By BARRY LANK
EAST HOLLYWOOD — This month The Bicycle Kitchen marks its fourth year on Fountain Street, offering tools, parts and floating helpers so cyclists can learn to fix their own bikes.
But the story really begins 16 years ago, when Jimmy Lizama, then a 25-year-old bike messenger, began learning to do his own bicycle repairs in an unoccupied studio of Eco-Village — in the studio’s kitchen, to be exact. As Lizama began sharing his tools and space, Bicycle Kitchen grew quickly, alongside L.A.’s booming bike culture.
They opened their own shop on Heliotrope in 2005, then bought their current building, the former site of a Filipino bakery, in June 2012.
What made you start The Bicycle Kitchen?
First, I will never own a car or any other motor vehicle. Yes, I’m an Angelino through and through. I am 41 and I have a 5 year-old-boy I transport on a cargo bike and other cycle contraptions. My dad rode a bicycle to and from work (Koreatown to Beverly Hills) for 25 years every day!
But when I started to really get going on bicycling back in 1999 or so, there was no real place or bike shop that spoke to you about commuting. It was all mountain biking or road riding, all very privileged and expensive recreational activities. So I grabbed a bicycle repair book and taught myself by trial and error. Mostly error.
I was living at the L.A. Eco Village — and being young and not knowing how to really contribute to that community, I thought bicycles, that’s eco and I know how to work on them. I asked the community if I could convert the kitchen of a disused single unit into a bicycle work shop, and The Bicycle Kitchen was born.
Describe that first studio in Eco-Village, where you started.
The little apartment was dingy, with a nasty off-white carpet that got grungier and grungier as the months went on. It smelled of bike grease, TriFlow, inner tubes, old beer, weed, pizza, whisky, pachouli and all kinds of musk mixed in with the effervescent and all-too-ephemeral scent of some new potential volunteer’s deodorant.
I had outlined the bicycle tools I donated to the project with sharpies so that everyone knew where the tools had to be return to when finished wrenching. What had been white walls soon subsided into the hieroglyphics of greasy paw prints, activist graffiti, informational tagging, beer holding contraptions, etc. It was all very much like art school for those who hadn’t had enough of it the first time, but being called La BiciCocina, there was a definite awareness of social justice despite our revelrous ways.
How quickly did it grow?
Exponentially! The Kitchen grew to have 30 volunteers in four years. It went from every Tuesday night (pizza, beer, bikes) to every night except Friday. By the time we moved out of the Eco Village because we were just beyond capacity.
Apparently, the income at the shop dropped during the 2007/2008 crash, while the number of customers stayed the same, and maybe even increased. Explain how that could happen.
Ridership increased because bicycling became the cheapest form of independent transportation. But with less money, folks could not kick down as much at the Kitchen. So while we got busier and since the place has always been Pay What You Can and no one was turned away for lack of funds, it equalled that we were cash poorer. However, we were rich because the whole point of the Kitchen was to help people get out of their cars and on bicycles: We won!
Have you seen a rise in bike use throughout L.A. in the last 16 years?
Absolutely. 100,000 people on their bicycles on Venice Boulevard from downtown to Venice Beach for one of the CicLAvias, um, yeah. And there is just more bicycling happening because of the coalition of organizations, shops, individuals, activist communities, and government just realizing that privately owned cars are stupid for humanity and especially for cities and we need to reimagine a better way because this way is going to eat us all alive otherwise.
What’s your current project?
Aside from messengering, I have opened up a small shop space called Relámpago Wheelery, where I build dynamo equipped (electricity generating) wheels that give you enough juice to power your bicycle lighting and charge your cell phone as you cycle along.
Additionally and collaboratively, I am establishing a project called Re:Ciclos (reciclos.org) where we take old steel bicycles that might otherwise end up in landfill. Then we look for disciples to learn how to transform them into cargo bicycles, which have a large carrying capacity (like carrying your kids, your pets, groceries, etc.). They run about $3,000 in bike shops new, but we were able to build a prototype for $8 using almost entirely recycled bicycle materials.
What are some memories of interesting people who come into the shop, or interesting problems that people have brought with them?
The best stories for me were of the volunteers. For example: Not-Goth Bret. He was super helpful, knowledgeable, learned quickly, had a nice demeanor and also had a sort of faint death-rocker feel to him — not in a gloom-and-doom way, but just gothy undertones.
One day, MaBell, who was a pediatrician and a full-fledged punk rock star on her own, was talking about Bret to someone else. “You know Bret. Bret.”
Other volunteer, “Who?”
MaBell, “You know, Goth Bret.”
Other Volunteer, “Oh yeah, Goth Bret. Sure”
Well, Bret got a hold of this information that he was all of a sudden “Goth Bret,” and he made it very clear, maybe at a meeting (all in good fun) that he was Not Goth. From that point forth he was known as Not Goth Bret and remained one of the awesomest cooks the Kitchen ever had.
Barry Lank grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, then went away for a seriously long time. He has worked in TV and radio, and currently helps produce The Final Edition Radio Hour.
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