The Hawk, Chicago’s winter wind, blew off the lake across the South Side this Saturday, rattling the metal doors of Natty Bwoy Bikes & Boards, one of several shops housed in the shipping containers that make up Boxville, the mall on 51st Street near the Green Line station in Bronzeville.
When the Hawk blew through, co-proprietor Katon Blackburn was in Natty Bwoy, looking for a skateboard to lend to a middle schooler who had come to the shop for a lesson.
“Whoa, geez, it’s windy,” Blackburn said, as the wind knocked over the store’s billboard.
Blackburn, his brother Kahari, and long-time friend and bike mechanic Carlos Cortes had just opened the store the previous day.
The young men’s journey from bike and skateboard enthusiasts to shop proprietorship started at Blackstone Bicycle Works in Woodlawn. Blackstone Bicycle Works, an educational youth program and community bike shop, is housed in the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. (The Herald recently moved its offices to the same building.)
“I got with Experimental Station probably like in 8th grade, probably around 7th and 8th grade,” said Katon. “My mom knew about the program and what they did over at Blackstone, so she got me involved in it.”
“And that was like super cool,” he continued. “I learned how to fix bikes at such a young age, to learn how to sell them and stuff like that.”
“We were always outdoor kids,” said Kahari, Katon’s older brother. “My mom … she kinda pushed us always to be outside and spend a lot of time in the backyard. You know, whether it was after school programs, or sports, whatever.”
“Basketball was always a true love of mine early on,” continued Kahari. “I came to skateboarding, probably next, around the time (I was) coming into middle school.”
“There was this rapper, Lupe Fiasco, and he had a song called ‘Kick, Push,’ which was very new to us,” said Kahari. “I think Black kids on the West Coast, maybe in like Oakland or Los Angeles, they had been into it for a long time. After ‘Kick, Push’ was released, Chicago got a lotta momentum around (skateboarding) and it became a community,” said Kahari.
As kids, the brothers were recreational cyclists, but got into the more technical world of biking through Blackstone Bicycle Works. The program “was encouraging people to get into mechanics, encouraging people to race,” said Kahari. “As a skateboarder it felt very of the same spirit, of the same culture.”
“I went to high school with Katon Blackburn,” said bicycle mechanic Carlos Cortes as he explained how he came to join the brothers as a proprietor of the shop. “He was actually the one that introduced me to Blackstone Bicycle Works.”
“We both went to Kenwood Academy High School. I started commuting to Kenwood (on a) bicycle, way faster than the CTA bus,” he said. “I had second period English with (Katon), and he had told me that he was a bicycle mechanic.”
“I was like, ‘How are you a bicycle mechanic when you’re only 14 years old?’ I was just confused by that. And (then) he told me it was through the youth program at Blackstone.”
“He brought me there after school and the summer of that sophomore year, I think, I started to work there,” continued Cortes. “Yeah. He was really the one who introduced me to it.”
Since being trained at Blackstone Bicycle Works, Cortes has worked as a mechanic at several shops around the city, including Small Shop Cycles and Service in Bronzeville, which is owned by former Blackstone Bike Works employees.
“After high school I got a lot more into skating and that became my main source of passion and happiness,” said Katon.
“I moved out to LA for three years after my first year out of high school. In LA I was skating a bunch. My last two years living in LA I worked at two different skate shops.”
“I felt that my world just revolved around skating. I skated to work, when I was at work I was thinking and watching skate stuff and meeting skaters. And when I got off work, I just wanted to skate more. Living in LA my world was literally just revolving around skating.”
“And that’s what gave me the idea that one day I was like I want to have a shop. Cause, why not do what makes you happy all the time, as much as you can,” said Katon.
“One day we were right at a restaurant down the corner (from Boxville) ... and we, we saw a friend of (mine) and Kahari’s. His name is Corey (Gilkey). He is the owner of Leaders (Leaders 1354), which is a very infamous apparel and sneaker shop in Chicago,” said Katon.
“He told us, ‘Man, what a shame it was that no one was in the Bike Box this summer.”.Bike Box was the original container shop in Boxville; it had been closed for two years before Natty Bwoy occupied the space.
“And I was like ‘Yeah, that’s sick.’ I wanted to work there, but I am really into skating now more,” said Katon.
“He was like, ‘Make it a bike and skate shop.’”
“Ever since then I was like, ‘Man that would be a sick idea’.”
So the trio wrote up a proposal for Urban Juncture, the organization that manages Boxville.
“We had a few meetings. They were like, ‘We want to support your guys’ vision,’ ” said Katon. “And now we are here today, second day open.”
“Yeah I am happy, I’m happy, It’s sick,” he said. “I sold my first two boards, which is cool.”
Natty Bwoy hopes to be open Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Saturdays they will be offering skateboarding lessons at the shop. On Sundays they will be offering lessons in Shoesmith Park in Kenwood from noon to 2 p.m. To learn more about Natty Bwoy, visit their Instagram page @nattybwoychicago.