Getting Into Gear

October 26th, 2010 by Alex Halberstadt

Recycle-A-Bicycle doesn’t just keep tons of metal out of city landfills – it helps teens build important skills and give new life to bikes.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Earlier this fall, just behind the Pepsi-Cola sign that overlooks the East River on Long Island City’s waterfront, I found my way to a ground-floor bunker that houses a half-century’s worth of bicycle skeletons and innards—a dimly-lit, two-wheel reanimation laboratory. Rommel Bishop, a 29-year-old mechanic wearing a T-shirt and a barely amused grin, took me around. He pointed out bins of derailleurs and headsets, spokes tied together like uncooked spaghetti, hubs of every kind dating back to the Johnson administration, brake lever clusters, tire stacks, wheels hanging from the ceiling like chandeliers, a mini-museum of saddles, and a tangle of BMX frames that looked like some feral relation to a Calder mobile. The place looked sprawling, but its contents, down to the last spoke nipple, were catalogued in Bishop’s head.

The space is a training facility for Recycle-A-Bicycle, an organization that teaches teenagers to give new life to bikes while simultaneously keeping tons of metal out of the city’s landfills. The bikes are donated; most had been abandoned or thrown away. Over the summer Bishop supervised 17 high school students, many from the Queensbridge housing projects, whose summer job was to learn to assemble a bicycle; by the end of August they got to ride their creations home. “Adults don’t see it that way, but kids come here to network,” Bishop said, “and along the way they happen to learn all sorts of other things.”

In addition to the summer employment program, which is federally funded, Recycle-A-Bicycle offers internships, in-school bike-building programs and ride clubs. Almost all the kids who take part come from low-income communities. Each year they resurrect 300 to 400 bikes and take them back onto New York’s streets. Other salvaged bikes wind up in the organization’s two retail stores, where they are sold to the city’s riders; the proceeds make the Recycle-A-Bicycle nearly self-sustaining. In fact, the experiment in job training-cum-environmental conservation has been so successful that it has spawned similar initiatives across the Hudson in Jersey City and as far afield as England.

It began, oddly enough, in Mozambique. In the early 1990s, Karen Overton, a Latin American-studies major from upstate New York, was running a program there called Bikes for Africa. She distributed single-speed bicycles to women who worked small farms, which enabled them to bring their produce to market without paying an extortionate fee to a truck-driving middle-man. The idea sounded simple enough, yet in practice Overton ran up against domestic abuse, ingrained discrimination and escalating political violence; the nation’s civil war eventually forced her to shutter the operation and leave Africa. For all the setbacks, the experience left her convinced that a bicycle isn’t merely a two-wheeled contraption for traveling short distances, but “a tool for social justice.” When she returned to the U.S., Overton discovered that she had contracted HIV. “At the time I was told that I had maybe a year or two left,” says Overton, who now lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “So I decided to spend that time doing something meaningful.” She found that project in 1994, when the city’s Department of Sanitation was looking for a place to unload a fleet of discarded bikes, and the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives was casting about for a youth training program. Overton decided she could meet both needs with a single initiative.

She offered the first bike class at IS 218, a middle school in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. The students, most from the Dominican Republic, didn’t need to speak English to take part; Overton realized that the modest act of assembling a bicycle taught time management, responsibility and teamwork while deemphasizing the expensive goal of owning a car. One student banked hours for weeks to build a bike for his mother so she wouldn’t have to take a bus to work. Noticing that the class appealed entirely to boys, two girls began to make bracelets and earrings from discarded spoke nipples and chain links; within weeks a flock of girls signed up to take the class, and soon even some of the boys wanted to learn to make jewelry. Before long, the bike building classes spread to another middle school and five high schools around the city, and the EPA awarded Overton a grant to write a manual for replicating the program.

Rommel Bishop was one of Recycle-A-Bicycle’s earliest Brooklyn students. When he was eight, an aunt had brought him to Crown Heights from his native Barbados. At 14, his best friend Omar, an immigrant from Bangladesh who lived across the street, convinced him to try his hand at bike building. Bishop rode a BMX bike to school, but assembling one taught him that working with tools came naturally to him. A year later, when a teacher at Eastern District High School said something about Bike Aid, a cross-country bike ride that raised awareness about environmental issues, Bishop decided on the spot that he and Omar would take part. That he hadn’t seen the country beyond a few square miles of central Brooklyn didn’t faze him, nor did the requirement that they raise $3,600 apiece—a dollar for each mile along the route. Recycle-A-Bicycle threw fundraising parties; teachers and family members pitched in, and for months Bishop and Omar handed out letters on the street asking for contributions. A few days after classes ended in the spring of 1996, they boxed up their bikes and boarded a plane to Los Angeles.

At 16, Bishop and Omar turned out to be Bike Aid’s youngest riders; most of the others were white college students on store-bought bikes. “I wasn’t going to wear Lycra for anyone,” Bishop recalls, but after a few 75-mile days in the saddle he discovered the utility of padded shorts. The hubs on the racer he’d built back in Brooklyn gave out somewhere in the Rockies, and Bishop rode the rest of the way to Washington, D.C., on a mountain bike. Ten weeks riding across the country expanded Bishop’s reality like nothing he’d experienced before. For the first time he saw an electric dam and learned why and how it worked. He met his first farmer, a man who raised or grew everything his family ate. From a cattle rancher he learned how fast-food restaurants sourced their beef, and after coming home he became a vegetarian. He discovered a fascination with antique cars and jet engines and geology. He saw a llama, swam in a private pool in Utah and crossed the Plains states alongside an 80-year-old retired gym teacher named Nancy who told him that she wanted to see the country while she still could. When he returned to Crown Heights, Bishop’s vision of his future was radically reconfigured.

Bishop has remained with Recycle-A-Bicycle since he took his first class 15 years ago; today he’s the organization’s chief mechanic and its most prolific teacher. When I visited, his wife Barbara and 4-year-old Rommel Jr. kept him company. He figures that he’s taught the ins-and-outs of a bicycle to roughly 2,500 kids, and says he keeps in touch with at least a thousand of them through email and Facebook. I asked Bishop what he thought they had learned from him. “Self-respect, setting realistic goals and that money isn’t an answer to everything,” he said. And, he added, that sometimes a bicycle is more than just a bicycle.

Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life And Times Of Doc Pomus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, and other publications.