Blackstone Bicycle Works is a community bike shop and youth education program of the Experimental Station. The mission of Blackstone is to provide educational and vocational opportunities to youth from some of Chicago's most underserved neighborhoods. Blackstone is structured as a retail, full-service bike shop that offers an "earn and learn," hands-on bicycle mechanics curriculum to its participants. Our year-round program teaches participating youths on-the-job training in mechanics and repair, customer service and management, and peer-education. Participation in our program is voluntary, free of charge, and open to any child, age 8 to 18.
Blackstone operates on an apron system. Kids earn colored aprons indicating five achievement levels—gray, green, red, purple, and black. These aprons function much like the colored belts in martial arts, with black signifying mastery. Those kids who have achieved purple and black aprons are selected for promotions, such as paid internships and paid externship positions.
Approximately 175 youths work at Blackstone Bicycle Works each year, with over one third of our participants having been in the program for three to seven years. Our youth education and mentoring programs have deepened over time and now include an on-site study lab and homework area, a college and career prep track, externships at bicycle industry and advocacy-related businesses, and paid summer internships for select youth. Blackstone Bicycle Works is also a summer meals site. There is even a Blackstone Youth Racing Club, and our competitors show both serious hustle and good sportsmanship at cyclo-cross races across the Chicagoland area.
Youths and their guardians must complete the registration forms before participating. Stop by the shop or send us an email for more information about youth participation.
Blackstone Bicycle Works opened on Chicago's South Side in 1994 as a project of the Resource Center, the city's oldest and largest non-profit recycler, Dan Peterman, and Andy Gregg. The shop grew out of a need to utilize the abundance of bikes encountered in the waste stream and a desire to explore avenues of alternative education in the local community.
Growing rapidly in the second half of the decade, Blackstone opened its doors to as many as 40 youth program participants each year. Outside of Woodlawn, the program participated in regional racing events, organized floats in the Bud Billiken Parade, and helped with the University's Earth Day festivities. With low overhead in the old 6100 S. Blackstone building, the shop prospered on a shoestring budget ($43,000 in 1997, roughly 20% of the operating expense of today).
On April 25, 2001, a fire broke out at 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. injuring none but causing irreparable damage to the shop space itself. The building was subsequently gutted, leaving just the masonry outside wall, and the structure was rebuilt from the inside out. Upon completion, this would become the Experimental Station.
In the meantime, Blackstone operated out of trailer provided by the Resource Center and on property generously loaned by the University of Chicago. The operation continued to fix bikes and provide educational opportunities for local kids, until its new home was finally completed almost five years later.
In 2006, Blackstone moved back to 6100 S. Blackstone and into a new building with more space for storage and activity. The youth program and shop was adopted by the board of the Experimental Station, remaining in partnership with the Resource Center. By the summer of the following year, Blackstone had almost returned to its former number of youth participants.
Blackstone Bicycle Works relaunched in 2006 largely due to the generous contributions of a handful of charitable foundations. That money helped to build out our operations and hire teaching staff, as well as establish the storefront used today. We never would have gotten this far without their help.
Nevertheless, we feel the best way to instill entrepreneurial values in kids is to show them the real exhibit—a functional business in action. As part of a resurging neighborhood, we also believe it is incumbent on Blackstone to contribute to the energy of the emerging Woodlawn economic engine. For this reason, we seek continually to develop our sales, services, and customer base, such that our earned revenues will contribute significantly to sustaining our operation.