The Derailer Bicycle Collective doesn't advertise its services in newspapers or the Yellow Pages. There's no sign in front of the shop. Calls to the main number are returned sporadically, if at all. But for the collective's eight core members, luring cash-carrying customers through traditional means simply isn't a priority. This is because 1) Derailer doesn't charge money, and 2) Derailer is not interested in catering to the spandexed masses powering their Treks toward the REI flagship store, anyway.
For Derailer, the whole world can be reduced to the ten blocks that comprise the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood, an amalgam of industrial and commercial buildings intermixed with modest residential dwellings and Denver Housing Authority units, an area marked by porch-sitters, paletera carts and old men tinkering beneath truck hoods.
The sure way to find Derailer in all of this? Follow the bikes.
A group of boys pedal across busy Santa Fe Drive and past the two Denver Police Department cruisers idling in a parking lot. The preteens turn and head down tree-lined Lipan Street toward 11th Avenue -- and suddenly, it's as if a spontaneous, two-wheeled exhibition has appeared out of thin air. Little kids wobble down the sidewalk on bikes. Teenagers loll in front of the corner market on bikes. Middle-aged men check the spokes of their bikes, then spin off to destinations unknown. The boys on bikes now dart into the alleyway and ride up to the unassuming brick garage behind the two-story house at 1065 Lipan Street.
For the past three years, Derailer has opened the doors of this garage three evenings a week, offering a free, volunteer-run bicycle resource center to its neighbors, the city's homeless and anyone else who drops by. The garage can only fit so many bikes and bikers, and on some afternoons, dozens of people spill out into the alley. They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, languages and smells, and sit on the ground or lean against dumpsters, oiling chains, patching flats or waiting patiently for the opportunity to scavenge parts so that they can construct bikes of their own. Children speed through the commotion to test the brakes on newly rebuilt bikes, turning to inspect the skid marks they've left on the concrete.
Occasionally a truck will pull in and drop off more donated bikes, which range from decent to decrepit. But even the most blown-out rides are stripped down and re-used, since the collective spends no more than fifty bucks a month on the shop, mostly to buy grease and patches. For members of the Derailer Bicycle Collective, it's about more than money. It's an activist philosophy: a bike as a human right, a bike as a sustainable alternative, a bike as a political statement.
But the underground nature of their salvage-and-save mission has put the collective in a crunch. On April 5, a Denver neighborhood inspector stopped by, saw the activity and slapped the Lipan address with a cease-and-desist order, claiming that its residents were operating a "non-profit bicycle shop" and a "non-profit boardinghouse" in violation of zoning regulations. At a July 25 Denver Board of Adjustments hearing, Derailer plans to plead its case for an extension until it can find a new home in the area.
This isn't the first time the group has had to defend its activities to authorities. In 2004, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the DPD showed up at the house on Lipan. The bike shop and one of its founders, Sarah Bardwell, had become the subject of law-enforcement investigations that stretched to other law-abiding local protesters, a revelation that made headlines around the nation. "And for what?" Bardwell asks. "Because we give people bikes?"
Julianne says she can't.
She can't attach the handlebar stem to the headset, she can't pull the tube onto the rim, she can't lift the bike onto the stand. The seven-year-old started showing up at the shop last summer with her friends from the neighborhood. Since school got out this year, she's been riding her cousin's bicycle. Now she wants one of her own.
Derailer's Build-a-Bike program runs from 4 to 7 p.m. every Thursday and Friday, and collective member Sarah Graves is helping Julianne construct a bike from scratch. First they looked around the back yard, where all of the bikes and many of the bike parts are stored. Julianne picked out a frame that was originally pink but at some point had been spray-painted baby blue (although you can still read the "Summer Breeze" name on the side).
A bike is such a simple device -- pedals, a crank, a chain and two wheels propelled solely by the leg motion of the individual riding it -- and yet its maintenance and repair are often beyond the technical capabilities of many riders. That's why the Derailer shop also offers bicycle education, with workshops and demonstrations focusing on basic bike anatomy.
Teaching people how to fix their bikes can impact much more than simple mechanics. "The education of learning to hold a tool and use it is really empowering," Graves says. "Especially for the girls in the neighborhood. A lot of times these kids don't have many opportunities to be given the tools and be told that they could use them, so that's very powerful."
Like a lot of kids who come into the shop, Julianne had first approached the nearest male authority figure. But at Derailer, the majority of the mechanics are women -- yet another reason that it's an anomaly among bike shops, where most employees are men -- and the guy Julianne tapped was actually a volunteer apprentice working under Graves. Then Graves took Julianne under her wing.
Today, like most days, the 24-year-old Graves is dressed in the anti-fashion favored by the anarcho-vegan-punk crowd. Her secondhand clothes are conspicuously absent of logos and labels from the consumer culture, and her pants -- with wide patches squaring up along the sides -- look like a bird's-eye view of farmland. Wiping the thick grease from her hands, she says, "I think that through working with a female mechanic, Julianne was getting the hang of -- well, you don't just have to ask guys for help and have them do everything for you."
The ceiling of the garage is adorned with dozens of bike rims, while the walls are covered with forks and tire tubes. A shelf labeled with "Cranks/Las Bielas" and "Saddles/Los Sillines" holds many spare, used parts, and aluminum filing cabinets serve as storage for other mechanical necessities. After picking through the options and assembling all of the necessary pieces, Julianne and Graves are now ready to reattach the rear wheel.
"Okay, you see the side that has the gear on it?" Graves asks.
"Yeah," she says, showing the girl where to position the chain so that it will fit onto the teeth of the sprocket. "Before you get it all the way in, I'm going to pull the chain back so we can get it on."
"I can't," Julianne starts to say, but then the chain pops into place. "Ahh!"
"Nice," Graves smiles. "You always say, 'I can't,' but I think that's a lie."
As if her game has finally been discovered, Julianne bursts out with a giggle. Together they twist the nut until it's tight, and Julianne starts spinning the wheel.
"Yeah! We did it!" the girl says, clapping her hands.
Veronica Barela, who as president and CEO of New West Side Economic Development has been working on commercial redevelopment and affordable housing in the Lincoln Park area for more than three decades, recognizes that many families in the neighborhood can't afford to buy their kids something as fundamental to childhood as a bicycle. "I was born and raised in the North Lincoln projects, and I would have been so grateful if somebody could have given me a bike and taught me how to fix it," she remembers. "You know, when you grow up poor and on welfare, you don't have anything. And so when somebody offers you a bike, you can imagine the gratitude of the family."
But while Barela appreciates Derailer's contributions to the neighborhood, the fact that the shop wound up in its current space was "a complete accident," Sarah Bardwell says.
The idea to start Derailer sprouted in the spring of 2001, when Bardwell and Morgan Matter, another student who'd just graduated from the Denver School of the Arts, were on a visit to Tucson and encountered BICAS, a bike co-op. "It's awesome," Bardwell says of the twelve-year-old nonprofit. "It's this huge warehouse with tons of bikes." The two teens did a work-trade deal for a pair of loaner bikes and hung out in the bike shop, which also functions as an educational space. "It was just really cool and underground," Bardwell remembers.
Bardwell has been involved with progressive activism all her life. Her entire extended family either volunteers with or works for nonprofits; her father does statistical work for liberal groups, and her mother has long been involved in the creation of politically focused art-installation pieces. When she said she wanted to start a bike cooperative in Denver, her parents thought it seemed like a tangible project. "It was something that we could do," Bardwell remembers. "If I saw a really awesome cafe, for example, I would have no idea how to start it up. You need so much stuff. But free bikes? All you need is free bikes and tools and somewhere to do it."
In the beginning, that somewhere was a single-car garage in the alley behind the Spot, at 2100 Stout Street. The Derailer Bike Collective started there in December 2001 with seven bikes and a tool set, all donated, along with a few frames, some old wheels and a jar of nuts and bolts. Although Matter had worked at a bike shop before, Bardwell didn't know much about bikes and had to learn as she went along. A few other friends -- members of the very loosely organized collective -- helped out during the three days a week the shop was open, but traffic was sparse. They did very little outreach, so often the only people who found them were kids frequenting the Spot or folks who happened to wander through the alley.
But in November 2002, the Spot merged with Urban Peak, another nonprofit devoted to helping kids, which promptly told Derailer it needed the garage back.
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."
The FBI was looking for a different type of criminal altogether on July 22, 2004, when two agents showed up at Villa Villekulla with four Denver police officers in tow. Bardwell was in the shop out back when she heard a commotion, then heard a friend call her name.
The men who identified themselves as FBI agents were wearing button-down shirts over what looked like bulging, bulletproof vests. Two of the Denver police officers were dressed in standard uniform, Bardwell remembers, and the other two were outfitted in black SWAT gear with bulletproof vests. "Both of the SWAT guys had six guns each," she says. "One under each arm, one on each hip, and one on each thigh." The officers gathered four residents of the house and two friends on the front porch.
The agents asked the residents if they knew of anyone planning any criminal acts during the Republican and Democratic national conventions that were soon to be held in New York City and Boston, respectively. Bardwell, who was 21 years old at the time, says she didn't even know anyone who was planning on going to the conventions.
One of the residents saw an officer open a folder that contained photos of people who lived in the house. The agents asked for the residents' names, but everyone declined to give them. Bardwell remembers one agent saying that their "non-cooperation" meant that he was going to have to use "more intrusive efforts" to get his job done. But when she asked for their identity, the FBI agents and police officers also refused to give their names and badge numbers.
For the next 35 minutes, the front-porch gathering was at a stalemate. The agents and police asked vague questions about posters and artwork hanging in the house -- What do they do inside the house? Who lives here? -- and the residents declined to answer. Eventually, the officers left.
The next day, Bardwell went to her job as an intern at the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker-based peace and social-justice organization, and told her boss what had happened at the house on Lipan. She put Bardwell in touch with Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. Silverstein took the matter public, calling the FBI stop at 1065 Lipan an "intimidation tactic" by law enforcement to discourage activists from legally expressing dissent. An FBI spokesman described it simply as an "ongoing FBI investigation with the Joint Terrorism Task Force."
Two weeks later, the New York Times ran a front-page article detailing how the FBI, in conjunction with local law-enforcement agencies, was questioning political demonstrators across the country in an effort to forestall potential violence at the conventions. Their targets came from lists that various law-enforcement agencies had created to identify individuals or groups that might participate in, or have knowledge of, dangerous actions. But civil-rights advocates argued that the broad inquiries amounted to harassment.
The story quoted Bardwell and included a photograph of her with Graves and two other friends. After that, Bardwell was interviewed by media outlets nationwide and mentioned in publications as far away as India.
Silverstein thought the intelligence-gathering methods being used violated the agreement that the Colorado ACLU had reached with the City of Denver in 2002 to put an end to the DPD's controversial "spy files," which included intelligence on thousands of peaceful protest groups, political activists -- and average citizens. The DPD has two detectives assigned to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was created in 1997 to coordinate efforts between the federal government and state and local officials to combat domestic terrorism, and the ACLU noticed that some documents they'd obtained during the spy-files discovery indicated that the JTTF was collecting information from the DPD on political activities and associations. These included local groups such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, the Denver Justice and Peace Committee, the Rocky Mountain Independent Media Center and the Human Bean, which imports fair-trade coffee from indigenous farmers in Mexico.
"'Domestic terrorism' is blowing up federal buildings in Oklahoma City," Silverstein says. "Attending a non-violent protest is not 'domestic terrorism.'"
In the fall of 2004, ACLU offices across the country coordinated a joint Freedom of Information Act request delivered to the FBI in Washington, D.C., asking for documents that would shed light on these investigations. That December, Silverstein filed another FOIA request with the FBI in the names of ten individuals and sixteen organizations, including Sarah Bardwell, the Derailer Bike Collective and Food Not Bombs. The heavily redacted documents they received in response show that Derailer was a subject of interest to the FBI as early as October 2002, when their old location at the Spot served as a welcome center for out-of-town protesters who'd come to demonstrate at the Columbus Day Parade. "Several people were observed inside making posters," an agent's report noted.
Other documents point to Bardwell as a contact for a March 2004 anti-war protest organized by Coloradans Opposing War at the downtown Federal Building, at which three people were arrested.
Still more records obtained by the ACLU show that three agents staked out the now-defunct Breakdown Book Collective, at 1409 Ogden Street, for a meeting of Revolutionary Anti-War Response, a group planning to head to an anti-war protest in Colorado Springs. The agents took down the license plates of at least twelve vehicles.
The ACLU soon expanded its probe of domestic intelligence-gathering. In May 2005, the national office filed a lawsuit against the FBI that accused the agency of spying on peaceful activists and failing to provide records that should be made public. That suit is pending, and the organization is still waiting for more files to be released.
"The FBI is unjustifiably treating non-violent public protest as though it were potential domestic terrorism," Silverstein says. "The FBI's misplaced priorities threaten to deter legitimate criticism of government policy while wasting taxpayer resources that should be directed to investigating real terrorists."
According to District 6 commander Deborah Dilley, the DPD has responded to numerous complaints about the Lipan house in the past, ranging from suspected narcotics to the general disarray of the yard to constant activity. But no arrests or citations have resulted.
After the Derailer Bike Collective was fingered by the FBI as a potential terrorist group, it returned to its dangerous domestic activity of fixing bicycles.
Julia Wrapp is the owner of the house at 1065 Lipan, which was given to her in 2003 by a friend. When she rented the building to Liman, she didn't know it would grow to become a collective bike co-op -- much less an FBI target -- but she's still happy she did. "I totally believe in what they're doing," Wrapp says. "These kids are some of the most conscious individuals that I've come across. I have a couple of rental properties, and these kids have stepped up at their expense to help the community in every way, and I support them totally."
Wrapp, who worked as a transportation consultant for a number of years in Boulder, calls Derailer "a grassroots organization that is doing more for transportation efforts than just about anybody I can name. They're putting people onto bikes that need bikes and they're getting cars off the road."
She just wishes she could fix up the house where Derailer is located as efficiently. "I call it the haunted house from hell, because it scares me, the amount of renovation that's needed," she says. But she just doesn't have the money to do the job adequately.
When the house came to the attention of the city's zoning department, though, it wasn't because of its dilapidated state, or even because of all the bicycles that gathered in the alley. Instead, a neighbor complained about wood on the roof of the garage, and the city sent out an inspector.
Kathy Ortega, an inspector with Neighborhood Inspection Services of the Denver Community Planning and Development Agency, signed the April 5 cease-and-desist order that was sent to Wrapp, charging that in an R-2 zone district, "permitted uses do not include operating a non-profit boardinghouse and a non-profit bicycle shop."
But since Derailer charges no money, is it really a bike shop? And what's wrong with fixing bikes for free, anyway?
The problem is volume, according to Julius Zsako, communications director for the Department of Community Planning and Development. "If it's your hobby, in your garage, to fix bicycles, and you're doing a couple of them every week, there aren't any external effects to that that violate a residential use," he says. "But if you happen to have 132 bicycle frames and 42 bicycle wheels in your back yard, that's obviously not a residentially zoned property use."
Wrapp appealed to the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals and granted Liman temporary power of attorney to handle the request for an extension. "We definitely want to work with the city so that the needs of the community are met from all sides," Wrapp says.
Although there's a July 25 hearing slated on that request, Michael Whalen, deputy director for the Board of Adjustment, says the board does not have the authority to dismiss a cease-and-desist order issued by Neighborhood Inspection Services. "A bike shop is not a permitted use in the R-2 district," he explains. So Derailer plans to ask for a six-month extension to come into compliance -- which would essentially be a stay of execution for the Lipan site.
Bardwell can deal with that. "I actually think it's going to motivate us to finally move out and find a new space," she says. She has dreams of a large warehouse with bathrooms, plenty of electrical outlets and lots of room for classes.
But she knows that it will be difficult to realize those dreams, since such a facility will cost money -- and the collective is not exactly the next class of Donald Trump wannabes. "We're bike mechanics at best," she says. "We're friends with some little kids in the neighborhood and help them fix their bikes."
At the moment, the best they can hope for is to fall under the umbrella of another nonprofit, or maybe get some help from the city. After all, Denver's mayor has championed both alternative transportation and a ten-year plan to end homelessness.
"Biking is one way that many Denverites stay in shape, enhance their commute and help reduce the congestion and pollution caused by automobile traffic," says Mayor John Hickenlooper, who adds that the city's high quality-of-life reputation is due in part to Denver's ranking as one of the best towns in the nation for cycling. He calls Derailer a "good cause," one he hopes can locate a proper home -- but there's little the mayor's office can do, Hickenlooper says, because the dispute is a zoning issue.
Michael Steves, a Derailer volunteer, thinks the city could -- and should -- do more to encourage urban cycling. "There's so little support, especially in Denver, for biking," says the nineteen-year-old. "This town is not a bike-friendly place. Bikes and bike culture are definitely a statement, at least for me. And so choosing a form of transportation that's not dependent on fossil fuels is definitely a lifestyle, and supporting that is important. To ride in Denver is definitely a risk."
Roy Guerreo is wearing an orange shirt, maroon sweatpants and sneakers. He first came to the bike shop almost three years ago, when he lived in the neighborhood. But he lost his job as a maintenance man, and then he lost his house. Now the 46-year-old homeless man sleeps at the Samaritan House during the week, and he stays with family on the weekends.
When things got bad, his friend gave him a black Diamond Back mountain bike so he could get around. Today it's his main mode of transport. "At least until I can get a job," he says, then shrugs. "But if my bike breaks down and the shop is not here -- I don't have no money, so I'm like whssshew." As he says this, he waves his arms past his head like he's being blown away by a large wind. "So it's really helpful. These people really help us."
He recognizes other people at the shop who stay at the shelter, too.
Guerreo nods toward other men who are homeless, too, but he doesn't know where they stay. At the Samaritan House, Derailer's phone number and address are posted.
After he fixes his bike, Guerreo likes to help out around the shop, organizing parts and cleaning up trash. Afterward, he stands off to the side and adjusts the plastic bags stuffed with clothes that are tied to his handlebars. If Derailer is forced to close, Guerreo is worried about what he'll do if something on his bike breaks. But he's not worried about flat tires.
"My tires are heavy-duty," he says proudly. "I haven't had a flat in over a year."
For Liman, the best part of Derailer is its educational outreach. "The next time they come back into the shop, they can do it themselves," she says. "Or they can bring someone else with them, to teach that person how to fix their bikes. Then they don't need us anymore. They just need the doors to be open."
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Eva Garcia is sitting on an old railroad tie at the side of the alley with her boyfriend, Nacho (pronounced "Neecho"). Both are in their thirties, and bikes are their main form of transport. "We use it to go shopping," she says. "Sometimes we go swimming, go fishing. Just around the neighborhood, just to get around. It's not like a car, where we could go to, like, Lakewood or something." She found out about Derailer from a cousin's son, Tristan, who's about nine. They came here yesterday to get the tires fixed on a bike they found in the Platte River.
"It seems like it's pretty cool, because a lot of people come here," she says. "And it's all volunteer and it's all free, and you don't have to pay for nothing, so it's helping out the neighborhood."
She's heard that Derailer is in trouble with the city. "I think that's pretty messed up," she adds. "I don't see why they should, because it's all volunteer work, and it's like, you know. There's people, like, communicating here. Why would they want to stop something like that? It's not coming out of their pockets. Why should they stop people that are trying to help other people? I mean, if anything, it's like the city should pitch in!"