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Rescue Me

Troy nonprofit injects fresh life into old bikes—and into its North Troy community

by Ali Hibbs on August 4, 2011

Photos by Juila Zave

It’s a hot, muggy Monday afternoon, and no fewer than 25 kids between the ages of 10 and 15 are bustling around a 3,000-square-foot space in North Troy, cracking jokes, teasing one another and . . . fixing bikes. One has a wrench in each hand and is wrestling with a wheel clamped to a table. Another has busied herself cleaning rusted metal parts with steel wool and Simple Green; another has set about trading in his cool West Coast Chopper tires for ones that fit his bike a little better. Frames, chains, tools, tires and a tub of grease are scattered around the buzzing workroom. Gear charts decorate the walls, and everyone is snacking on dried fruit. An entire file cabinet is home to hundreds of pedals; hammers live in a drawer marked “Attitude Adjustment.”

“There are usually a lot more kids here,” comments Laura Feinberg. “Or maybe today just feels quiet.” Feinberg, a second-grade teacher in Duanesburg, only recently began volunteering her time here at the Troy Bike Rescue Youth Shop. “I didn’t think I knew enough about bikes to come down here and teach kids about them,” she says as she locates two holes in a tire she has submerged in water. “But the bike ride we went on last month changed my mind about that.”

The collective known as Troy Bike Rescue has come a long way since it began as a one-man salvage operation 10 years ago. “I don’t think I initially conceived of it in the way that it is today,” says founder and cycling enthusiast Andrew Lynn. “Basically, I started by salvaging bikes from dumpsters and trash piles.”

Lynn’s bike commute to grad school took him past a public-works dumpster that yielded more than a few trashed bicycles and, after a while, he had run out of room in his studio apartment. He then began looking for a way to handle the growing mountain of steel and rubber. “Utilizing my knowledge of digital media and community-based art practice,” he says in reference to his master’s degree, “I organized barbecues and other social events around fixing up the bikes. At one point, in 2001 or 2002, we fixed up a whole bunch and then released them onto the street.”

The fledgling collective evolved to the point where they received funding for tools from an after-school program (now known as the Ark Community Charter School) and a community arts grant through the Arts Center of the Capital Region. “I had a van in 2003 and that became like a mobile shop,” says Lynn. When he moved away in 2004, TBR moved to Albany “because the core people holding it together at the time lived there.” Eventually, they became the present-day Albany Bike Rescue, located at 15 Trinity Place in Albany.

Lynn returned to the Capital Region in late 2007, and TBR quickly became active again in Troy. For an entire summer, they worked out of his backyard. “Every Monday, my backyard and basement would be full of people of all ages. It was still a disorganized madhouse, but in the best possible way.” Once word got out, sometimes as many as 30 people would show up to donate time, earn a bike or simply socialize. Seeing the need for a physical location in late 2009, TBR moved into a space at 51 3rd St. and finally had “a place where you could actually hang out when it was raining.” A sympathetic landlord provided them with affordable rent, which Lynn says really enabled the small operation to grow. With the new physical location, he acknowledges, came greater responsibility. “Now there’s an expectation that we have a certain responsibility to the community.” But it’s a responsibility that Lynn seems to welcome.

After two and a half years, Lynn and active TBR volunteer Ryan Jenkins made the decision to co-invest in the building at their current location, 3260 6th Ave. They got it for a song, moved into the space, just down the street from the Sanctuary for Independent Media (where Lynn also volunteers), late last May and hit the ground pedaling.

The Sanctuary and TBR came together with two other neighborhood nonprofits dedicated to interacting with, and investing in, local resources. They began collaboration on a grassroots effort to effect social change in their shared community—a community where they see considerable untapped potential.

The Missing Link Street Ministry, headed by Pastor Willie B. Bakote, and the Collard City Growers, an independent community gardening group, have joined with TBR and the Sanctuary to form a coalition called Freedom Square. Jointly, they have acquired a nearby vacant lot that is used in conjunction with the standing buildings for various events benefiting the area and furthering a variety of causes. All of this has been accomplished with extremely limited funding

“It’s really good to have them here,” Pastor Bakote says of TBR. “It takes all of us to really, truly effect change. Freedom Square personifies what we’re trying to do here, which is really to bring about a complete change through collaborative effort. It takes all of us, not just one entity.”

“There really is no one specific viewpoint that we all have as a group,” says Jenkins, who holds a day job as an event tech at EMPAC. “But I think everyone at TBR agrees about the empowerment of youth and also educating people in a hands-on way and about alternative transportation. Really it’s just about the whole notion of personal and community empowerment. This whole block is really trying to do good things for this community.”

“When we opened here at the new building on the first day—before we ever invented Youth Shop—we were flooded, quite literally, with kids,” says Lynn. “The number of children in the surrounding area is pretty incredible.” One thing that struck him was the age of the children who would wander into the building unsupervised. “We’re not trying to be a day care, but there are some kids coming from pretty rough situations. North Troy is one of the poorest areas of the state and definitely of the city, and we’re at the heart of that neighborhood. I think we all—the core staff here—knew that our reality was going to shift somewhat.” Lynn says. They wanted to be sure to remain true to the collective’s primary ideas, but realize and respond to a local need that seemed obvious.

And so began the Troy Bike Rescue Youth Shop. For two hours twice a week, the shop is turned over to children between the ages of 10 and 15 who are allowed work independently under the supervision of experienced adult volunteers. “With the volume of kids we had here, it was clear they were dominating the space during normal hours. So we decided to give them their own time. It’s theirs and we’re just here to facilitate and make sure that things remain calm and run smoothly. It’s a lot like a supervised clubhouse.”

The general idea is still the same. Anyone can come in and, after an educational introduction and six hours of volunteer work on other bikes, pick out a frame of their choice, fix it up and ride it home. The Learn & Earn program has made hundreds of bikes available to youth and adults in the Capital Region who would not otherwise have been able to afford them.

“It’s good stuff,” smiles Erica Redling, an especially active volunteer who spends much of her time working with the Youth Shop.

“It’s always a really great thing to see a kid come in and get to fix his bike and ride it home,” says another volunteer, Josh Skomsky. “They always leave with big smiles and tell their friends, who end up coming in too.”

That’s how Lesha Danford got here. “I had a friend whose bike was broken,” she says. “And mine was broken too.” Danford had so much fun that she kept coming back. She has learned enough to help some of the newer kids, she says, but “other people are helping me so I can learn more too.”

Sitting next to Danford is Adijonay White. Her shiny pink and purple bike isn’t broken; she’s come to TBR to earn a bike for her brother. “I’m fixing a bike for my baby brother, Maurice. He doesn’t have one.”

In the workroom, Matthew Boston and Marcel Hart-Young, two boys from the immediate neighborhood, seem completely at home tearing tires off wheels, attaching brakes and locating tools with ease. Both have finished working on their own bikes and continue to show up in order to hang out and help others.

And this particular muggy Monday happens to be Todd Gordon’s first time at the new location, even though he was a regular at the old one. He came today with his best friend, Juan Montegro, who has been coming here all summer. (When they’re not working on bikes, Gordon and Montegro co-operate a popsicle stand.)

Safety is always stressed, no less during normal hours than during Youth Shop. Staff-only spaces are meant to keep children away from potentially dangerous areas, horseplay and carelessness are strenuously discouraged, and free helmets (donated by the local police station) are foisted on every child—often in vain.

“We really feel that, over the age of 10, we are able to communicate with these kids about safety issues,” says Lynn. “There is an emphasis on teaching through example and allowing each child to learn in their own way. We have never had any issues with actual fighting, but every once in a while it can get tough in here. We have to understand it’s a different sort of environment than we may have been used to.”

At any given moment that the shop is open, even during adult hours (ages 16-plus), there may anywhere from 15 to 30 people working. (A Women/Trans/Femmes night on the second Thursday of every month tends to be more sporadic, depending largely on promotional efforts.) Lynn says that there seem to be three levels of involvement: A group of about 15 actively committed volunteers comprise what he considers to be the core staff, then there are a larger number of volunteers who are less consistent but come as often as their daily lives will allow and, finally, there are those who show up simply to earn or fix a bike.

Committed TBR volunteers have been careful not to forget their first passion in the transition to north Troy. Before all else, this is a group of bicycle lovers and cycling enthusiasts. Long bike rides, like the one Feinberg went on in early July, are organized whenever possible and seem to provide an almost spiritual outlet for those who choose to join.

“For me, they’re pretty huge . . . sort of experiential adventures in self-sufficiency,” says Lynn. “It’s an intentional chance to go beyond our normal human interactions. We spend all this time together, eat together, figure out where to pee together and help each other along. I’m guessing Laura felt that, if we could fix up bikes on a 250-mile ride with just the tools in our backpacks, she could certainly learn in a shop. And I’m really glad that she feels she can become more involved.”

“For me, it’s kind of a way to separate myself from the world and my job and the state of things both economically and environmentally,” says Jenkins. “And to experience what it’s like to be on your own and not owned by your possessions. You have only the things on your back and get out there and get to know yourself and your friends a lot better.”

A shorter, all-ages ride has been planned for this coming Monday, and is intended to be the culmination of the summer kids program known as Uptown Summer, a cooperative Freedom Square effort. “We’re going to continue Youth Shop here at TBR,” assures Lynn. “This ride is really meant to celebrate the culmination of a summer of working with these kids. Also, being a group of avid cyclists who use our bikes to get basically everywhere—not just down the street, but from city to city—we wanted to share that passion with them, take them out of their comfort zone and help them see that they can do it too.”

The ride is a scenic 10 miles, a mere fraction of the distance covered by Feinberg and others in July. (Seven of the 15 riders made the return trip from Maine, cycling a total of 500 miles round-trip.) “Ten miles might sound like it’s far, but that’s kind of the point.” Contingency plans are in place for those who feel like they can’t make it the full distance, and snacks and water will be provided to the youth. “We definitely don’t expect them to come prepared.”

“The kids that are in that 10-to-15-year-old age group are going to become teenagers in the next couple of years,” says Lynn. “If we can help to create a different kind of community within that younger age group that, in some way, helps to subvert some of the issues that are so prevalent in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. . . . Certainly we won’t change all of their lives, but we could be doing something pretty socially powerful without the kind of funding and resources of so many nonprofits that are trying to do the same kind of work.”