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Black Thumbs Collective keeps cyclists east of the river in gear

The bicycling boom in the District is on a steady increase. But while cyclists can be spotted throughout the entire city, there are no bike shops currently located east of the Anacostia River.

Images by Barbara L. Salisbury.

DC is the #3 city for bike commuters, according to the US Census bureau, the city added almost 50 miles of bike lanes from 2001 to 2010, and Capital Bikeshare is the second largest bikesharing system in the country. Yet this necessary amenity cannot be found for commuters in wards 7 and 8.

"The city is driven by economics," says Brian Ward, Sales Manager at Capitol Hill Bikes. "There may be a demand for bike shops in underserved communities, but those residents may not offer the finances to support them."

With his shop located just one mile away from Anacostia—one of the city's "bike shop deserts"—Ward has recently accepted an opportunity to involve Capitol Hill Bikes in a group formed to address the needs of his neighbors.

Brandon Lyles, a tech at Capitol Hill Bikes in Southeast, fixes a bike. He'll be volunteering his time to make sure residents East of the River can keep their bikes in working order.

The Black Thumb Collective is a grassroots effort to provide free bike maintenance to commuters living in underserved communities. Formed of mechanics from partnering bike shops, as well as independent bike techs, the Collective will provide a necessary resource to keep residents in Wards 7 & 8 pedaling safely throughout the city.

The collective was created by Hamzat Sani, bike ambassador and East of the River Coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA).

In 2013, WABA's East of the River Program partnered with The Bike House to produce nine mobile bike clinics, where volunteer and certified bike mechanics came to sites east of the river to provide free bike repair to residents. When Sani joined the WABA staff in August, he learned that the program would be ending due to exhausted grant funding for the project.

"The mobile bike shops became a really good way to engage with the community east of the river, so I started thinking of ways to continue that program and engaging with the community in a way that was meaningful to them," says Sani. So he contacted six local bike shops, which agreed to allow mechanics a few hours of paid leave to service the community each month.

Borrowing from the "green thumb" label of veteran gardeners, he tagged the group "Black Thumb," representing the aesthetics of greasy-handed bike techs.

Sani hopes that the collective will benefit bike shops by creating inroads into communities they would not otherwise see. Having a recurring presence in these communities will help to build shops' brand recognition and potentially broaden their clientele.

"Cycling is changing on a daily basis," says Sani. "What you think of as the Lance Armstrong, fully kitted with lycra and spandex cyclists are certainly still there, but more and more there are daily riders who hop on their bike or on bikeshare to grab groceries or get to work. Those are becoming more of the folk who are sustaining local bike shops."

The Black Thumbs Collective is one of the first initiatives incorporating local bike shops to take a leadership role in addressing equity-based issues around cycling.

Late last year, Ward, the Capitol Hill Bikes manager, brought his head bike tech Brandon Lyles to the Anacostia Arts Center for WABA's Cap City Bike Expo, the finale event for the 2013 East of the River program. The collective was made public for the first time and Lyles sat on a panel to discuss the role of bike shops in shaping bike-friendly communities citywide.

"The main concern was, how can we get something that is sustainable and convenient," said Lyles, who has worked in bike maintenance for over a decade.

The Bike Expo also saw the installation of a new Dero Fixit stand, an outdoor self-service bike repair station outside of the Anacostia Arts Center. The tool allows riders to perform basic repairs and maintenance, from changing a flat to adjusting brakes and derailleurs.

"It's the first in the city that is not tied to a bike shop," says Sani.

Ernest Clark, head bike mechanic at City Bikes in Adams Morgan, volunteered at the Fixit stand during the expo, showing visitors how to utilize the tool to perform basic repairs.

"The best part was the warm reception of people from the community who need their bikes worked on," said Clark.

As a member of the collective, Clark's biggest hope is that it will lessen bike thefts in east-of-the-river neighborhoods.

"If we can help them to maintain their own bikes, they won't feel like they have to steal bikes from others," said Clark.

Sani also believes that the service can be used for crime prevention.

"Connecting the community to be able to walk and bike where they live changes the fabric of a neighborhood," he said. "When you're able to have more of a body presence, it tends to make the neighborhood a lot safer because crime happens in the shadows. So when people are constantly engaged, walking and biking in their communities, it will make crime that happens in the shadows a little harder in wards 7 & 8."

Sani hopes to use the winter lull in the cycling season to assess the capacity of the collective, and then hit the streets this spring. Together, collective members seek to generate a newfound culture of community among local bike mechanics to do good work in deserving communities.

Cross-posted from Elevation DC.

Christina Sturdivant is enthusiastically involved in Washington, DC's non-profit sector, creating programs and volunteering for organizations that provide resources to increase the living qualities of marginalized individuals. She enjoys writing about art, food, entertainment and all things progressive in the city. 


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there are no bike shops currently located east of the Anacostia River

Maryland Park Bicycles is east of the Anacostia River.

by JimT on Jan 22, 2014 8:25 pm • linkreport

I think "east of the river" is a term of art that specifically refers to the part of DC that is east of the Anacostia River - not PG County.

by David C on Jan 22, 2014 11:19 pm • linkreport

This article echoes some good points that were brought up during the panel discussion at the Capitol City Bike Expo in Anacostia. But I disagree with the notion that "finances" aren't available to support the entrepreneurial spirit of a bike shop east of the Anacostia River. In truth, financing is available for any entrepreneur willing to take on the economic risks associated with such a venture.

The issue is more of a Supply-side issue than it is the demand for products and services. Most current bike shop owners don't view areas east of the Anacostia River as profitable enough to open shop there. In an environment of increasing costs shops are forced to do business in areas where prices are more easily adjusted support the level of profitability they are seeking. Yet area residents I speak with routinely visit bike shops throughout the region and are willing and able to pay what they ask. It is more cost effective for shop owners in our region to send their mechanics east in order to promote their brands and continue the draw of business west outside the community to an area where a greater demand for quantities of products are supported at higher prices. But this void will continue and will be exacerbated so long as residents perceive that quality bike products and services are only available at higher prices outside their own neighborhoods.
I think the Black Thumbs collective is a great opportunity for shop owners who seek to fill this void and will be successful only if entrepreneurial efforts are supported beyond the benefit of current economies outside of neighborhoods EOTR.

If you offer a product at the right price it's proven that our residents are willing and able to spend but if the proper cost structures are not in place any venture will fail. I think it is great that other shops are willing to share in the costs of supporting cycling EOTR and benefit of promoting their own brands, but I challenge each of them to continue to support the efforts of an entrepreneur or bike co-op wishing to replace them.

by John on Jan 23, 2014 10:27 am • linkreport

FWIW, in the draft portion of the plan I did for Baltimore County (this section was eliminated from the posted version), I suggested that such operations could be integrated into the rec. centers located in more impoverished areas. Not unlike how Phoenix Bikes in ArCo has a relationship with the county rec. departments.

All the various bike co-ops that develop in DC and wax and wane ought to be able to be accommodated in our rec. centers (although typically our rec. centers are poorly configured to be able to accommodate such operations) as a way to support their continuation and longevity.

2. but um, related in part to what John said, it's tough for all types of retail to be offered in low income areas. Besides the profitability issue, shrinkage (loss of inventory through non-employee and employee stealing) is very high.

Plus the stuff I have been writing about the UK's Plunkett Foundation and their support of community owned and operated retail (in rural areas, but applicable to deprived urban areas as well).

by Richard Layman on Jan 23, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

David - Jim makes a solid point though - Maryland Park is *just* on the other side of the line. We do ourselves an intellectual disservice when we think of Southern, Eastern, and Western avenues as Berlin Walls that keep people from crossing them. In the food desert discussion, for example, the lack of grocery stores in Ward 8 is often brought up, but anyone who lives in the southern end of Ward 8 has a Giant right across Southern Avenue at the Eastover Shopping Center.

Of course, you have to draw lines somewhere, but the "desert" discussion often includes radii around certain amenities, and it's fair to say that there are a good number of people in eastern Ward 7 who are within close distance of a bike shop, just like those people in southern Ward 8 are close to a full-service grocery.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jan 23, 2014 8:29 pm • linkreport

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