For more than 20 years, people have come into Northeast Portland’s Community Cycling Center to fix a squeaky wheel, to learn how to patch a flat tire and to get their bikes into working order. And the Center is never busier than in the summer, when the sun offers a respite from the clouds and rain that permeate Portland for much of the year.
“We definitely see an increase in customers coming into the shop around June and July,” says Mychal Tetteh, who has been CEO of the Community Cycling Center for a little more than 10 months.
While summer in Portland brings out the cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts, it is also the time of year when violent crimes escalate. And under Tetteh’s leadership, the Cycling Center is focusing on how to work with members of the community to find solutions to violence and other problems that burden the city’s neighborhoods.
“The mission of the Community Cycling Center is to broaden access to bicycling and its benefits,” says Tetteh. Before coming to the Cycling Center, Tetteh was instrumental in bringing the non-profit grocery store, Village Market, to North Portland’s New Columbia neighborhood.
Tetteh believes that of all the bike shops in Portland, the Community Cycling Center’s customer base is the most diverse — and because of that, Tetteh sees both a challenge and an opportunity.
“It’s a real diverse mix of people we see coming through our doors, but when I come through the back door of the shop and take a visual snapshot of the kind of diversity that we see out there in our customer base, I’m really surprised and impressed,” he says.
“We have a vision of a vibrant, thriving community where people from all backgrounds can choose bicycles as a safe, healthy way to stay connected to the places they work, live and play,” adds Tetteh.
So when gang violence claimed the lives of two young men in the New Columbia neighborhood, and a 5-year-old boy was wounded in Southeast Portland, Tetteh and the Cycling Center saw an opportunity to make an impact. In fact, those two areas just happen to be where the Cycling Center has been operating two bike-related initiatives.
“We work with folks out at New Columbia out in North Portland and when we first started working with them, they said, ‘We don’t even have access to a bike shop nearby or affordable repair,’” says Melinda Musser, marketing and communications manager for the Cycling Center.
The Center quickly rectified the problem by building a basic bike hub that sits in the middle of the New Columbia community.
In East Portland, the Cycling Center has forged a partnership with Hacienda Community Development Corporation with the goal of promoting bike safety and communicating the importance of supporting access to active transportation. But that was before the recent spate of gang-related violence in those communities.
“For the last year and a half we’ve been looking at violence in Portland — and this isn’t violence that’s new — and after the shootings in New Columbia area and Southeast, we sat as a team and tried to brainstorm what was our response. Here we are, serving these two communities, and this violence occurs,” says Zoe Piliafas, director of programing for the Community Cycling Center.
About this same time, DeMarcus Preston, a former gang member-turned-community activist, approached the Cycling Center. Preston is hoping to use the experience from his past to find solutions for the present.
“There’s nothing for them to do,” says Preston, discussing the lack of structures and activities for kids in New Columbia. “Especially when you look at African-American youth. Every party they try to give is cancelled before it starts. Every event that tries to get thrown, the police show up and it stops before it even gets started.”
“The violence is a form of sport,” continues Preston. “It’s competition — it’s a game to them, but they don’t know how serious it is. It’s a game that can cost them their life.”
Preston sees an opportunity to tap into Portland’s bike culture as a way to help address the violence. He told staff at the Cycling Center about a group of friends he has been biking with socially and had an idea for how that could create an opportunity. Piliafas was interested. The result of the meeting was an event called “Take Back Our Streets,” a community ride seeking to create an opportunity for young people to participate in a positive activity and also address the tension and the needs of the community on their level.
“DeMarcus identifies as an ex-gang member. He has coached, he has facilitated mentoring with kids, and we had an opportunity to talk and it was about bringing the community together to have a real conversation with one another and at the same time [the Community Cycling Center] providing resources,” says Piliafas.
The “Take Back our Streets” ride is the beginning of a series of events and initiatives that the Cycling Center plans to undertake in the near future. That event is a type of umbrella initiative called “Avenues to Advocacy.” Musser says the program is an opportunity to more explicitly communicate to the public the scope of work that the organization engages in.
“‘Avenues to Advocacy’ is in the infant stages right now. But we’re trying to figure out a way to broaden access to advocacy and not just biking but active transportation in general.”
Musser says that working with Tetteh to grow the organization’s impact in the community is a challenge, but that they’ve got good momentum.
“I think many people, when they come into the shop, they don’t quite realize the depth of work that we do. But I think as we form new partnerships, whether if it’s with New Columbia, or working with DeMarcus, or the folks out at Hacienda, more people are starting to understand that we’re more than just a bike shop.”
Editor’s Note - August 29, 2014: A previous version of this article stated that the Community Cycling Center was located in North Portland. In fact, the Community Cycling Center is located in Northeast Portland.