Cycle Killer

Why is the city putting the brakes on the Derailer Bike Collective?

Instead of closing up shop altogether, Bardwell and Matter decided to box up all the parts and equipment and store them in the garage and back yard of the house on Lipan Street, where they moved in February 2003, until they could find a new home for Derailer. The deteriorating Denver Square -- nicknamed "Villa Villekulla" after Pippi Longstocking's ramshackle residence -- became a communal outpost for young radicals and political misfits. The Food Not Bombs group started using the kitchen to prepare the vegan meals it shares with the homeless during public picnics in Civic Center Park. The toilet on the main floor is operated via "gray water" -- meaning yellow is allowed to mellow and brown is flushed down using water collected in a bucket under the sink. All consumables are reused, and food waste is composted in a series of backyard bins, then used to fertilize the rowdy urban garden that fills the side yard.

Soon the back yard also sprouted a collection of customized bikes welded together in different forms. The most recognizable style is the "tall bike," with two frames fused atop one another so that a rider sits up to seven feet off the ground. Others look like boxes, or tricycles, and some are simply indescribable Mad Max creations.

Word of the mutant bicycles spread through the neighborhood, and it wasn't long before kids started knocking on the door, asking to see the "crazy bikes." Residents of the house found themselves pumping up flats or greasing chains as kids showed up throughout the day to use the bike tools and the air compressor in the garage. "It got to be where it was seven in the morning and there were kids at our windows," recalls Bardwell. "It was like, 'No! It's too early!'"

To preserve their sanity, the people living in the house -- now all members of the Derailer Bike Collective -- set up new rules for days when the de facto bike shop in the garage would be open.

"We thought maybe we should not be in denial that we are not going to be able to find another space right away and just open the shop," explains Mackenzie Liman, a 23-year-old who lives at the house. "And it just immediately exploded because there was just such a need."

On its first official day back in business in the garage behind 1065 Lipan, the Derailer bike shop had only one bench and one set of tools. There were twenty bikes for parts, five loaner bikes and some wheels and tires kept in a shopping cart. Then, as now, the collective refrained from publicizing the shop, outside of occasional mentions that Derailer was looking for donations and volunteers. "If we advertised, we would just be inundated," Liman says.

In the summer of 2004, members of the collective attended the first BIKE!BIKE! conference in New Orleans, which attracted people from sixteen other bike collectives across the country. "It was amazing," Liman says. "We just got so many ideas. I didn't even know people were doing this anywhere else."

When they returned to Denver, the Derailer members decided to get serious. They wrote up a mission statement and launched a website. When a local used-bicycle shop went out of business, it donated all of its stock to Derailer. While most donations continue to come from individuals, a few commercial shops around town now drop off used bikes. By this spring, the shop's inventory included four sets of tools, four commercial bike stands, sixty build-a-bikes, eleven loaner bikes (two weeks for a ten-dollar deposit), and countless wheels, tires and tubes. Even so, it was difficult to keep up with demand. Some afternoons, the waiting list filled up so quickly that the shop had to turn people away.

So the collective adopted a new policy. "If you already have a bike that runs, you get lowest priority," Bardwell explains. "We just don't have the resources for that."

While the collective dealt with increased demand, it kept looking for another space for a shop -- maybe a commercial building or a warehouse. But the lack of funding limited the choices.

And then came the visit from the neighborhood inspector.

Although that visit was promoted by a neighbor's complaint, most people who live in the area say they have no problems with the bike collective.

Steve Solis has lived at 1070 Mariposa for five years, in the house where his wife's family has lived for decades. The alley that sees so much of the Derailer overflow is adjacent to Solis's back yard, where he sits one hot afternoon drinking malt liquor out of a plastic cup. Several of his family members have gotten bikes from his unlikely neighbors, Solis says.

"All these kids around here are being nothing but screwups, and they're helping them stay away from that," he adds. "They're helping kids learn how to fix their bikes, and that way they're not coming in your yard at twelve o'clock at night and ripping your ass off, or trying to sell some drug shit."

Graffiti in the alley has also gone down since the shop opened up. "Them kids ain't got nothing to do; this is all they got," Solis concludes. If the city takes it away, "they're just going to run out, and the crime rate's going to be up again."

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