If you head a few blocks in any direction out your front door, there's a good chance you'll come upon at least one corroding and neglected bike—replete with bent rims, rusted chain, and slashed seat—not worth the trouble of rescuing. That weathered-to-shit 35-year-old Schwinn Varsity that's probably been puked on during its lengthy stay outside your local dive bar earned its place in the city's waste stream of bikes long ago, just waiting its turn to get chucked into a dumpster and eventually hauled off by scrappers.
Believe it or not, Pilsen's not-for-profit Working Bikes Cooperative (2434 S. Western, 312-421-5048, workingbikes.org) encourages the city's huddled masses of dilapidated bikes to find their way through the doors of its 20,000-square-foot warehouse. Twelve years ago, co-op founder Lee Ravenscroft, baffled by the city's volume of discarded bikes, started stockpiling them in the basement of a property he owned.
Ravenscroft, who was an instructor in an Engineers Without Borders-type program while his wife was in the Peace Corps, started sending bikes overseas to Nicaragua, with the shipping subsidized by the sale of other pieces of his bike stockpile locally. As the co-op has expanded over the years—it housed somewhere around 1,500 bikes during my visit—the demand overseas has grown along with it.
Co-op general manager Raul Gonzalez notes that Working Bikes recently sent shipments to Panama and Uganda, and that the next shipment is bound for Ghana. The bikes, primarily collected through donations off the street and bike drives and events thrown by the co-op, are also recycled closer to home.
"Next week, we have Heartland Alliance coming in and bringing 15 refugees," Gonzalez says. "They have people who they relocate from Burma, Cuba, or Iraq that have no papers, no driver's license, and no real ties to the Chicago community. We give them a bicycle, a new helmet, and a lock so they can get from point A to point B."
Gonzalez, 29, has been at Working Bikes six years, two as a volunteer and four as the GM, and is one of only two staffers (the other is a personal repair mechanic in a service department that opened two weeks ago). The co-op stays afloat thanks in large part to a loyal crop of volunteer mechanics who toil away on the warehouse's second floor, servicing mangled bikes to sell to the public (average costs range from $80 to $170) in a storefront that also contains an impressive mishmash of forks, tubes, handlebars, and crates upon crates of miscellaneous hardware.
As I trolled the space, a pair of wide-eyed, twee college kids who'd attended a film screening sponsored by Working Bikes the night before came in to lend a hand and learn how to fix bikes. Gonzalez immediately recognized them and put them to work. The more volunteers, the more bikes to repair and donate.
"People know that a bike has value, so they'll keep it in their basement or hanging upside down in the garage," Gonzalez tells me. "We do hear, 'Don't you have all the bikes you're going to need?' But we can always use more."