Neighborhood Bike Works in West Philadelphia isn’t like other bike shops.
Yes, you can buy bikes there or drop off your ride to get a tune-up, but what sets the nonprofit shop apart is its commitment to educating young and adult cyclists on how to fix bikes themselves.
That was the case for Eric Holte, who walked into the shop on 3939 Lancaster Ave. on one rainy Tuesday night.
“I don’t know how to fix my bike, and that’s why I’m here … learning from these wonderful folks,” said Holte.
Holte, 55, has been riding bikes since he was a young boy. Now, as an adult, he rides all around Philadelphia, from Forbidden Drive to the gym. In all his years riding for recreation, he never fixed a bike issue himself, but that evening, he had a flat and no shop was open.
Enter: Bike Church.
Bike Church is one of the programs run by Neighborhood Bike Works. It’s a weekly time when the shop opens itself up for do-it-yourself repairs. During these open hours, anyone, regardless of experience level, can stop by and receive support from staff and volunteers in fixing their own bike. The name comes from when the shop’s primary facility first operated out of St. Mary’s church in West Philadelphia.
“We provide the tools, we provide the space, you have access to parts if you need to replace anything,” said Andrew Ciampa, the operations manager of Bike Works. “Then there are skilled volunteers floating around who can give you assistance. So it’s not expected that you know what you’re doing when you come through the door.”
‘People find value’ in community bike shops
Neighborhood Bike Works opened up shop in 1996 and originally started as a project of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. The nonprofit specializes in bike repair education for both youth and adults and also aims to provide equitable access to bikes throughout Philadelphia. For the past two years, they’ve given out over 140 bikes to essential workers in the region through their Bikes for Neighbors initiative.
While Bike Church is exclusively for adults, there are plenty of other options for young people, ages 8 to 18, like beginner and advanced group rides and opportunities for leadership and job readiness. That includes mechanical training on a bike that you get to keep for yourself.
“There’s an amazing thing that happens when you teach a kid how to fix a bike,” said executive director Jessi West. “There’s this amazing sense of freedom and expansion that comes with that bicycle,” she added. The programs provide mentorship and “constructive activities,” that help with gun violence prevention, which District Attorney Larry Krasner recently praised.
Bike Works began with a youth-centered program, but it quickly added Bike Church for adults a few years after it began, in 2000.
Bike Church has long been a place for people to gather and learn together. Since the program is donation-based, it’s also affordable to many cyclists in the city, especially those who may not otherwise be able to afford to get their bike fixed, but rely on their bike as their primary mode of transportation.
“When you can have the knowledge to service it yourself, you’re saving so much money,” said West. “It really allows them to have a self-sustaining way to get themselves around the city and to do what they need to do.”
It’s also a place that cultivates community, says Ciampa, who started out as a student in an adult-repair class, then a volunteer, before becoming a staff member.
“A lot of the people, volunteers, and patrons are here on a regular basis. They know one another. They like spending time together,” Ciampa said.
Bike Church is partly made possible by the volunteers who offer up their time and expertise every week.
Ry Deroche is one of them. Deroche has been working on bikes for over 20 years and has been a volunteer at Bike Church for eight years. He says there’s something powerful about fixing something yourself in a space focused on teaching.
“I think that’s why it’s been around for so long, because people find a value in it,” said Deroche.
While Deroche helped one patron, Michael Benco was the volunteer assisting Holte to fix his flat. Benco showed him the ropes — how to remove the tire, remove the tube, patch it and then pop it back in.
Holte left after having patched the hole himself. He also adjusted the brakes on his bike and installed a stem to raise his handlebars.
“I feel empowered,” laughed Holte. “Forget YouTube, go to church.”
Bike Church takes place multiple times a week and while it’s open to everyone, there is an additional session that happens twice a month specifically for women, trans, and nonbinary people. The separate program came from members of the community who expressed wanting a space for them, but it is currently in need of volunteers.
Neighborhood Bike Works accepts all sorts of bike donations — the bicycles are then refurbished or used for parts. The group is hosting a bike drive on Saturday, May 7, in Media, Pennsylvania.
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