Editor’s note: The following story is about a trip I made to Bike Works in February, shortly after they had been robbed. It was originally written for Real Change, but it never made it in. So here it is in all its delayed glory.
“That’s one more bike fixed,” he said. The mechanics cheered quickly and turned back to their work. A hand-drawn thermometer on the wall showed they were past halfway to their goal of 125 bikes by Mother’s Day weekend for the annual kids’ bike swap, and there was still a backyard full of bikes in need of repair.
I was visiting Bike Works in Columbia City to check out their weekly Thursday evening volunteer work party. I am an avid urban biker interested in learning more about bike repair and bike activism, but what struck me the most during my night in the Bike Works classroom shop was their philosophy and their heart.
Bike Works is a non-profit organization working to educate and empower youth through bicycling and to make bicycling more affordable to the community. They organize many youth programs both in and out of school that range from earn-a-bike repair classes to summer bike touring trips. They also run a bike shop with a large selection of refurbished bikes starting around $150 or as-is bikes starting as low as $15. They also have used parts and do bike repairs for one of the lowest costs in town.
Eric got rid of his car around Thanksgiving, and it felt great. He is a bike commuter who works on bikes in his garage as a hobby. He wanted to help a youth organization and help with a bike advocacy group, so Bike Works seemed like a perfect fit. He rode down from the U District for his first night of volunteering at the shop and was hard at work overhauling the bottom bracket on a hot pink Roadmaster mountain bike a good size for a growing kid entering their teens.
There were about 20 volunteers of all ages 21 and up working on 10 bikes, which hung from bike stands around the room. Each bike had a checklist of necessary work, and the volunteers were going item by item until the bikes were road-ready. Some bikes had their handlebars hanging from the frame by their brake cables. Some were missing pedals or wheels while their bearings and components were cleaned and re-greased. If anyone didn’t know how to accomplish a task, there was a wealth of information spread around the room. Volunteers had wide ranges of experience from experts to recent graduates of a beginning repair class taught nights at the shop.
“Attention is paid to de-shaming,” said Oil. They want to create a safe, non-judgmental environment where it is always OK to ask questions, what Oil called “honoring the not-knowing.” After all, he said, they want the bikes to finish the night more fixed than they were at the start.
The finished bikes go in a different area in the bike-packed backyard of the shop. Row upon row of bikes are stored back there under a roof surrounded by a fence with brand new barbed wire. They didn’t want put the barbed wire up, and they even seemed ashamed that they had. But in the last weeks of December and beginning of January, bikes started disappearing from their yard. An e-mail from the organization asking for donations to replace the stolen bikes said a “pile” of bikes had been stolen at an estimated value of $1,500. But worse than the money, they were bikes that had been repaired by volunteers during the Thursday night repair parties or by youth during the earn-a-bike program or youth drop-in repair hours.
Recycling and Reuse Coordinator Donald Villarreal described how the thefts occurred as we stood in the back doorway looking over the rows of bikes.
“Hopefully they are using the bikes for good, not evil,” he said.
In the weeks after their call for donations, they were receiving nearly a bike an hour as donations, Villarreal said. Typically they only get a dozen or two a week during the winter. The Thursday repair parties also saw a large increase in volunteers as people responded to the shop’s need to get more bikes ready for the May bike swap. Since installing the barbed wire, the thefts have stopped.
Halfway through the repair party, Oil called out that it was break time. The bike stands were moved to the periphery of the room. Some people grabbed beers or baked goods that a volunteer had brought. Everyone stood in a circle and, after some announcements, we played some get-to-know-you games. At one point I was standing in the middle of a human continuum stretching from one side of the room to the other with dark beer lovers on one end and light on the other. Later I was fully on the crunchy peanut butter side versus creamy. Then on the “no tunnel” side, until someone suggested that maybe it could be a bike tunnel they dig under Alaskan Way.
After a few laughs, and with spirits even higher than they were, the bike stands moved back to their places and repairs started again. A couple more bikes were added to the completed pile, ready for an eager kid in need of a little freedom.
In case you are wondering, they made it to their goal by Mother’s Day … plus a lot more.