Boulevard Bikes (2769 N. Milwaukee Ave.) celebrated 15 years as Logan Square’s go-to bike shop June 15. A lot has changed over the years, including the shop’s location, but owner Kevin Womac isn’t daunted by that. Change is what brought Boulevard Bikes to life.
Womac moved to Chicago from Urbana-Champaign in 1998 after realizing he preferred his side job fixing up bikes to the world of academia. He worked at Rapid Transit in Wicker Park but lived in what was considered the “bike neighborhood.”
“Logan Square was the place to live if you were car-free and on a tight budget,” Womac said. “It was cheap, or cheaper, than Wicker Park at least. “
He’d been in the neighborhood for five years when in February 2003, the residents of Chicago’s 35 ward voted out two-term incumbent Wilma Colom in favor of progressive challenger Rey Colón. Womac saw a fleeting opportunity.
“On the day of the election I was working at the Norwegian Church polling place and it dawned on me that she would be ousted and her office would go vacant,” said Womac. “I went and talked to the landlord and gave him my pitch.”
The Birth of Boulevard Bikes
By June 13 of that year, Boulevard Bikes opened in its original location (2535 N. Kedzie Ave.), in the heart of Logan Square. The shop allied itself with Critical Mass, a loosely affiliated organization of bikers whose aim is to unite the Chicago biking community through maps, rides and community events. Together they have worked to raise awareness of cyclists on the street and even gone as far as lobbying city council.
“A lot of the organizers worked at CDOT and were doing as much as they could to change policy,” Womac said. “But pissing people off and showing them that we’re here and we’re not going away is also a lot of fun.”
Despite some setbacks, they’re still here. In 2017 the bike shop left its location under Logan Square Auditorium to make way for an ADA-compliant elevator. The business moved to a new location (2769 N. Milwaukee Ave)., which is now nestled in an ever-growing area of businesses along the Milwaukee Avenue strip (a.k.a the “Hipster Highway”).
What Has Changed in 15 Years?
As trails and lanes crop up, biking becomes safer and more popular. The bike community has expanded to include business-bikers and families alongside the spandex-speed-demons and the grubby-bike-punks. While Womac views this as a positive, it is hard not to feel a little nostalgic about the days when you needed a mountain bike to traverse the abandoned rail lines that were paved to create the 606 bike path.
“I kind of miss the hidden Chicago aspect of it,” Womac said. “There are a lot of places like that in Chicago that are quickly disappearing.”
As fond as his memories of the old days are, he has learned from his older friends that this is just what happens.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we came back in 2050 or even 2030 and it looked just like Lincoln Park,” Womac said. “What’s happening here happened there a generation ago.”
Instead of looking at the unpaved path behind him, Kevin is focused on the future and specifically, the youth who he says are biking more and buying fewer cars than they were 20 years ago.
“It’s encouraging to see a guy who has been driving a truck all his life decide, ‘Hey, maybe bikes aren’t so bad,’” Womac said with a laugh. “But it’s the young people that are important and we’ve got a lot of young folks coming in here.”
It’s in the data but it’s also visible on the streets. The bike lanes of Milwaukee Avenue are busy with suit-wearing Divvy bikers as well as helmet-less teens on single-speeds.
One With the Biking Community
Riding a bike means embracing self-sufficiency as well as community. When you ride a bike, you physically control how fast and how far you go. For the price of a few basic tools and a spare tire, you can maintain your own vehicle. But just because you are self-sufficient doesn’t mean you are alone. Being a biker in Chicago connects you to a community of people, whether you take part in Critical Mass happy hours, or just exchange a “can you believe these car-drivers” eye-roll at the 6-points intersection in Wicker Park.
Being an active part of the community is important to Kevin Womac. As a father of two kids currently in the Chicago Public School system, Womac’s main battle is injustice he sees within the education system. He sees similar disparities when it comes to funding for bike lanes.
“It’s a lot of white guys’ yuppie dreams to ride their bikes on Saturdays,” Womac said, “Whereas the folks on the South side or the West side—they would really benefit from being able to ride their bike to work because they are also underserved with transportation.”
The alderman of the 35th ward is no longer Rey Colón. The cycle of change has replaced him with 29-year-old Democratic Socialist Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. The cycle has closed bars only to open different ones in their place. It’s paved and painted paths. It’s welcomed new residents while pushing others out to cheaper spaces. The neighborhood is growing and changing all the time. Even in the bike shop, they now play Spotify when they are too busy to flip a record every twenty minutes, Womac admits as a sign of the changing times.
“For years, when it was just a bunch of dudes working here, we would listen to a lot of classic rock, soul music or whatever,” Womac said. “Now that we’ve got Anna and Mary the music is a lot more varied. I think Mary got us listening to NPR in the morning.”
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