Pedal Power

The “anarchist-entrepeneur” behind Uptown’s Urban Bikes

By Shula Neuman

Dangling from the lintel of the door that separates the front room from the workshop is a thick chain holding a variety of tools, everything from a standard screwdriver to the “third hand” needed to repair bicycle brakes. Anyone who enters the shop and needs the tools to make a quick adjustment on a bike is welcome to them. During most of the year a number of teenage bike mechanics–lay, novice, and expert–mill about either fixing their own bikes or learning how, consulting each other and the two or three experts working among them.

At the front of the small, cluttered store Tim Herlihey lounges on a seat that might have been extracted from an old Volkswagen van. He talks softly on the phone, discussing the possibility of teaching basic bicycle repair to members of a neighborhood organization. He hardly seems revolutionary. But Herlihey, owner of Uptown’s Urban Bikes, is a self-described anarchist-entrepreneur.

Urban Bikes is one of the few remaining stores in Chicago where customers can work to pay for a purchase; barter is still an acceptable method of payment, and local teenagers are not only welcome but encouraged to take bikes apart and reassemble them. Herlihey’s shop is the product of his desire to foster a healthy environment and community.

Three years ago drug dealers used the same storefront to sell crack. Herlihey watched from his temporary home down the street as police dismantled the drug ring and left the space empty and in disarray. The neighborhood was rough, but Herlihey felt at home. For ten years he’d been living in his car, under bridges, or in a Catholic Worker house that provides services for homeless men and women. “I needed a community,” says Herlihey, and the neighborhood needed Herlihey.

When the store’s landlord finally lowered the rent, Herlihey took a chance and with the help of several friends began the difficult task of building a community bicycle shop. “The storefront was a wreck,” he recalls. “The inventory was raised by Dumpster diving. I bought some tools at the Maxwell Street market. I didn’t have a lot of money to start out with. The biggest overhead was rent. As time went on I would pick up a little bit here and there and buy a sign or something.”

Herlihey never took out any big loans, relying instead on the aid of several friends and the goodwill of the community. “The shop is here because of the community. That’s where I start. It’s not about the money. The community didn’t have bike shops and I realized that this is where I wanted to be. The whole thing is more creative than financial.”

Herlihey was already accustomed to playing the role of bike man. After graduating from high school in Elmhurst, he embarked on a year-long trip around Europe, fixing up bicycles in exchange for food and places to stay. Once he returned to the States he spent a few years traveling back and forth between Chicago and Boulder in an old bread truck, where he kept a supply of bicycles for sale or trade. In the early 80s Herlihey returned to Chicago and was homeless until he finally found a room at the Catholic Worker; he held down various odd jobs and helped people fix up their bikes in the Worker’s garage.

During the decade that he occupied the garage, Herlihey established a reputation. “Everybody that came around knew that he was the guy for bikes,” says Craig Connolly, a resident and employee at the Catholic Worker. When the storefront at 1026 W. Leland suddenly opened up, Herlihey decided to make his longtime avocation a full-time career.

To help build Urban Bikes, Herlihey’s friends contributed their time and expertise: one installed the store’s windows; another put in the door. Though Herlihey had no background in retail, friends helped him structure the business, create the store’s logo, decide where to advertise, print up business cards, and select an appropriate name for the store.

That name–Urban Bikes–reveals Herlihey’s philosophy as much as the store’s contents. He wanted to sell solid bikes at good prices and encourage more ridership in the city. Most of his bicycles cost between $80 and $250. All of them are restored, older models: long forgotten Schwinns and Raleighs; three-speed cruisers; balloon-tire, single-speed rigs; and pedal-brake Motobecanes. Herlihey even has a tandem and a ricksha. But he doesn’t restore bicycles just so people will use them for weekend rides; he believes a bicycle should be one’s primary means of transportation. According to Herlihey, regular use of bicycles as transportation can help sustain communities, promote economic growth, reduce environmental pollution, and maintain personal health.

But, he admits, “bikes have become less and less of an option. Communities get blasted apart because people just hop in their cars and go to their jobs in the ex-burbs. That’s wrong. Lose your neighbors and your necessity for neighbors, and eventually you have communities that are unworkable.” Herlihey’s solution to the breakup of communities is keeping them smaller, and bicycles play a central role in his overall scheme.

“If you live in places where you can bike to work, the money stays in the community. A closer system means you’ll be able to work near your kids. People still recognize that there is something essential in having and knowing your neighbors.”

Because of Herlihey’s contributions to his neighborhood, he has very few problems with theft and vandalism. People know who he is; they recognize his bikes and his tools when they turn up outside of his shop. “People generally don’t mess with the stuff,” Herlihey says. “They realize that it’s in their best interest to have all this stuff here.”

Urban Bikes is also a place where local teenagers learn about bicycle repair, small business dealings, and customer relations. During the busy summer months, it’s mostly the youngsters who help customers choose the right bike. Herlihey lets teens work off the cost of bike repair by sweeping the floor or cleaning the inventory.

Tony Morales Jr., a junior at Senn High School, stepped into Urban Bikes two years ago to buy some handlebar tape and has stayed around ever since. “At first I was just buying some stuff,” Morales recalls. “I came up 30 cents short. I swept the floor to work off the 30 cents. And I did a good job.” Since then Morales has spent a great deal of time at Urban Bikes after school and during the summer; he’s now able to teach other people how to care for their bikes.

Morales says that if he hadn’t discovered Urban Bikes he might be “on the streets, gang-banging or something. I used to live on Leland and Malden, and I used to have bad friends. I’m glad I never really got into it because I had a couple of friends die.” As he began spending more time at Urban Bikes, Morales lost contact with the gangbanger scene. “Before, all I did was adjust the brakes and gears,” he recalls. “I’ve learned a lot of technical stuff like truing wheels and overhauling and stuff. I’m not sure if I want to do this for a long time, but it’s mostly fun. It’s also fun to help people. I like when I fix someone’s bike and see their smile of gratitude.”

Though Herlihey is modest about his influence over the people around him, he remains optimistic about the future. “I think people recognize that living in a society defined by cars is destroying our society,” he says. “People will realize that it doesn’t have to go that way, that they have to change to make a saner society. Eventually people will use bikes more to do their shopping and go to work. Bikes make a difference in how people live. And people can change the world. They can do things that will make a difference. This bike shop is here to make a difference.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Tim Herlihey by Jim Alexander Newberry.