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Free bike repairs and self-empowerment in Jamaica Plain
words and photos by Liz Pelly

A bicycle can be a radical way to rethink the world around you – and The Community Spoke! in Jamaica Plain puts that sentiment under a microscope.

The Community Spoke! is a free community-oriented bike workshop, located in a backyard in Jamaica Plain, behind a collective house where many activists live.

“It’s a good collaborative space,” says Dora Cacioppo, a 28-year-old Allston resident. By day, Dora works at a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge. But most of her free time is spent volunteering at the Spoke. “The people who live in this house are down with same principles that we’re down with.”

The Spoke -- which has open hours on Tuesdays from 6-9pm, when anyone can stop by to borrow tools, meet with volunteer mechanics, and learn about bike repair – is collectively run and radically minded space. As I wander around the garage, one of the first things to catch my eye is the “Safer Space” policy, prominently displayed at the entrance:

“We are open to all and we ask you to respect and welcome each other and encourage a space free from oppression and violence. Oppressive behavior will not be tolerated. Oppressive behavior includes making anyone feel uncomfortable on the basis of their bicycling/mechanic experience, cultural background, gender identity, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, or any means of personal expression or physical abilities.”

When I visit on a Tuesday, eight folks are at the Spoke – some inside the garage, working on bikes, the others hanging around in the backyard. Members of the local Food Not Bombs chapter show up to work on their bikes, which cart around free food to public spaces two days per week.

Cacciopo tells me about her initial experiences with bike culture that inspired her to want to start something like The Community Spoke!.

“When I was first learning about bikes, and learning how to fix a bike, I would go to a shop and just feel dumb,” she tells me, sitting on a white wicker couch in the backyard, surrounded by overgrown plants and wildflowers. “A bike shop is an intimidating environment. Something on my bike would be broken, and I wouldn’t know what it was called. I definitely had some negative experiences … Hopefully coming here, people will feel like they have a space where they won’t be talked down to. ”

The culture surrounding bicycling is also largely male-dominated, Cacciopo explains, which inspired her to start a Women & Trans night at The Community Spoke! one night per month.

As we converse, a few feet away from us, Alex Drexler, 28, is teaching someone how to properly align her wheels using the shop’s jig. Drexler is a co-founder of The Community Spoke! collective, and volunteers his free time here. But during the day, he works as a professional mechanic at Community Bicycle Supply in the South End – a drastically different environment from the Spoke. As a result, he sees the different ways in which social strata and financial privilege can influence different people’s experiences with bike culture.

“During the day, there are a lot of diff types of work I do, and a lot of it is with expensive and high end bikes,” says Drexler. “But a lot of the time, a cheap bike is all someone can get. There’s a lot of work we cant do in the interest of staying in business, and a lot of bikes we have to turn away.

At the Spoke it’s the opposite. All of the materials at The Community Spoke! are reclaimed, stripped from old bikes, donated or dumpstered.

“On Tuesday someone came with a $2000 bike, and wanted an adjustment,” Drexler says. “We couldn’t do it, we don’t have the tools for high end fine tuning. It’s interesting dynamic to be part of both of these shops.”

In many ways, it was these sorts of experiences working at bike shops that made Drexler want to open something like The Community Spoke! – an open and accessible place where money would not be an issue; where anyone could come to make their bicycle safe to ride.

Both Cacciopo and Drexler believe in bikes as a means to overcome oppressive societal constructs; as a means to personal freedom and self-empowerment.

Cacciopo sees this as one of the main concepts The Community Spoke! has to teach – and its one of the reasons why she is glad so many young neighborhood kids flock to the Spoke after school.

“We have a gaggle of neighborhood kids who come, they travel in a pack of 10,” she says. “I think it can teach them at a young age about personal freedom – that they can rely on themselves. It builds confidence and independence.”

In The Community Spoke!’s mission statement, the collective explains their approach to bikes as hoping to foster a culture of mutual aid. “It’s about having a community where things are free, and people help each other,” says Drexler. “When we table at events, we usually get the same questions. ‘So you don’t charge anything? Why?’ To a lot of people it’s crazy to do all of this for free. But in my eyes, I want to see a world where that would be the norm rather than the exception.”

The Community Spoke! is currently seeking volunteers. No experience with bike mechanics necessary! E-mail thecommunityspoke@gmail.com.

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