Back Alley Bikes began in the summer of 2000 by employees of Detroit Summer, a “youth program / movement to re-spirit, redefine and re-imagine Detroit from the ground up.” The original purpose of the shop was to provide transportation to youth participants. Bicycles were used for everything from hauling garden tools to transporting muralists! However, from the beginning Back Alley Bikes had a community focus. Two days a week during the summer months, any community member could come in and earn a bike or learn to repair the one they already had. By the summer of 2003, the shop had outgrown its space in a small room in the Detroit Summer youth center and moved to the back of the same building on Cass Avenue, gaining the alley entrance, and growing into the name it already had. Our location is owned by the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation (CCNDC) that has been a great partner in giving us a home.
In the following years, the programs at Back Alley Bikes became increasingly popular with neighborhood residents, and use of the shop grew. Meanwhile, Detroit Summer as a program changed in scope and direction, and they no longer needed bicycles to get around. A collective of volunteers refined and managed the programs at the shop, all of which were free to the public, from 2003 – 2007. The programs included adult earn a bike, youth earn a bike, adult repair classes, bike art workshops, “Mechanics In Training,” (a paid summer apprenticeship program for older youth to learn while they work in the shop) and “Community Drop-In”, in which anyone could come and work with a mechanic to learn how to repair their bike. The shop was able to remain open for some programming year round with the donation of furnace repair work. In 2004, Back Alley Bikes began giving bikes to children too young for the Youth Earn-a-Bike program during the Holiday Bike Program. In addition, shop volunteers coordinated a bike ride for youth with the Sister Cyclists, a local bike club, and several rides per season with Trips for Kids, a national program to take city youth mountain biking. The shop volunteers also repaired and donated bikes to local organizations such as the Lenox Center, which uses the bikes for Special Olympics contests.
To afford the supplies which were constantly needed by the shop and to make building repairs, Back Alley Bikes volunteers applied for and received a grant from the DALMAC fund, as well as one from REI. In addition, they began to repair bikes to sell in the shop. There were also fundraisers, which included bike themed movie nights, and one year a gourmet dinner called Bike Soup. Also, from 2003-2006, Back Alley Bikes hosted a Bike Art Auction, in which local artists have contributed paintings and drawings displaying their love for the bicycle, as well as sculptures and functional items made out of bike parts, jewelry, and t-shirts. Most notable have been the bike-parts rocking chair, bike history shadow puppet show, and bike-blender in which bike-powered smoothies are made!
By the winter of 2007, the programs at Back Alley Bikes had become too much work to continue to be managed by a group of volunteers, and all free programs were temporarily suspended. In the spring of 2008, the collective began the process of seeking funding to continue the free programs while designing them to be more sustainable. Towards this goal a retail shop called the Hub of Detroit opened in the Spring of 2008, a much-needed resource in the city.
2008 was a year of much rebuilding as the retail shop building and managing took many resources. As mechanics spent more and more time in the shop fixing and selling bicycles, The Hub grew in its amount of paid employees (previously there had only been one grant paid employee). As the shop grew over its first two years the funding it provided for the programming in Back Alley Bikes provided a consistent cushion.
Starting in 2008, the focus of programming returned to children. Youth Earn-a-Bike continued as did the Mechanic-In-Training and Holiday Bike Give-a-Way programs. Adults no longer were eligible to “earn” bicycles but the Adult Mechanic Class provided a space for adults to learn basic bicycle mechanics on a donation base (though no one was turned away for lack of funds). Adults also played a big part during “volunteer nights” which was devoted to processing the large amount of donations we were receiving.
The generosity of donations and partnership with The Hub of Detroit allowed Back Alley Bikes to continue their programming
by turning some bikes into funding as 100% of used bike sales at The Hub return to Back Alley Bikes. The other large portion of donations go out through the Youth Earn-a-Bike program. Also, excess donations and our connections to bike tool distributors allowed us to assist other bike projects start up. Some of these projects include Southwest Custom Bikes, Capuchin Soup Kitchen Earthworks Bike Project and Fender Bender.
By 2010 the focus was put back on programming as The Hub was standing on its own feet. 2010 was when Youth Earn-a-Bike and the Adult Mechanic Class became weekly year round programs. Before the programs would start and stop or only be done during the “warm/summer” season. Now Youth Earn-a-Bike was held every Saturday and the Adult Mechanic Class was every Sunday. 2010 was also when the Holiday Bike Give-a-Way started being done twice a year to get more bikes on the street underneath children. If that wasn’t enough, we began hiring four high school youth for our Mechanic-in-Training program (again with the help of the DALMAC fund).
During this time Back Alley Bikes was also able to partner with a few schools providing riding clubs, rodeos and even Earn-a-Bike programs at certain schools. Our longest running Earn-a-Bike program in a school was Detroit Community Schools in Brightmoor which now has started up their own program in the Brightmoor community.
2011 saw the construction of a new workshop for the Back Alley Bikes space so each youth working on a bicycle could have their own bench to work at. Volunteers also assisted building shelving for part and bicycle storage to make the workshop and warehouse more user friendly. In 2011 Back Alley Bikes began to bring youth rides back into the mix as this was a program missing from our restructuring in 2008.
In 2012 things were changing yet again. Our sustainable funding source in The Hub allowed us to have two full time programming staff along with two more instructors. Getting grants from the DALMAC Fund and Buck Dinner Fund helped with this as well. Youth programming went from one day a week in the winter to four days in the summer time. The Adult Mechanic Class was also offered a second day during the week during the summer of 2012. In other words, we went from two to six days of programming in the summer 2012. We also expanded our Saturday programming for youth by having a Youth Ride every Saturday for the entire summer.
The end of 2011 and into 2012 saw the creation of the Progressive Dinner by Bicycle event where donors pay for a lovely dinner and bike ride. A short ride of about 13 miles around the city stopping at different parks to sample food by some of Detroit’s finest food makers in the cottage food industry.
By interacting with folks as students, teachers, customers, donors, participants and volunteers there are many ways for cyclists to get involved to assist our mission to develop youth’s bicycling and leadership skills in the city of Detroit.