Back Alley Bikes was begun in 2000 by Detroit Summer (whose aim was to re-spirit, redefine, and re-imagine Detroit from the ground up) as a way to provide transportation to youth participants. Bicycles were used for everything from hauling garden tools to transporting muralists! From the beginning our shop also had a community focus, opening the doors to our neighbors two days a week so they could fix their bikes or even earn a new one. By the summer of 2003, the shop had outgrown its small room in the Detroit Summer youth center. Back Alley Bikes moved to the back alley of the same building, growing into the name it already had. We have remained in this location ever since, maintaining our partnership with the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation (CCNDC).
In the following years, as the programs at Back Alley Bikes became increasingly popular with neighborhood residents, use of the shop grew. Meanwhile, Detroit Summer changed in scope and direction, no longer needing bicycles to get around. Between 2003 and 2007, a collective of BAB volunteers refined and managed our programs, all of which were free to the public. 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), and “Community Drop-In” for doing your own repairs. With the donation of furnace repair, the shop was able to remain open year-round for some of our programming. In 2004, Back Alley Bikes began giving bikes to children too young for Youth Earn-a-Bike during the Holiday Bike Program. In addition, shop volunteers coordinated a bicycle ride for youth in collaboration with the Sister Cyclists, a local bike club, and several rides per season with Trips for Kids, a national program which takes city youth mountain biking. The shop volunteers also repaired and donated bikes to local organizations including the Lenox Center, which used the bikes for Special Olympics contests.
Increased success meant more expenses in terms of supplies and building maintenance, 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, including bicycle-themed movie nights and a gourmet dinner called Bike Soup. From 2003-2006, Back Alley Bikes hosted a Bike Art Auction, in which local artists contributed paintings and drawings displaying their love for the bicycle. They also offered jewelry, t-shirts, as well as sculptures and functional items made out of bike parts; most notable have been the bike-parts rocking chair, bike history shadow puppet show, and a bike-powered smoothie blender!
By the winter of 2007, the programs at Back Alley Bikes had become too much work a small group of volunteers and all free programs were temporarily suspended. In the spring of 2008, the collective began to seek funding to sustain our free programming. In the Spring of 2008, the Hub of Detroit opened in the front of our Cass home. The shop not only provided the necessary financial backbone for Back Alley Bikes, but served a larger need for a year-round bike shop in Detroit.
The retail shop building became the focus of 2008. The Hub grew from one grant paid employee to a full-fledged bike shop. The funding it provided for the programming in Back Alley Bikes was a huge help. Meanwhile, our community programming began to focus primarily on youth – continuing Youth Earn-a-Bike, Mechanic-In-Training, and Holiday Bike Give-a-Way programs. Adults were no longer eligible to “earn” bicycles, but the Adult Mechanic Class provided a space for adults to learn basic bicycle mechanics (donations were accepted, but no one was turned away for lack of funds).
Adults also participated in “volunteer nights,” sorting our large amounts of donated bicycles and parts. The Hub would then fix up bikes to sell, and return the profits to Back Alley Bikes. The rest of our bicycles and parts would be allotted to the Youth Earn-a-Bike program. Any excess donations (as well as our connections to bike tool distributors) allowed us to assist newer other bike projects, including Southwest Custom Bikes, Capuchin Soup Kitchen Earthworks Bike Project and Fender Bender.
By 2010, The Hub was standing on its own feet and the focus was put back on programming. Youth Earn-a-Bike and the Adult Mechanic Class became weekly, year-round programs, with Youth Earn-a-Bike every Saturday and the Adult Mechanic Class every Sunday. The Holiday Bike Give-a-Way also became a biannual event. We were even able to hire 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 area schools. We provided riding clubs, rodeos, and even Earn-a-Bike programs at certain schools. Our longest running satellite Earn-a-Bike program was Detroit Community Schools in Brightmoor, which now has started up their own local program!.
The next year saw the construction of a new workshop for our programming space, allowing each youth to have their own bench. Volunteers also helped to build storage shelves, making the workshop and warehouse more user-friendly. We also began to bring youth rides back into the mix – a program missing since our restructuring in 2008.
In 2012, via the Hub’s sustainable funding, we were able to have two full-time programming staff and two additional instructors. Grants from the DALMAC Fund and Buck Dinner Fund helped with this as well. Youth programming changed from one day a week in the winter to four days a week in the summer. The Adult Mechanic’s Class was also offered a second day during the week in the summer. In other words, we went from two to six days of programming a week! We also expanded our Saturday youth programming with a Youth Ride every Saturday for the entire summer.
Back Alley Bikes and the Hub have continued to thrive and grow. At BAB, we continue to put numerous youth on bicycles, cultivate a fantastic group of volunteers, and throw some pretty awesome fundraisers (if we do say so ourselves). Getting involved at Back Alley Bikes – as students, teachers, customers, donors, participants, and/or volunteers – gives cyclists so many ways to contribute to our mission to develop youth’s bicycling and leadership skills in the city of Detroit.