by Mia Birk, Principal, Alta Planning + Design
The beloved Community Cycling Center turns 20 this summer! It all began back in 1994, when I was the Bicycle Coordinator for the City of Portland, OR…
Excerpt from Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet, Chapter 21, “Touching Souls”
I am not a happy camper the day I meet Brian Lacy, a man on a mission. I had set out for work in these cute, flowy blue capris. Two blocks from work, I felt an odd pulling-tugging-ripping sensation below my right knee. The fabric of my right pant leg had blown toward the front wheel, where it somehow twisted itself in circles around the brake pad. Trapped, I had to rip a hole to release myself.
I walk into my cubicle in a dark, grumpy fog. Sitting on my chair is a cute young man with wavy brown hair, in cycling shorts and a colorful batik button-down shirt. His eyes peek from behind small oval glasses and train on the big grease-marked hole in my spendy new pants.
“Don’t even ask,” I warn. “What can I do for you?”
“I left the Bike Gallery in 1992 and was wrenching for City Bikes out on the sidewalk for a year,” he explains. “I just loved how the kids would show up out of nowhere and help true wheels and tweak brake cables.” They loved getting their hands dirty, and it seemed to empower them. A shy kid would start talking while cleaning a headset to perfection. An obviously neglected kid would repack ball bearings and stand up a little straighter.
Brian hands me a flyer for his new organization, the Community Cycling Center. Brian’s plan is to take donations of used bikes, then fix them up through a combination of volunteer labor, labor-swap and fee-for-service bike repair. They’ll donate the refurbished bikes to low-income kids. Through after-school riding clubs, they’ll teach safety. Neighborhood youth will have a safe place to hang out, learn skills, earn a bike and connect with community members.
Stunning in freshness and clarity, Brian’s fresh warm breeze of ideological brilliance dissipates my dark mood in a flash. In my vision, the bicycle is a tool for transportation, health, fitness and clean air. In his, it’s a simple and smart tool for community connection, youth empowerment and societal change.
I look at my leg and laugh. I know better than to wear such ridiculous pants. Then, I look at him and smile, my heart soaring.
I reach out my hand. “Count me in.”
It’s love at first sight, not just for me, but for everyone who hears about the Community Cycling Center. We love it in direct proportion to our level of involvement. The more we give, the more we receive.
Brian brings in local business owner Stan Jackson to balance his energetic romanticism. Later, they are joined by Ira Grishaver, a soft-spoken ponytailed idealist. Day and night, people drop off used bikes and volunteers wrench damaged wheels off rusty frames, polish gear wheels, grease chains until they glow and shoot the breeze. The Community Cycling Center quickly becomes the focal point of a neighborhood economic renaissance.
Then two peace-loving hippies named Tom and Joe decide to paint a bunch of bikes yellow, and from its quiet community corner, the CCC is unwittingly launched into the national limelight.
The idea: Round up old bikes, paint them yellow, leave them around town. The good people of Portland will see one, run an errand and leave it somewhere else for the next person to use. The media loves the quirky concept, and slots it with various feel-good stories that save us from a daily slide into the pit of despair. You’ve got your new baby elephant at the zoo, the alligator that turned up in little Johnny’s bathtub and the woman who rode naked on her horse in the holiday parade. Grand Poobah of the freak show is the Yellow Bikes Program, picked up not just by all the local outlets, but by “The Today Show”, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Joe and Tom become instant celebrities.
As if this is an official government program, my office is deluged with information requests. Free bikes are indistinguishable from bike lanes in the media’s mind. They’re all part of our kooky bike plot.
The media attention is, frankly, the best thing Yellow Bikes has going for it. The reality is 180 degrees from the hype. From day one, the bikes fall into disrepair, disappear, are vandalized or thrown into the river.
Tom and Joe have no system in place to round up, repair and replenish the bikes. I take one out for a spin to see what the hype is all about. With barely functioning brakes and a wobbly, borderline flat tire, the short ride leaves me both skeptical and concerned.
Lacking management, organization and funding, Joe and Tom turn to Brian, who is abruptly anointed king of Yellow Bikes. He wins the Robert Rodale Environmental Achievement Award and flies to D.C. to accept, bringing along with him a yellow bike for President Clinton.
But along with the attention comes headaches. Hundreds of volunteers are eager to help but need to be trained, organized and managed. Well-meaning residents leave a zillion bikes on the sidewalk in front of the small shop. I arrange for the county government to donate a storage warehouse, but now Brian needs trucks to transport the bikes back and forth.
While the Yellow Bike Program, a worthy idea whose time had not yet come, quietly fades away, the Community Cycling Center is too precious to let go. It stumbles, soul-searches and evolves. Brian moves on, followed by Stan and Ira. New leaders come and go, but one event holds constant through thick and thin: the Holiday Bike Drive.
One chilly December morning, I bike to Legacy Emanuel Hospital, where a long line of economically distressed kids, parents, foster parents and volunteer Big Brothers/Sisters patiently wait in line. I stoop down to greet a 6-year-old girl who is hiding behind her mom. Maria is a second-generation American, her parents from Mexico.
“Hi, sweetheart! Welcome! Are you ready to get a bicycle?”
Maria slowly peeks her head out and nods, brown eyes wide.
“Great!” I reach out my hand. “First things first! It’s bike helmet time! Let’s see, I think we’ll need a medium for you.”
I lead Maria to the helmet area, where she picks out a purple one. She allows a nervous smile as a volunteer gently places it on her head, snaps the strap under her chin, and makes a few adjustments so it fits snugly but not too tight.
The next station is the best: a long line of refurbished bikes.
“Go ahead, sweetheart, pick out a bike.” She looks at me, her confusion palpable. Just walk right up and take a bike? She dashes behind her mother’s skirts again, and we move slowly up and down the aisles as a group.
“How about this one? It’ll match your helmet.”
She nods ever so slightly toward the sparkly purple beauty and reaches out to fondle the handlebar streamers. We wheel it to the tune-up station, where mechanics remove the training wheels, pump the tires, raise the seat and grease the chain. Last stop: the practice course, where her shyness evaporates in a heartbeat.
I kneel down and shake her hand good-bye.
“Gracias,” she whispers, unprompted.
“No, thank you,” I whisper back, beaming, choked up and utterly grateful for the opportunity to touch a young spirit who will carry forward her newfound freedom into her community, family and future.
Twenty years later, the Community Cycling Center is going strong. Congratulations! By holding true to your mission, by engaging thousands in your vision, by never giving up, you have touched thousands of families and empowered a community.
This summer, the Community Cycling Center will serve more than 650 families through their popular summer bike camps.