Friday, October 28, 2011

Learning to Fix my Bike: Brakes First

I recently finished Bike Works' Adult Basics Class (ABC), where I'd been spending my Sundays for the last six weeks learning about basic bike repair. The teacher, stylin' bike advocate, comic book artist, and all around wonderdude Davey Oil, had started us out with some basics not about bike repair, but about the social dynamics of bike repair. He encouraged us to think about how the bike world does not necessarily interrupt the race/class/gender discrimination many people experience in their everyday lives. So, fittingly, he wrapped up the class by asking us to use our new bike knowledge to help people, not to bludgeon them with our insider status.

To me, Davey's observations were spot on. I've avoided learning much about bike repair even though I've been an urban transport cyclist since 2005. A big reason was having a partner who enjoyed learning about sprockets (guess who got the bike pump when we split up), but I also felt out of place in bike co-ops and other spaces where some people knew a lot more about how these machines functioned than I did. I tend to feel intimidated by my own ignorance, and it can get in the way of me learning new things. When I lived at the LA Eco-Village, even with the fabulous Bicycle Kitchen a few blocks away and many cooks as my neighbors, I didn't blossom into bike repair glory.

I did spend a few hours at the Bike Kitchen on a Saturday back in 2010, learning some bike maintenance basics. The thing that stuck with me, though, wasn't how to hang a bike on a repair stand, but that my front brake freaked bike mechanics out.

What we see here, folks, is a caliper arm that has been bent at an odd angle. Here's how it should look in context, the one marked 5:

Diagram source here.

Back in 2007, when I still lived in Portland, I came out of a shop on SE Hawthorne one afternoon, and discovered, as I tried to ride home, that my handlebars had a new shape and that the front wheel would turn only under duress. Baffled, I eventually decided that someone had attacked my bike with a blunt object. I took it in to the Bike Gallery on SE Woodstock, and they installed new handlebars. The mechanic there explained that though one of the front brake's caliper arms had been bent, it still worked just fine, so he wasn't going to replace it.

So I rode around for years, not having any problems with my brakes. I knew that my front brake looked funny, but usually I forgot about it until a look of horror crossed the face of the person-in-the-know examining my bike. Especially once I started doing outreach with day laborer cyclists, some of whom managed to get around on bikes with much bigger problems, I saw my front brake as a symbol of biking unpretentiously. Then, on the first rainy day I rode in Seattle this October, I discovered that my brake was all wonky. Living in a rainy, hilly city has made me more concerned about bike repair than I ever was in Portland or LA. When I asked Davey to take a look at it, his face reminded me about the bent caliper arm.

It turned out to be the quick release mechanism messing things up this time around, but on the last day of ABC, when we got to bring in our own bikes instead of learning on the kiddie bikes that Bike Works refurbishes, I knew what my project would be. Time for a new brake! In order to get the job done that same day with the shop's limited supplies, I ended up replacing my front brake with a simpler one that did not have a quick release for easy wheel removal. I gotta say, I felt pretty good about doing this thing myself. I even figured out that I could strip the replacement brake down to its centerbolt so that I could transfer everything onto the longer centerbolt that had attached the old brake to my bike.

I've got many more overhauls in mind for my bike, now that I feel more comfortable digging in and figuring this stuff out. If you find yourself learning about bike repair and feeling embarrassed, make sure you're in an environment that doesn't take itself too seriously. Davey really drilled us to accept that it's ok to not know what you're doing, and I also once spent a magical afternoon at the Bike Kitchen fixing a flat under the mad tutelage of cooks Eric Potter and Jonny Green, which showed me how fun bike repair can be with the right attitude. I mean, it was like Alice in Wonderland meets Mary Poppins up in there. Thrills galore!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Brief Visit to the SLC Bicycle Collective

I like to get a little fieldwork in when I travel. My trip to Salt Lake City culminated in one incredibly busy day, where I presented on a panel entitled "Transportation Mode Choice and Behavior among Immigrants" at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning annual conference, and also visited a local bike organization that does cool work.

This was my first time at ACSP, and I really enjoyed it. I ran into folks from my university, fell in with a flock of Canadian planning PhDs, and generally had fun. By going to panels, I also got a better sense of what I'd need to say to make my research about bikes, bodies, and public space in LA mean something to transportation planners. After listening to a rewarding roundtable discussion by recipients of the Paul Davidoff Book Award, I scooted out to the light rail and used the transit pass that had been included in my conference materials (what a great idea) to head south to the SLC Bicycle Collective. I was interested in visiting because their website talks about recycled bikes and serving low income communities. My research and activism focus on making connections between low income communities and the bike movement. Not only do low income cyclists exist in cities and suburbs, we should be doing more to promote cycling in low income communities. So I was excited to find out what's being done on this front in SLC!

Located in a light industrial neighborhood, several long blocks from a light rail station, the Collective has an impressive workspace full of bikey materials. When I arrived, there were only a few people wrenching, since they had not yet started their public hours. Over coffee at the vegan café down the block, I met with Jonathan Morrison, a co-founder of the space and the executive director, and learned a bit about their goals and programming.

Jonathan moved to the city in 2000, and met some other bicyclists through Critical Mass. Someone at a local government bike advisory committee suggested opening a tool cooperative, but the city passed on funding something like that. Thinking it'd be cool to have a place to fix their bikes, a kind of shared garage, a group of people decided to take the project on. They incorporated in 2002, and decided to focus on offering bike education to low income kids and promoting bikes as transportation. Almost ten years later, they're going strong.

Most impressive to me, the Collective has relationships with groups that support refugees and other immigrants in Salt Lake City. A person in need of transportation can get a voucher from a participating organization, bring it here, and walk out with a recycled bike. I like the idea of nonprofits working together like a machine.

And, similar to what happened in Los Angeles around the Bike Kitchen, the Collective's presence seems to have encouraged more businesses to open up in the neighborhood. The vegan café (where the very sweet server treated us to coffee) and another bike shop have opened up nearby since they settled into this location.

When we walked back over so Jonathan could open up the space for fixing hours, we found a group of people waiting to get to work. Before I left I happened upon a volunteer trying to communicate with a Latino man who spoke mainly in Spanish. Jonathan had mentioned that the collective hasn't yet managed to establish relationships with SLC's Latino community, and it did seem like this man was having a hard time getting started on his repairs. I tried to help facilitate understanding, but having gone months without talking about bikes in Spanish, I struggled too. Fortunately it seems like a space that would welcome more involvement by Spanish speaking volunteers, and I admired the effort the volunteer made to cross the language barrier.

As I walked back to the light rail, I thought about how if I lived in SLC, I would be volunteering at the Collective and helping bridge that gap, being human infrastructure to make their services work for Spanish speakers. Then I thought, how come I'm not doing that work in Seattle? Thanks for reminding me to take initiative in my community, SLC Bicycle Collective!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Notes on Salt Lake City

1. Here industry does not refer to pollution or exploitation. It refers to group harmony.

2. The streets are very wide. My hostess told me an urban legend about the streets being made wide enough to accommodate wagons turning around. The city's grid centers on the LDS temple.

3. Because religion shaped the urban form, public and private space can be hard to differentiate. What look like city parks or shopping malls are actually church properties.

4. At one such park, the LDS church "honors" Brigham Young as a colonizer. They gloss over his polygamy though.

5. The sturdy old buildings remind me of other southwestern cities like Flagstaff and Denver.

6. Across the railroad tracks on the west side of downtown, you can find some industrial urban decay.

7. The City and County building looks like a fantastic castle. It's the grandest example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture I've met. The security guard inside let me wander around after giving me a mini lecture about the building's history (this dude was well informed).

8. They've got the most picturesque capitol I've seen, up on a hill commanding the valley. The interiors were very impressive, but it all felt too clean and neat rather than maturely aged.

9. The City Library blows my mind! Rooftop garden, check. Lots of seating next to windows, check. They also have shops inside an atrium, a very engaging layout, and a fantastic public space outside. Also it's open till 9 pm on weeknights. Last but not least, beekeeping in the rooftop garden.

10. There's a garden called Gilgal that looks kind of like a cross between a miniature golf course and the Watts Towers. Like the Watts Towers, it was developed over many years by one guy. My hostess described it as a different expression of LDS faith than one would find at the tabernacle complex.

11. As I left Gilgal, I saw a woman who was texting and driving very nearly run over a young girl riding a bike in a crosswalk. I don't think the texting motorist ever noticed the girl, she didn't slow down or look up from her phone. The girl had to stop short, about an inch from being hit. I tried to shake the chill from my spine. Later I discovered that the U.S. Department of Transportation has a campaign around distracted driving. Here's their website.

Overheard on the California Zephyr

Amtrak's California Zephyr line runs from Emeryville near San Francisco to Chicago. It crosses the Sierra Nevada, the deserts of Nevada and Utah, and climbs again over the Rockies. I took it from Sacramento to Salt Lake City, spending a sunny afternoon in the observation lounge watching pines and mountains pass by. I read my book, but I also eavesdropped.

A large group of elderly people had boarded with me in Sacramento, apparently part of some paid excursion. My trips on Amtrak's long distance trains have shown me that many of the people with the wealth and leisure time to buy sleeping car accommodations have lived long enough to remember the glory days of passenger rail. This train, though, with its particularly scenic route, seemed to attract even more old folks than usual.

My ears caught the occasional murmured remarks of a man traveling alone who seemed to know an awful lot about the terrain through which we traveled. Perhaps he'd worked in some industry here? Though others listened to his words and sometimes asked questions, he never struck up a conversation with anyone, staring out the window as he spoke. Over the intercom a volunteer shared facts about our route, and the quiet man seemed to enjoy naming landmarks before we heard them announced by the official guide.

To my left I heard a woman with leathery, oversunned skin strike up a conversation with another woman. Their husbands played peripheral roles in the interaction. She assumed that this woman would share her Republican partisanship, and launched into an enthusiastic overview of her economic and political beliefs, probably culled from the radio pundits to which she claimed allegiance. "We go to the Tea Party," she shared, before claiming that "half the kids at Occupy Wall Street don't know what they're picketing for." Then she and her husband praised their favorite resort in Mexico, down south near "Kawsta" Rica. So cheap! In the same breath, they talked about how they wouldn't go near Ensenada or other towns near the border because of the drug violence. These people did not support "handouts" here, but they did not seem to grasp the exploitation people suffer in Mexico. What would happen to their suburban enclave in the bay area if they got their myopic way, destroyed all social services, and more people turned to lucrative trafficking of illegal goods? Maybe they don't understand that what they experience as affluence, the freedom to ride their motorcycles around the country and to visit all-inclusive resorts in parts of the world they can't pronounce, wouldn't be considered crumbs off the table of the people whose economic interests their twisted politics support.

After the talkative couple returned to their seats, I overheard the husband of the accosted woman express his frustration at the tanned woman's presumption. They had voted for Obama. "I thought she was nice," his wife retorted, going back to her seat alone in a huff.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Drifting in Sacramento

The Coast Starlight chugged into Sacramento around 5 am last Tuesday. I picked up my things and went into the station and sat there until the sky lightened, around 7:15 am. Using my handy internet phone, I identified a source for caffeine and set out for Temple Coffee.

The café's overhead lamps reflected in the window.

As I've remarked before, I really like that layovers on the train happen in the middle of cities rather than in contained non-places like when traveling by air. I needed to be back at the Sacramento train station for an 11 am train to Salt Lake City, but I had a few hours for exploring. Despite having grown up in California (fourth generation, yo! My great great grandfather drove a streetcar in San Bernardino at the turn of the century), I'd never been to the capitol. So I knew my drifting needed to take me there.

The morning gloom burned off while I made my way around. I saw some neat buildings and public spaces, and lots of people biking, but also a surprising number of empty storefronts and decay. I found some helpful maps posted around downtown, so I didn't manage to get fully lost. Good thinking, city peeps!

Then I found the capitol by following a lovely pedestrianized avenue.

I went inside, expecting them to hassle me about carrying a backpack and full tote bag (no lockers at the train station, unfortunately. The only cities where I've been able to use lockers are Chicago and Portland, where you can find lockers in the adjacent Greyhound station). The guards didn't care, so I got to wander around the stately old halls. Pretty much by myself, too.

All up in your rotunda.

Fancy lamps in a stairwell.

I think this was in the midcentury East Annex.

Heading back to the train station, I saw a shopping mall. It could be that there are so many empty storefronts cause of this mall in the city center.
Personally I'd rather go to a store in a handsome edifice like this one.
Lots of lovely California architecture.
Getting to the train station, which is part of a regional transit center, isn't exactly pedestrian friendly. First you have to cross a street where they've limited your crossing options.
And then the public space in front of the station is filled with parking.
I made it back with plenty of time. I could see from the train platform that there was a secret passage to Old Sacramento.
Intrigued, I passed through. It's neat that there's a pedestrian connection to the park under a highway, but I felt let down when I got there.
I love old buildings, but in a case like this, where the city relocated old buildings to this spit of land between a highway and a river, what you have is a tourist trap and not a thriving neighborhood. My willing suspension of disbelief couldn't overcome the roar of traffic on the highway.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flânerie at the Bins

I went to the Goodwill Outlet, aka the bins, on 6th Street today. I wanted to find piles and piles of old wool sweaters to do some sewing experiments for winter bike wear, but I ended up with just a few accessories. (You can read about my projects using recycled materials on my other blog, Fashionrubble). I did get lots of flânerie (observing urban space) done though.

I've been to Goodwill outlets in Santa Ana and Los Angeles, California, in Portland, Oregon, and this one here in Seattle. You enter a big, sometimes open-sided warehouse, and see many people digging through big plastic tubs of items lined up along aisles. You walk over and start pulling items out, tossing them aside if they don't look promising, or holding onto them as you move down the aisle. The items come from Goodwill stores where they failed to find a buyer. Lots of times you find old tags on things as a reminder of this, and you think, good thing I'm not going to pay $6.95 for this! At the bins, you pay for most items by the pound. Today I bought a bunch of accessories and paid $1.63.

The bins mostly contain good surprises, but sometimes they can be gross, which is why some people wear gloves. The items get rumpled and broken by being tossed back and forth, and I don't know what happens during processing behind the scenes, but I've seen things in the bins that shouldn't be there. Things can smell weird, or people leave odd things around, like today I saw a plastic bottle half full of some brown liquid sitting in a sea of toys. Later I saw a women reaching into a pile of housewares, heard an explosion, and saw her pull her hand away quickly. An exploding cap? For people who work there, the ambient dust can cause health problems. My very friendly cashier today wore a face mask to preserve his lungs.

It's a pretty social experience shopping at the bins. You're working your way down an aisle, another person slowly makes it to your section, and you negotiate who is going to stay there and who is going to move, usually without exchanging words or even glances. Some people make money off of finding valuable things they can resell, so competition can be fierce when fresh bins get rotated in. The regulars pick up on some signal to which I'm oblivious and they position themselves to grab as many items as they can from the new assortment. Today I witnessed a slight altercation between a scruffy looking white hipster and an African man with a heavy accent. The African man would call out to his friend, and the white man would mimic him. Eventually the African man told him to cut it out, saying, "I don't like you." I couldn't tell if these people spent time together here regularly, but it seemed like they might.

People have fun there for sure. I see little kids dragging around exciting new toys they've found, and it's always satisfying when you see some promising thing poking out from under a pile, you tug, and it's even more amazing than you thought. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who feels this way, based on the glee streaming across the faces of the pickers dividing up the newest spoils.

I have this sense that somehow I'm supposed to grow out of thrift shopping, or at least out of shopping at places like the bins. As a professional, I should be buying clothes at Banana Republic and J.Crew. Guess what, I buy a lot of their clothes; I just wait till someone else has broken them in first.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Urban Space

Seattle's really socking it to me right now, season-wise. Fall has always been my favorite season, even though growing up in Southern California it was less about colorful leaves and more about HELLSTORMS and UNCONTAINED BLAZES, aka fire season. A dry pile of leaves? Dangerous fire hazard, not a crunchy trampoline or, in Calvin's case, a talking monster. I'm so down to be living in a city where it's crisp and cold out, and even at the moment clear and dry! Whoop.

I finally made it down to the local OWS/99% encampment at Westlake Park today. Even though police had cleared all the tents this morning, there were lots of people sitting in the park, having conversations, and looking around. With the youthful and grungy feel to the crowd, it seemed like a European square rather than a disused plaza like we so often see in these United States.

Protests have a dual character. They put forth a perspective on some policy, but they also queer how people use urban space. Usually we flow through it instead of holding still. Often we're alone on our way to or from someplace, crossing paths with many strangers on other trajectories, instead of moving in a group with a common purpose. The power of numbers, of having a critical mass of people, doesn't just demonstrate something to observers. It creates a different kind of public space. I've written about this aspect of protest here, and in my dissertation I'm writing about the legacy of the Situationist International as it relates to creative uses of space like ciclovías.

As a sustainable-urban-living activist, I feel like protests tend to be a performance of a fantasy 1968, referencing rather than stimulating a political shift. It feels pretty energizing, but then everyone goes home, back to their lives, where they may or may not conceive of their everyday practices as relating to the things they were protesting. But occupying urban space can itself be an important statement in a country where people spend so much time alone in cars and subdivisions. I wonder if for many of the people participating in this ongoing protest, it might be as much about spending time with other humans as it is about resisting economic exploitation.

A few New York blogs have commented on Occupy Wall Street's use of privately owned public open space (here and here). I don't know what the situation is here in Seattle in terms of private or public ownership, but I do know that Seattle's public spaces sometimes feel lonely, even when there are people around. Westlake didn't feel lonely today. Walking my bike up Pike Street after leaving Westlake, I saw a large group of people on a corner. Protesting? No, waiting for the bus.

Salt Lake City Before Sunrise

I'm going to write about my recent trip to SLC as a series of meditations on using sustainable ground transport to get around the United States, and how challenging it can be. Logistically challenging, and also frowned upon: I got a lot of strange looks from people I told I'd be riding the Greyhound.

First, a logistical challenge. Because a whole lot of beautiful mountains lie along the California Zephyr's route, Amtrak has scheduled that train to pass through the flatlands of Nevada and Utah in the middle of the night. When I bought my ticket to Salt Lake City last month, I kind of shrugged off the arrival time, 3:30 am. As my trip grew closer, I started to worry. The sun would rise in Salt Lake City around 7:30 am. What was I supposed to do with myself until then? What do you do when you get to an unfamiliar city in the wee smas? As a woman traveling alone, and as a grad student traveling on a shoestring, I rely on networks like to stay with locals, and I don't think it's at all appropriate to be like, arrival time: middle of the freaking night. All of a sudden I needed a 24 hour public space, and I didn't know if that was something SLC could provide. I did some Googling, and found that a nearby Denny's provided potential sanctuary in case hanging out in the train station wasn't possible.

For once I hoped Amtrak would run hours behind schedule, but we actually arrived early. I woke up at 3 am to see a ghostly salt lake outside the train window and thought, shiiiiit, time to face the music. The Amtrak station in Salt Lake City sits in a new complex that integrates local and regional transit, bringing together heavy rail, Greyhound buses, light rail, and city buses. Pretty cool! Still, not a cozy place to hang out before sunrise. The train station itself turned out to be a prefab box that only stayed open until 5 am, but people sitting there could mosey across the transit plaza to the Greyhound station, which would just be opening its doors at that hour. (I did some research, and Amtrak plans to move into a refurbished station soon. More info here on their Great American Stations website.) Since I planned to spend some time in the Greyhound Station the following night, I didn't really want to hang out there in the morning as well. On the map it looked like a short walk to Denny's. So I settled in to wait until 5.

I tried to follow along with the manic vignettes in the massive Pynchon tome I'd brought along, but instead eavesdropped as a sort of neorealist one act unfolded among others in the waiting room. One man sat near me and didn't talk to anybody. An older man, traveling alone, tried to figure out how to reserve a rental car to reach his daughter's house in the suburbs. A young family coached him through this. They listened as he made a reservation not for Salt Lake City, but for his hometown, having misunderstood what the lady on the phone meant when she asked for a zip code. Once he hung up, the young father asked him some questions to get him to realize his mistake, and he called back to correct it. Then they chatted some more, and it turned out that the young father worked as a commercial driver for Walmart. The time had nearly reached 5 am, so first the family and then the older man migrated out of the station. Somewhere in the mix the other man had left as well, so I found myself alone in the silent station. End scene.

I went out into the frosty air to start my walk to Denny's, and I found the ticket agent taking a smoke break. He advised me to take a cab instead of walking long blocks through an industrial area, and told me some stories comparing SLC to other cities. So I took a cab to Denny's and drank about six gallons of diner coffee. My Couchsurfing hostess picked me up there just as the sun began to lighten the sky over the mountains.

I feel pretty good that I made it work, but it'd be nice to live in a country where you weren't expected to vanish into private space as soon as you step off your train, while those of us without the resources to do so simply wait wherever we can for the sun to come up.