Anyone who is remotely interested in bicycling, volunteer work, or alternative lifestyles should pay a visit to Blackstone Bicycle Works and the Experimental Station. The atmosphere is welcoming, and the friendly, passionate employees are likely to give you a free tour of the space and warmly invite you into their growing, culturally progressive community.
Blackstone Bicycle Works
6100 South Blackstone Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637