Spokes bicycle enthusiasts hopes to hook local immigrants

Sheldon Mains, director of Spokes
Sheldon Mains, director of Spokes, in the new building's workshop.
MPR photo/Jon Collins

A new bike and walk resource center called Spokes opened this week in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, with its organizers hoping to get the area's East African community to ride bikes for recreation, transportation and health.

In the Seward, bicyclists are a constant presence. Riders zoom down the bike lanes of Franklin Avenue and bikes cluster on sign poles and racks.

But Spokes director Sheldon Mains said a survey of the neighborhood last year found that many East African immigrants who live in the area have been slow to adopt the two-wheeled transportation, largely due to the fact that they don't have any experience riding a bike.

That spurred the Seward Neighborhood Group to apply for a grant from Bike Walk Twin Cities to open Spokes. The center opened Wednesday. It's housed in a bright green former machine shop in an industrial stretch of the neighborhood.

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"It's very accessible. It's right off the LRT greenway bike trail, we're three blocks from the Midtown Greenway," Mains said. "We're aiming mainly at Seward, Phillips and Cedar Riverside communities, so we're centrally located for all that."

Even before the space opened, the group was trying to get people in the neighborhood on bikes.

Earlier this year, they formed a partnership with St. Paul's Cycles for Change to loan bikes to some residents of nearby apartments, Mains said. Demand was greater than the group could initially meet. About 40 people in the apartment building wanted loaner bikes, but the group could only provide 16. Spokes plans to increase the number of loaner bikes available in 2013.

Adnan Kahin, Spokes volunteer
Spokes volunteer, 16-year-old Adnan Kahin.
MPR photo/Jon Collins

The center has a host of other activities and services planned: a program that allows people to earn a bike or helmet by volunteering, junior bike mechanics classes and even a small bike supplies shop with limited hours. They'll also host bike riding classes for adults in nearby Matthews Park.

There are six bike repair stations inside the brightly-painted building that people will be able to use during open hours, and another station outside for use when the shop is closed.

"People can come in and use professional bike tools, which makes it much easier to fix your bike, and we'll also have professional mechanics here to help you figure it out," Mains said.

Volunteers like Adnan Kahin, 16, will work on donated bikes and help people fix up their own bikes. The Lighthouse Academy of Nations student learned how to fix bikes at the Grease Pit Bike Shop, an all-volunteer bike resource center in the Phillips neighborhood.

"The most exciting part of it is just knowing new things, meeting new people, always knowing that you helped someone," Kahin said.

That's the type of community spirit that Spokes Community Outreach Coordinator Abdiasis Hirsi hopes to tap into. Hirsi just learned how to bike this summer and wants to reach out to new bicyclists.

"Cycling is not very popular in the East African community so far," Hirsi said. "Younger folks are very excited about the idea of cycling, but the older people are not very receptive of the idea of biking."

The Spokes building at 1915 East 22nd Street in Minneapolis.
MPR photo/Jon Collins

Some community members are concerned about the safety of riding in traffic, HIrsi said. His job is to let the community know that the center is a place where volunteers can answer their questions and address their concerns.

The staff at Spokes want the center to be welcoming to all sorts of people, so they're offering women-only shop hours starting next Monday, which are more culturally acceptable to some in East African communities than mixed-gender gatherings.

Spokes was started with a $237,000 grant from Bike Walk Twin Cities, which is a project of Transit for Livable Communities. Communication Director Hilary Reeves said Spokes is the second bike center to be funded by the $28 million that was granted by Congress when Bike Walk Twin Cities was authorized in 2005. Spokes also gets funding from various local businesses.

"Having Spokes situated in the Seward neighborhood and dedicated to serving particularly the East African community just says that these opportunities are for everybody," Reeves said. "Having centers or good bike shops in all communities is going to be a key part of making sure that people feel comfortable biking or walking."

Last month, 14 adult women and men originally from East Africa tottered around the park as Spokes hosted their first bike riding class, Mains said.

"It reminded me of this blog that someone does, I think it's titled Bikeyface, and it's a cartoon of a woman on a bike really smiling ear-to-ear," Mains said. "That's what they looked like, they were just smiling."

Although the center focuses on serving the East African community, all are welcome. The next class where adults can learn to ride a bike is Sept. 12.