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LA Bike Kitchen Helps Get Cyclists on the Road

Like similar spaces across the country, the Bike Kitchen is a hub for DIY culture

While living in Oakland, Vivek Mittal's only form of transportation — aside that of public variety — was his bicycle. But after living in car-dominated Houston and now Los Angeles, the 33-year-old attorney moved away from bike riding and instead came to rely on his automobile to get around.

bike kitchen posterThe Bicycle Kitchen is a horizontally based organization with no leadership and almost entirely
run by volunteers.

That is, until now.

After six years without owning a bicycle, Mittal recently purchased a used ride on Craigslist so he can join the growing bicycle culture in Los Angeles. In some parts of LA, bike riding more than doubled just between 2009 and 2011, according to the LA Bike Coalition.

“I just didn't think about it,” Mittal said of why he only recently got around to purchasing a bike. He now plans to commute the three miles from his East Hollywood home to his downtown office.

To get his second-hand road bike in working condition, Mittal brought it to the LA Bicycle Kitchen for a tune up.

The Bicycle Kitchen is a non-profit bicycle repair educational organization. The setup consists of six workstations, all the tools necessary to repair a bike, and spare parts. Anyone is welcomed to stop by or make an appointment to work at one of the stations at a suggested donation of $7 an hour and the cost of the used parts; no one is ever turned away for lack of funds. Experienced volunteers, known as “cooks,” are around to teach customers what needs to be done, but they will not do the work themselves.

The organization was started in 2002 by a bicycle messenger. Its first home was in an unused room in LA's Eco-Village. After a period at the corner of Heliotrope and Melrose, the Bicycle Kitchen recently moved to a new space on Fountain near Sunset Boulevard.

Eric Potter first heard about the organization in 2005 through some friends. Mechanically inclined, Potter felt comfortable working on his mountain bike at home, but when he needed some assistance in rebuilding his bike's rear hub, he knew where to turn.

“Finally, that day came where I needed help with my bike and I thought 'Hey, I can go to the Bicycle Kitchen,'” the musician and sound engineer said. “I just knew I could go down to the kitchen and pick a couple of brains about it.”

Potter, 48, now volunteers regularly as a cook. “We see a lot of people who need help with their bikes,” Potter said. “Some times it's people who have some idea of what they need to do but just want a little help. I think more and more we've been seeing economically marginal people who might even be homeless. That seems to be a slowly growing segment of our clientèle.”

The Bicycle Kitchen is not unique to Los Angeles. Other LA-area bicycle workspaces include the Bike Oven in Highland Park, Bici Libre near downtown, Bikerowave in Mar Vista, the Bicycle Tree in Orange County, and the Valley Bikery in the San Fernando Valley. There’s a Bike Church in Santa Cruz, Bike Kitchens in San Francisco and Sacramento, and host of similar bicycle repair collectives in cities around the world.

The LA Bicycle Kitchen does not sell bicycles, but does have a number of used bikes in various stages of disrepair. Customers can work on them at the Kitchen and then keep the bike for an agreed-upon price. Other programs offered by the Bicycle Kitchen include Bicycle Bitchen, exclusively for women and transgender; youth outreach; and regular workshops.

The Bicycle Kitchen is a horizontally based organization with no leadership and almost entirely run by volunteers (there's one paid staff member responsible for the bookkeeping).Potter chairs the Bicycle Kitchen's board and said that the organization is sustained through the suggested $7-an-hour donations from people working on their bikes as well as grants and other contributions.

“What powers this place is enthusiasm,” Potter said. “The enthusiasm comes from camaraderie and also from riding your bike. You ride your bike around the city, you become more enthusiastic about the city and you're physically energized. When we arrive here on our bicycles, we're physically energized and enthusiastic and we're ready to do something for someone.”

Riding in Los Angeles has increased in the last few years, thanks in part to the popularity of riding events CicLAvia and LA Critical Mass, which claims to be the largest community bike ride in the US. Critical Mass celebrates its 20th anniversary in San Francisco this week. The next CicLAvia is Oct. 7.

“There are people of all sorts of radically different backgrounds,” said long-time volunteer Jon West about who comes through the doors of the Bicycle Kitchen. “It's kind of a neat thing to go in and help all of those people. It's a pretty diverse group of people who ride bicycles.”

Before stripping down a donated bike for parts — items such as the chain, handlebars and bike post will be reused while the rusted out frame will be recycled — West explained the mission of the Bicycle kitchen.

“We're here to teach people and help people learn to work on their own bikes,” West, 35, said. A resident of LA's Glassell Park neighborhood, West has been involved with the Bicycle Kitchen for five years.

Fifteen-year-old high school student Andrew Arevalo knew little about working on bikes when he first purchased a used bike online last year. The Silver Lake resident visited the Bicycle Kitchen last year to gain some knowledge, and now volunteers when he can.

“I don't have a lot of money, so the Bicycle Kitchen is the main place to go,” Arevalo said.

Robert Fulton
Robert Fulton is a Los Angeles based writer, living in the Silver Lake/Los Feliz neighborhood with his wife and two cats. Fulton writes about health care, housing, sustainability, entertainment, music, sports and pretty much everything under the sun.

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