Unique New Bike Shop Offers Hartford Teens Diverse Opportunities

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Photo credit: Chion Wolf

Bill Sarno
The opening of a bike shop on Park Street in Hartford may be a few months off, but what is  happening at a two-room storefront a block west from South Green already is generating a lot of interest and enthusiasm in this Latino neighborhood and beyond.
For now, the closed and unadorned storefront, mostly occupied by used bicycles, and a sign reading “BiCi Co.” posted at the gated entrance to an adjacent alley that provides access to the shop’s back room, are the most visible indicators to passersby and visitors to the Center for Latino Progress upstairs that 97 Park Street is quickly becoming the place to go in the state’s capital city for teenagers and others interested in bicycling.
 “There is a lot of excitement” that Hartford will soon have something it currently lacks, a place where people can buy bicycles and get them repaired, said Anthony Cherolis, the youth program director for the Center for Latino Progress, the nonprofit workforce development agency which is spearheading this project. “The community wants this,” Cherolis adds.
The name BiCi Co., pronounced bee-see-coe, is derived from the Spanish word for bicycle, “bicileta,” and corresponds with the English diminutive for this vehicle, “bike”.
The emerging bike shop is only one aspect of BiCi Co., a relatively new but fast-growing endeavor launched last summer by thebikes 2 Center. This program has grown from an employment training program for local 14 and 15-year-olds about to seek their first jobs into a multi-faceted program designed to improve the lives of the city’s disadvantaged residents, especially its growing Hispanic population.
“BiCi Co. is creating economic opportunities and helping break down barriers to create a better life,” said Yanil Teron, CLP’s executive director who also is a active bicyclist.
Of particular importance, Teron said, is that bicycles can provide a relatively inexpensive way for Hartford’s lower-income residents to access more and better jobs The average annual cost of owning a car in Hartford is about $9,000 according to AAA, she said, and for mass transit, even buying a bus pass can tax a family’s resources and the service may not always accommodate some individual’s off-peak work hours, especially those who employed in the hospitality industry.
Eventually, BiCi Co. organizers and supporters see this enterprise moving beyond just equipping people with a set of useful job skills and low-cost transportation, into a movement that could help turn Hartford into a bicycling friendly city and engage more residents in a healthy, low-cost, and family-friendly activity.
“We are not there yet, but things are coming together quickly,” Cherolis said.
Within a short time, a growing cadre of participants and volunteers who provide bicycle expertise, CLP’s commitment and the interest shown by other nonprofit agencies such as the Hispanic Federation, have enabled BiCi Co. to add a woman’s program and to initiate various other bike-oriented activities for youths and adults. In addition, BiCo Co. is drawing the attention at City Hall, thereby improving the likelihood that the Latino-generated program could have a significant influence on city life.
Initially, BiCi Co.’s focus was on its earn-a-bike program which rewards local teenagers with a refurbished bicycle after they learn how to repair and maintain bikes, contribute time to various shop projects and become familiar with safe riding.
More recently, the program has launched a do-it-yourself workshop on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons for paid members and repair shop volunteers and a women’s committee. There also is a Sunday afternoon program entitled the Belles of BiCi Co. which is geared to support and encourage an interest in bike riding among women while providing participants with mechanical skills that can expand their employment opportunities.
The bicycles that are being refurbished or, if they are beyond repair, cannibalized for parts, are from the University of Connecticut and were abandoned around the campus by students. Bicycle shops in Glastonbury and Canton also have been helping by donating bikes and making referrals to the program, Cherolis noted.
The Center decided to build a program around bicycles because they offer a flexible teaching tool, encompassing health, engineering, job training and even local history since Hartford was once a major bicycle manufacturing center, Cherolis said.
A former Pratt and Whitney engineer, Cherolis has relied on his bike for commuting and general transit for several years. Some of his friends from the P&W’s cycling club regularly help with the repairs and skills training at the Park Street operation.
The program has benefited from drawing upon the experience of similar programs already well under way in other cities. Cherolis said.
The bicycling enthusiast said the city is working on zoning revisions that would facilitate the development of “complete streets,” routes that could be safely shared by bicyclists and motorists, said Cherolis. He noted that the city has also helped by installing bike racks at various places in the city and the public works department has been mapping bike routes.
The Hispanic Federation provided grant money to set up the bike shop and for BiCi Co. to develop a strategic and business plan. There also has been a grant from the Latino Endowment Fund of the Hartford Foundation and the center’s board also provided some seed money for the project, Cherolis said.
Achieving the next level, renovating the storefront to serve the public, requires a larger investment, he said, with the center optimistic it will be able to attract grants and other financial support based on the experience data it can provide, as well as the example of similar programs that have succeeded in other communities, such as Neighborhood Bike Works in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, BiCi Co. is rolling out Bike Life, a program designed for youths ages 10-19. Participants will first take safety and maintenance classes April 11-13 and April 15 at four sites in the city and then on Saturday, April 16 will get a bicycle and ride at the city’s Heaven Skate Park, which is located off of Main Street on a plaza above I-84.
In addition, more than a dozen teens are currently participating in the center’s second earn-a-bike session. They come from the throughout the city with Latinos and African-Americans equally represented, Cherolis said.
The program’s impact is reflected in  participants such as Nick, a Weaver High School student who is especially proud of the bike he has produced and even brings it up to the Center’s offices where he does his homework. He is known around the center as the kid who “needed to get interested in something,” Cherolis said, and now arrives two hours early for the earn-a-bike classes that are held Tuesday and Thursday.
 Then there is Karon, who Cherolis views as the prototype for the youth development mission of the center. A resident of the nearby  neighborhood, this teenager has made the transition from the bicycle program into the center’s college preparation class.
Overall, Cherolis said, BiCi Co. has generated enthusiasm and involvement that has gone “beyond expectations.”