Hartford Students Find Meaning In Repairing Bicycles
April 20, 2010
A simple idea helped me see where some hope for Hartford's future lies.
Bicycles, for kids.
I was snooping around craigslist looking for a used bike when I clicked upon an ad for the Hot Spot Bike Shop on Woodland Street. The shop with the 1950s name advertised "sturdy used bikes" and cheap repairs, after school.
That was enough for me, because lately I've been addicted to visiting neighborhood bike shops, places that leave you with the feeling that nothing else really matters beyond a bicycle that works. Something else about the Hot Spot — the "after school" part and the "feel free to stop by" made me want to visit.
I walked into a bee's nest of bicycles and high school mechanics hunched over gears and derailleurs. It was a beautiful mess of spokes, grease and tools, spread out over a couple of first-floor rooms at the Urban League of Greater Hartford, which sponsors the bike shop. A University of Connecticut student and his cycling acolytes were bringing old bikes back to life.
But it was more than just that at the Hot Spot.
"I really love to come here and work," one young man, Collin Browne, told me as he adjusted the brake cables on an ancient frame. "I've learned how to fix gears. I've learned how to fix brakes."
I found a half dozen or so other stories like Collin's, of becoming enthralled with this idea of bringing old bikes back to life.
These are just old bikes, and banged-up ones at that. The Hot Spot, though, makes you believe that brakes that work, gears that shift or a little girl with a bike of her own will lead to better things.
"You are doing something important," Shan Edward, a Weaver High School senior, explained when I asked what the Hot Spot was all about.
Cyril Scarlett, 17 and bound for Manchester Community College, told me it's all about "the vibes in the bike shop."
"It's a cool place to hang out. I started coming every day."
I stood for a few minutes, beside the wheels and bikes of all sizes and colors and watched Collin, Cyril and Shan, bent over their work like North Pole elves. Cyril was certainly right.
Certainly bikes for city children can't replace learning to read, the chance to go to college or mothers and fathers with jobs. But a place with a purpose, a hopeful enclave on a street corner next to the Jamaican Fish Market, matters more than a little. It changes one's view of the possible.
"I had never really spent much time in Hartford," said George Hickey, the UConn student who has run the bike shop since last fall as part of an "urban semester" program. "I see that Hartford is a pretty positive community."
"It makes me feel like I'm actually doing something good for somebody. Pretty much everybody who comes through the shop comes through in a good mood — they are getting a bike or they are getting a bike fixed up," said Hickey, an English major from Manchester.
Hickey has been working with his teenage helpers, learning not just about fixing bikes, but bits and pieces about running a business.
"We sell bikes. But if somebody looks like they really need it, we will give it to them," he said. His high school mechanics, Hickey told me, say they've got "a poppin' off bike shop."
Nearby, Rob Graves, a volunteer mechanic with a bandanna around his head and decades of working in what he said were "bike kitchens," dispensed advice about the best way to clean a chain.
"These are the strongest wheels ever made," he proclaimed as I looked skeptically at a beat-up bike waiting for rehab. "I just do this because I love it. When people talk about bikes, their eyes light up."
The Hot Spot is open from 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. They will tune your bike for a small fee, or if you want to donate an old one they will fix it up and make sure a child gets it. Hickey told me they could really use a new set of bike repair tools.
As I left, I ran into Roxnell Cain, another Weaver senior, wheeling a small pink bicycle out to the sidewalk. He's been at the Hot Spot since last summer and is planning to study heating, ventilation and air conditioning after high school.
"You can be a part of something," Roxnell told me, pausing after I asked what keeps him coming back to the Hot Spot. "People call me now about bikes to buy."
"It's just a nice thing, to believe in yourself."
The Hot Spot Bike Shop is at 140 Woodland St., Hartford. For more information, call 860-573-6486 or e-mail email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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