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Bike Kitchens: Building Community, Bikes

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The entrance to the San Francisco Bike Kitchen. Photo by Rob Forbes
The entrance to the San Francisco Bike Kitchen. Photo by Rob Forbes

I’ve been trying to avoid discussions of the recession—there is more than enough gloom and doom coming at us from the mainstream media. Instead, I’ve been looking for optimistic stories: Where do you see people really enjoying themselves (even though their disposable income may have completely disappeared)? What looks and feels happy on the streets and in our communities? At the top of my list are the ‘bike kitchens’ that can now be found in most of our cities.

A bike kitchen is a community-based, hands-on workshop that provides free (or almost free) help to people who need to fix their bikes. Think soup kitchen—if they also taught you how to make soup. Bike kitchens have the feel of communal gardens: people go there to have a good time and to create something of value. Health, environment, and community all come together at bike kitchens, but an urban, edgy, youth character keeps them from feeling nostalgic.

A friend took me by the Bicycle Kitchen Bici Cocina in Los Angeles last month. There I found 300 square feet of community bike teaching and repair festivities. It was recycling made elegant, personal, fun, and colorful. The place was a magnet for the locals—there were scores of bikes outside and groups of people gathered. The mechanic-volunteers served people on a first come first served basis. Rich or poor, you could get help fixing your bike—and maybe meet some people you might like to ride with. The L.A. Cocina has helped to spawn the Bike Oven and the Bikerowave, and create a major movement in Los Angeles.

Bikes, bikes and bikes, oh my! Inside the San Francisco Bike Kitchen. Photo by Rob Forbes
Bikes, bikes and bikes, oh my! Inside the San Francisco Bike Kitchen. Photo by Rob Forbes

Bike kitchens are popping up in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Google ‘bike kitchen’ for your city and you may find one in your backyard. I did this for San Francisco and found one near me. I hadn’t known about it, mostly because of its location. From the outside it is a hole-in-the-wall place in an alley in the South of Market neighborhood. On the inside it is a thriving workshop serving a broad spectrum of the population. Both kids in parkas and adults in chic riding gear were working there when I visited. Membership fees are minimal, but the well-heeled can also buy “digging rights” for 30 bucks, which allows them to rummage around and collect all the parts they can find to build a bike.

The San Francisco Bike Kitchen is a model of what a bike kitchen can be—and also of what challenges bike kitchens face. Along with the repair service and education, bike kitchens are also a resource for information. They provide cycling maps of the city and maintain an online directory of “Community Bike Coops” and helpful links to sources such as Bike Tutor, which helps people repair bikes at home. Their challenges are largely those of resources, which is why the San Francisco kitchen has limited hours. They recently moved out of their old rent-free location into a new spot. (They transported their entire operation on bikes as they did five years ago. How cool is that?)

Working on bikes inside the San Francisco Bike Kitchen. Photo by Rob Forbes
Working on bikes inside the San Francisco Bike Kitchen. Photo by Rob Forbes

I’m especially fond of these bike kitchens. Maybe I’m a bit prejudiced, being a bike nut myself. But if there are any better examples of relevant, optimistic enterprises today, I cannot think of any. Our consumer society sometimes seems to have lost the ability to make things, so seeing people enjoying themselves while actually creating things that function is a highly encouraging spectacle. The fact that what they’re working on is building health-promoting, green, pretty bikes out of industrial parts seems more than appropriate—communities forming to bail out local transportation infrastructure right on Main Street.

Rob Forbes is best known as the founder of Design Within Reach (DWR) and for the vision of a business that has grown into the leading retail destination for modern design in the U.S. In 2007 Rob formally left DWR to launch Studio Forbes to further his interests in design, culture, and commerce. He is a lifetime cyclist and proponent of modern urban design initiatives and programs that help us reduce our dependency on cars, which led him to found a new company, Public, Mass Transit for One.

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