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Belmont Cragin youth victorious after two-year fight brings bike lanes to neighborhood

The Chicago Department of Transportation plans to add more than 12 miles of bike lanes in Belmont Cragin. More lanes are coming to nearby Hermosa, as well.

Jeremy Cuebas, Zair Manjivar, Brian Rivera and Yuan Moreno pose for a photo on the bike lane north of Riis Park in the Belmont Craigin neighborhood
Jeremy Cuebas (from left), Zair Manjivar, Brian Rivera and Yuan Moreno at the bike lane north of Riis Park on Wrightwood Avenue at Merrimac Avenue in the Belmont Craigin neighborhood.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

In 2019, a teen was biking along a busy street in Belmont Cragin when the door of a parked car suddenly swung open.

“Because there weren’t any bike lanes, he got ‘doored,’” said Zair Menjivar who, like that teen, is a member of the Belmont Cragin Youth Leadership Council. “He was hurt pretty badly and broke his collarbone because of the accident. Thank God everything is OK and he’s healthy now.”

The near-death incident became a big concern for the council, a program of the nonprofit Northwest Side Housing Center, putting a spotlight on the need for bike lanes in the neighborhood.

“That was really the spark for us,” said 18-year-old Menjivar. “He was riding so close to the parked cars out of fear because people are driving their cars so fast on Belmont Avenue and there weren’t any bike lanes for him.”

For more than two years, teens fought for bike lanes, calling their community a “transit desert.” Bus service is sporadic. There are no CTA L stops and just one Metra station, right at its southern edge.

Finally, in August, their yearslong fight bore fruit, as new bike lanes started sprouting in the Northwest Side neighborhood.

“We never thought we would get green freshly painted bike lanes in our neighborhood, and to see that is really shocking,” Menjivar said. “This is a testament to all the hard work we put in.”

Belmont Cragin — a neighborhood of nearly 80,000 people that is over 80% Latino — had just two miles of bike lanes. Citywide, there are more than 200 miles of bike lanes.

The Chicago Department of Transportation plans to add more than 12 miles of bike lanes in Belmont Cragin, plus more lanes in nearby Hermosa. In all, the two Northwest Side neighborhoods will combine for nearly 17 miles of bike lanes.

A bike lane north of Riis park in the Belmont Craigin neighborhood is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon.
A bike lane north of Riis park in the Belmont Craigin neighborhood is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

About 3.5 miles of new bike lanes have already been installed over the past couple of weeks. This includes a new “contraflow” bike lane on Wrightwood Avenue that allows for bikes to travel east and west on a one-way street.

“Through our community-driven process of identifying the most appropriate streets to be included in the bike network, Wrightwood was one that rose to the top because it connects to multiple parks, provides access under a rail viaduct, and connects into the existing bike network east of Hermosa,” said Michael Claffey, a transportation department spokesman.

Jeremy Cuebas, youth organizer with the Northwest Side Housing Center, runs the program and mentors its teens. He said transit issues and other problems in Belmont Cragin are often ignored by the city.

“It really is no secret that Belmont Cragin never crosses the mind of people because they figure since this is the Northwest Side, and it has the word ‘North’ in it, that we aren’t experiencing the same issues that the South and West sides are,” Cuebas said. “But we are here telling you that we are, and that’s why it was greatly important for us to take this on and show a united front for this issue.”

Cuebas said the teens worked hard to build relationships and make allies with other advocacy groups like the Active Transportation Alliance. They called elected officials and city leaders demanding meetings, canvassed the neighborhood filling out surveys and holding community meetings.

W. Robert Schultz, an organizer with the Active Transportation Alliance who lives in Belmont Cragin, was excited to get involved with their efforts.

“What these kids were doing was incredibly important,” Schultz said. “For example, they were meeting with the state’s two senators, testifying at the Chicago Transit Authority’s board meetings and sitting down with their aldermen.”

Brian Rivera, left, and Yuan Moreno stand on the bike lane north of Riis Park in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.
Brian Rivera (left) and Yuan Moreno at one of the new bike lanes they helped bring to Belmont Cragin.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

18-year-old Yuan Moreno, who joined the fight when he was 16 years old, said the first 10 minutes of the first two meetings with those in power was intimidating.

“Then you realize how important these bike lanes are going to be for not just us but everyone in the community,” Moreno said. “As soon as everybody started asking me questions, I felt my voice was important for them to hear.”

But to some, those first few meetings felt more ceremonial.

“At first we were being listened to, but we weren’t being respected,” Brian Rivera said. “We were a group of high schoolers from the neighborhood, and some leaders in the city may have felt we weren’t serious.”

Even so, the teens continued to demand meetings from city, state and federal elected officials. At each meeting, they made their arguments clear: Building bike lanes in Belmont Cragin and nearby neighborhoods was a public safety issue.

“All of us go to school here, we go to work here and we go to church here and we have to get around,” Menjivar said. “We should have safety on our bike lanes ... we shouldn’t be like ‘Man, I hope I don’t get hit by a car today.’”

Ald. Felix Cardona (31st) said he was hesitant at first to endorse adding bike lanes.

“To be quite honest, when I was running for this position, certain residents were talking about having these bike lanes, but I gave them a little push-back because I thought most residents here wouldn’t like that change,” Cardona said.

When Cardona took office in 2019, the Youth Leadership Council began reaching out to him more frequently — and to the neighborhood’s two other aldermen.

He agreed to put lanes on Diversey Avenue, but reminded them, “I can only do the lanes in my ward. But I said I would talk to my colleagues. They seemed happy with that, but they didn’t stop there.”

A bike lane north of Riis park in the Belmont Craigin neighborhood is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon.
A bike lane north of Riis park in the Belmont Craigin neighborhood is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times.

Cardona said when he saw the teens going door-to-door in winter, “doing all the groundwork,” he recognized their commitment and finally bought into the idea.

“I started doing my own surveys on social media to see how if our residents were open to it, and it was mostly positive,” Cardona said. “The residents really wanted it.”

Understandably so, Cardona said, since there were no bike lanes west of Pulaski Avenue or south of Grand Avenue.

“These bike lanes are trying to connect neighborhoods together and make the city more cohesive,” Cardona said. “Just spending a day in the neighborhood, you will see lots of youth riding bikes and this will help keep them safe.”

Menjivar earlier this year became among the first recipients of new Mayoral Medal of Honor. He landed a job in Cardona’s office in part for his work for the bike lanes.

“These bike lanes will not only make traveling safer but also encourage others to use another form of transportation that isn’t a car,” Menjivar said.