Building bikes and community

Yellow Bike Action began with a tool box and now offers affordable bike services and shelter for those in need

Michael Pomery
Image by: Harrison Smith
Michael Pomery

Tucked away a few blocks north of Princess Street is a small patch of grass, a picnic table and playground. Officially called Friendship Park, the park was known colloquially for years as “Needle Park,” because its out-of-the-way location made it a haven for drug-users. Now, it’s known around the neighbourhood as “Bike Park.”

The change comes from the presence of Yellow Bike Action, a volunteer-run, non-profit bicycle repair and sale shop that runs out of the former park maintenance building. Started in the winter of 1999 as an open space for doing work on bikes and providing cheap leases on bright yellow bicycles, Yellow Bike has added more programs and become an ad-hoc community centre.

Yellow Bike Action provides affordable bikes that have been rebuilt and refurbished, yellow bikes that can be leased for a flat monthly rate, as well as walk-in repair service that provides the cheapest bike repairs in Kingston.

Barb Danielewski began volunteering at Yellow Bike in its first summer. The three founding members who had spent the previous winter building 60 bicycles for the organization’s first season grew busy with other projects, and Danielewski was left to run the program on her own.

“I was left to run a bike shop and do it all, really. I was forced to learn about bikes really quickly, because I was the only mechanic,” she said. “People came along from the community and taught me a lot. I liked it so much that I stayed for six years.”

Originally started with a $15,000 Eco-Action grant from Environment Canada, the shop had a humble beginning in terms of available tools and programs. Through donations, its tool box grew from just a hammer, a screw driver and a couple of wrenches. The bike shop received small grants from the Rotary Club, the Cataraqui Optimists—a local youth support group—and the Community Foundation of Greater Kingston. The building is leased from the city for one dollar a year, and the heating, electricity and phone bills are paid with money received from bike repairs and sales.

In the six years that Danielewski was working almost full-time at Yellow Bike, more programs were added to the services it provided. This year, Danielewski and Jeremy Ennis, another member of the group, both left to pursue other projects. Brad Orr is the shop’s only full-time bike mechanic. There are about eight other regular volunteers.

The changeover means Yellow Bike is in a period of transition as it tries to reorganize structurally and physically. Losing two key mechanics has meant extra work for the knowledgeable volunteers this summer.

Orr has been involved for about five years, and is, officially, the largely unstructured group’s leader.

“According to everything, I’m president,” he joked. “They elected me president when I didn’t even want to be.” Though there are seven keyholders who have authority to open and close the shop and who are all regular and long-time volunteers, there isn’t any official hierarchy among them. This informal way of organizing is something Danielewski said comes naturally to Yellow Bike.

“The best meetings we’ve ever had at Yellow Bike are over a cup of coffee. All the people who make big decisions are the ones directly involved with the shop,” Danielewski said. “We’ve always been really free to share our opinion as the day goes on.” Danielewski said the kid’s free bike program, in which children under 12 can receive bikes for free, is one example of a decision made one morning over coffee, as volunteers looked at the huge number of kid’s bikes in the backyard.

Michael Pomery has volunteered at Yellow Bike for three years, and was at the shop almost every day this summer. During a tour of the shop, he said he plans to do some reorganizing in the shop, as well as recruiting more volunteers.

“I want to take this space and use it responsibly, that’s what I want to do with the whole shop,” he said, looking into the shop’s wheel storage room. “You can see what this place could be, and I’d love to have some help to get it there over the winter.

“This system has worked for seven years and it’s ready to be taken to the next level, it needs to be. But we need the manpower to get it there.”

Pomery has lived in the neighbourhood and has been coming to Friendship Park for almost 10 years. He remembers cleaning up the park where his son played and finding both trash and dirty needles before Yellow Bike arrived.

He said the bike shop has met needs as basic as food and shelter on cold days for people who don’t have many other options.

“We get food from the food bank and Food Not Bombs drops off food here, so people know if you’re hungry, there’s something to eat; if you want a cup of coffee, there’s a pot of coffee on,” he said. “We’re fucking dirty, we wouldn’t pass the health code, but people know they can come here if they need something to eat or just to hang out.”

Pomery said the shop’s patronage is largely families and members of the Kingston community, though many Queen’s students, especially international students, also use Yellow Bike.

“I think [international students] have got a better understanding of the economy of bicycles and so they can contribute to that and know it’s a good resource for them,” he said.

Even domestic students are a big part of Yellow Bike’s business.

“About 90 per cent of the people are Queen’s students, and not just the winter ones. It’s summer students too, ’cause it never ends,” Orr said.

In the common room at Yellow Bike, one wall features signs that read the same message—“More bikes, less cars”—in a variety of languages, written by Yellow Bike patrons from around the world. In the office, the shop’s international impact is even more clear—a world map on one wall is covered in stickers, each one representing patrons from around the world

For patron Nicole Joyce, who was at the shop to fix up a used bicycle earlier this week, Yellow Bike is about more than just bicycles. A former drug addict, Joyce sees the shop as somewhere she can feel comfortable to be herself.

“It makes everyone feel comfortable and safe. You don’t feel judged. You can just come down and work on a bike and have fun,” she said. “It’s not just a bike shop, it’s a bunch of people who want to help each other instead of hurting each other. You get that relationship, that community.”

In addition to their regular services, Yellow Bike takes on special projects. This year, the Optimists donated more than 70 helmets and locks. So far this season, Yellow Bike has distributed all but 12 to patrons. After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the bike shop sent a shipment of 10 bikes, extra cable and instructions for bike repairs to Sri Lanka. At a transportation rally at Wally Elmer Arena in the Rideau Heights area of Kingston, Yellow Bike volunteers fixed 60 bikes in four hours.

Part of Yellow Bike’s success has come from its location at Friendship Park. A path through the park makes a perfect test track for newly-repaired bicycles, and Danielewski said the park makes the Yellow Bike space into something the community shares.

“A park is meant to be somewhere where people can slow down and chill, and so it made the program sort of naturally like that as well,” she said.

Danielewski described the community that’s developed at Yellow Bike as a “survival system” for many of its members.

Though it’s lauded by volunteers and patrons, both Danielewski and Pomery said the bike shop has faced criticism from the larger community.

“One thing I’ve heard a lot is that it’s really dirty. It’s not always going to be the most comfortable environment for someone who’s used to being in a clean office or even a neat and tidy home,” Danielewski said.

“It is a bike shop, and bike shops tend to be dirty.”

Pomery said open-mindedness is critical in potential volunteers.

“There’s been questions about sexism, racism, all these issues that come with lower income people, poverty,  no education,” he said. “You’ve got to be really open to see where people are coming from.”

Yellow Bike has become a space that’s welcoming to people regardless of their income or personal background, Danielewski said.

“A lot of the people who volunteer and use the shop are underemployed, on social assistance and disability,” she said. “The people there almost feel like they are being paid because they have coffee and free food and a place to hang out.

“These are people who didn’t have anywhere to go, and didn’t imagine that they could run a bike shop. It was a community, and it was their community. It felt like it was something they owned.”

If you’re interested in repairing bicycles or helping out in other ways, contact Yellow Bike Action at 613-545-0404 or go to 23 Carlisle St.

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