Thousands of stolen bikes and bike parts seized from Toronto’s most infamous bike thief have ended up somewhere you wouldn’t have expected: a west-end high school.
Iwona Kurman’s been the principal of Central Commerce Collegiate since September. But, until last Friday morning, she’d never seen her high school’s swimming pool with the lights on. One reason: It’s been drained and closed since 2009, after the Toronto District School Board stopped paying to maintain it. Another: It’s been taken over by bikes.
They were all Igor Kenk’s once. After the absurdly prolific bike thief was finally arrested on dozens of theft and drug charges in July 2008, police seized 2,865 bicycles and countless more parts from him thanks to the Civil Remedies Act, which “prevent[s] persons who engage in unlawful activities and others from keeping property that was acquired as a result of unlawful activities.” Then the provincial government gave them back, first to a few hundred people who could prove that one of the bikes was theirs, and then, in the middle of 2010, to young people who might’ve never had a bike in the first place—Thunder Bay’s Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon community centre got 250, the North Spirit Lake area in northwestern Ontario got 50, and the Toronto Foundation for Student Success got 40, according to the Toronto Sun. Most, though, went to the Cabbagetown Youth Centre (CYC).
“Our first intention, sight unseen, was, ‘We’ll fix them up and give them back to the community,’” says Monique Lisi, a long-time volunteer with the CYC. ”Because cycling is so important, not only just for fitness, but also as a way to get around—as an eco-friendly way. And especially with the density of the communities we serve, a lot of the families and youth don’t have bikes, and it’s an ideal way to get around for them. So that was the plan. And then we saw the bikes.”
In April, 2010, “truck after truck after truck arrived of incomplete bikes,” says Lisi—some without brakes, some without pedals, “at least a couple thousand” parts in total. Getting the bikes out into the community was still the goal, but that had, all of sudden, become a great deal more complicated.
(Lisi has got a good story from the day the bikes were delivered to the St. Jamestown sub-basement where the CYC was planning to store them. As she tells it: “I’m sitting down, and a guy comes up to me and he starts talking to me, and he says, ‘I want to know what you’re doing with the bikes.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, we’re gonna give them back to the community, we’re gonna fix them up.’ He says, ‘Well, how do I get a bike?’ I said, ‘Well, actually, you know, why don’t you give me your name and number? But keep your ears open if you live in St. Jamestown. You know what: The youth are gonna get the kids the bikes first, and then we’re gonna match them up with everybody in the community.’ And he said, ‘Well, I wanna volunteer to help!’ And I said, ‘Sure, no problem, you can volunteer to help.’ But I’m writing things down and I’m looking up at him but he’s standing and I’m really low, and then he goes, ‘But I want one of those bikes. What’s your name and when can I take my bike?’ And then I looked up at him, and it was Igor Kenk.” She laughs. Kenk had just been released from jail, and he was back for what he always thought was rightfully his. “And I said, ‘Pardon me? W-w-w-well well why don’t'—I thought he was gonna cause trouble—’you just give me your name, and we’ll get back in touch with you?’ And then he gave me his real name. He goes, ‘Igor Kenk,’ and he spelled it for me.”)
The CYC had to start somewhere, though, and so they launched a small, free bike-repair program for 20 or so young people that summer, working out of a temporary location in the Portlands. “It engaged kids [where] probably nothing else really interested them,” says Lisi. It wasn’t long before the TDSB got interested, as well, and came calling. Now, with the help of chair Chris Bolton, the program has moved into Central Commerce and become the school board’s first credit-granting bike repair and maintenance program. And the bikes have moved in, too.
“Look at this,” announces Kurman, opening the long-locked door to Central Commerce’s drained pool. Around it are hundreds of tires and rims, kept from tumbling in by a squat fence lining the pool’s perimeter. Frames sat where spectators once would have; the school’s under-enrolled, so where there are no kids anymore, there are plenty of bikes. In the basement, a whole row of classrooms are filled with piles of them. “We call it the boneyard,” says Ravi Mohan-Sukhai, the program’s full-time teacher, and it’s from there that students pick out the shell of what they want to ride away at the end of the semester and get to fixing it up.
In another basement classroom, Eqbal Chisty, 18, is trying to get the rear brakes to sit right on the silver bike he’s working on, while Faheem Mohammad, 15, fiddles with the fork of a blue road bike, as teacher Ravi Mohan-Sukhai and mechanics Eugene Chao and Matt Draimin, both from Bikechain, help. There are 41 kids like Chisty and Mohammad enrolled in the program this semester—everyone talks about how hard it is to get in—and this room’s been turned into the program’s workshop. Several bike stations are spread across the space, and the chalkboard at the front of the class is filled with diagrams and charts of gears, wheel sizes, and things to watch out for (“bottom bracket threading, okay?” “seized seatpost?”). “I thought I was gonna take a BMX,” Mohammad says; every student gets to keep one bike they work on, and he built one of those first. “But then I looked at this bike, and I’m like, ‘Road bikes are pretty fast.’ And then, a mountain bike…you know, I’m not sure.”
If he doesn’t take the road bike, the principal might. Central Commerce is planning to hold a big sale in June to sell off some of the bikes the students have put back together, and to offer the neighbourhood free tune-ups, too. Kurman says she’s already got her eye on “a couple of bikes that normally you’d buy for like $2,000, $3,000, easy.” She doesn’t ride much anymore since her old one was stolen from her front yard seven or eight years ago. “It was a very distinct bike,” she says, looking around the pool. “A Peugeot, very cute, very cool, I loved it. Green. I would spot it in a second. I don’t see it here.”
The Grid will have more about Central Commerce’s bike sale whenever the school’s done planning it; in the meantime, local cycling blog I Bike T.O. has a bit more about the program.