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Skateboards, Coffee and Jesus

Rich Troche, co-owner of Citizen Skate CafeBy way of skateboards and spicy lattes, a group of entrepreneurial church members has brought a safe haven to Uptown.

Citizen Skate Cafe, at 924 W. Wilson Ave., sells skateboarding supplies and fair trade coffee drinks, but it’s also a community gathering spot of sorts.

The cherry-red walls house a rack of eccentrically designed skateboards on the left, while the coffee bar, composed of glass cases, stretches along the right-hand wall displaying odds and ends. A mixed bag of customers, from alternative teens and aging metal-heads to comparatively tame-looking coffee drinkers, lounges at the tables and sofa tucked into the small space.

Now, the eclectic shop is set to expand. Citizen Skate will soon be splitting into two separate businesses. The current location will be completely dedicated to skating and have a greater selection of apparel, while the coffee operation will move to a second location across the street, at 939 W. Wilson Ave. The new coffee shop will be called Wilson Abbey Coffee.

Rich Troche, co-owner and manager of Citizen Skate, said he’s waiting on red tape, but expects the new location to be open by the end of the year.

Troche knows all the kids who visit the store by name, frequently stopping to chat with the skaters who drop by.

It’s not surprising – based on looks alone – that Troche is an active member of the Uptown skating community. He has 2-inch gauged ear piercings and multiple tattoos, including one near his right eye, and dark hair that brushes the shoulders of his flannel shirt.

But it’s slightly less obvious that he’s a member of Jesus People, the church that owns Citizen Skate and a handful of seemingly random businesses in the neighborhood, from a graphic design firm to a roofing supply company.

Troche and two fellow church members took out a loan through Jesus People to start Citizen Skate, which began as a nonprofit company five years ago. Despite having changed to a for-profit venture just over a year ago, Troche says the shop still donates about 30 percent of its earnings to charity  – most notably the Cornerstone Community Outreach shelter, also owned by Jesus People.

Citizen Skate has been around for less than a decade, but the building’s history extends far beyond the shop’s five years. This block used to house the famous – or perhaps infamous – Chelsea Hotel, a staple of Uptown in the 1920s and 1930s. The building’s owners went to court over code violations in 1989, and Jesus People bought the landmark in 1990.

Troche said he’s found tunnels beneath the building that lead to the Green Mill, a speakeasy turned jazz club frequented by Al Capone in its heyday. The tunnels have since been closed off by the city.

Since Citizen Skate moved in, it’s become a part of the local skateboarding community. Troche said he and the shop’s co-owners, James and Randy, all frequent the nearby Wilson Skatepark, the largest public skate park in Chicago.

“We’re not just some dudes trying to make money off of skateboarding,” Troche said. “We actually just love skateboarding.”

Troche said people may be surprised by his religious affiliation, especially considering the widespread secularity of the skateboarding counterculture, but he says skating provided a safe outlet for him as a teen.

“I came out [of the skate scene] super punk,” Troche said. “I had a mohawk, [was] graffiting everywhere. I hated everything… But also, skateboarding was a big part of keeping me out of getting into worse things.”

Rebecca Hill, a regular customer and member of Jesus People, said Citizen Skate has had a positive influence on the community. She said she once saw the owners pull aside some kids in the shop who were bullying and talk to them about “how to treat people.”

It’s not just a safe space for teens, though. Hill joked that she comes in for “coffee and therapy,” often chatting with James about her problems.

Max Davis, who said he comes to Citizen Skate every day, is excited for the store to expand.

“You get all the skate rats in here, and they’re loud and crazy, and then there’s people trying to have coffee and sit on their computer,” Davis said of the current setup. “It just doesn’t really work that well. I’m all about the skateboard shop.”

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