Recycle-A-Bike Keeps Providence on Two Wheels

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — With their limited storage space — two semitrailers temporarily parked on Sims Avenue as The Steel Yard is renovated — already maxed out with bicycles and parts of all shapes and sizes, Recycle-A-Bike had to get creative.

Donated bicycles and their various components deemed unsafe to restore or reuse — many of the bequeathed bikes were waterlogged and so rusted they would have collapsed under any significant weight — were set aside for another purpose.

The rusty frames and useless parts were compressed into 3-foot-by-3-foot blocks that are now part of a cool-looking junk wall that has helped revitalize the downtrodden look of the former Providence Steel and Iron complex.

Recycle-A-Bike is a volunteer-based community bike education and maintenance collective that promotes bicycling as a safe, fun, sustainable and empowering mode of transportation. The group provides Greater Providence residents access to the skills, resources and space to maintain, repair and build bikes.

The group’s one full-time employee, Emily Lindberg — her modest salary funded by an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) grant that expires at the end of this year — works from a desk in The Steel Yard’s faded-white office trailer. The Steel Yard is Recycle-A-Bike’s strongest advocate, providing the collective with workshop space, access to talented metal workers, including welders, and, perhaps most importantly, tough-love guidance.

The Steel Yard — founded in 2001 by Nick Bauta and Clay Rockefeller — this year, for the first time in its five-year-old relationship with Recycle-A-Bike, started charging the collective rent. This decision was a welcome kick in the pants, according to Lindberg.

“We’re trying to be more organized and find a place that we can truly call home,” said the Connecticut native, who is a recent Rhode Island School of Design graduate. “(The Steel Yard) is pushing us to grow.”

Recycle-A-Bike has spent the past several years bouncing around the new-look Steel Yard, setting up shop in various different spaces as the complex undergoes a renovation. Before that, the collective, which was established a decade ago, worked out of a church basement on Broad Street until flooding relocated the group of bicycle enthusiasts to The Steel Yard.

Currently, the collective is trying to raise money to build a more permanent home on property adjacent to its current landlord.

“We’re raising money to create a space that is more accessible,” Lindberg said.

With the help of volunteer shop coordinator Patrick McMillan — a metalsmith artist who moved to Providence from England, where he was in graduate school, about a year ago — and the work of four committees, the somewhat-disheveled cooperative is making organizational progress.

Recycle-A-Bike would like to model itself after the well-known Bikes Not Bombs organization that is based in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

“They’re our heroes, but we’re like the cousin they aren’t aware of,” Lindberg said with a laugh.

Recycle-A-Bike and its 480 or so members help facilitate conversations about the “exploding bike culture” in the United States, bike advocacy and basic bicycle anatomy. They talk about community engagement and of the communities across the country, such as Portland, Ore., that have embraced biking systems.

The organization holds an open workshop every non-winter Tuesday from 6-9 p.m., in an unheated space that is the size of a large walk-in closet. Often, the 10 to 30 cyclists who routinely attend this program spill out into a larger working area. Blue bike stands and a bevy of tools decorate the space.

Members, who pay a monthly fee of $20, have access to this semi-regular open shop; others have to pay $5 an hour, plus the cost of parts.

All the refurbished bikes and parts are for sale, but with six hours of volunteer time — Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. cleaning up the shop, helping better the group’s Web site or finding donors — one can earn a bicycle frame to build a bike.

McMillan also teaches a class called “Wrenching Wednesdays” from 6 to 9 p.m. The four-week class costs $50 or $15 per class. The classes are designed to give participants a solid understanding of bicycle mechanics and maintenance.

“We want the organization to feature all kinds of people with different interests and skill sets who share the same vision that Providence is very bikeable,” said Lindberg, a city resident who doesn’t own a car.