Bike to the future

Words: Gary Moskowitz

In Oakland, a community leader shows how building tricked-out bikes can revitalize a troubled neighborhood.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in East Oakland, tucked inside a community DIY bike shop at the end of a narrow alley near 50th Street and bustling International Boulevard, a visitor’s eye is drawn to a small, BMX-style bike. The front wheel is decorated in shiny, metallic foil tape, and the seat post is much higher than it needs to be. The frame’s original bright green color is almost entirely covered in gray primer paint. A young rider grabs some vise-grip pliers in one hand and an adjustable wrench in the other, and goes to work realigning his bike fork and handlebars, turning them backwards, to see if he likes the way it looks.

Bikes like this—coined scraper bikes by Tyrone “Baybe Champ” Stevenson Jr. because of their resemblance to modified “scraper” cars with large chrome rims— began appearing on East Oakland’s streets in the early 2000s, when the Bay Area’s Hyphy movement had become a national phenomenon. In the 2007 Trunk Boiz music video for “Scraper Bike,” which saw roughly 4 million views worldwide on YouTube, Stevenson made a guest appearance, wearing a football jersey and scraper bike baseball hat and rapping about his three-wheeled bike being “retarded”; he is seen running alongside the bike as it rolls down a street. He’s got the standard hip-hop MC posturing down, but there’s also a big smile on his face the whole time: He’s enjoying every minute of it.

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Scraper bikes are hard to miss: large wheels on small frames, decorated with spray paint, colored tape, cut aluminum cans, cardboard, and candy wrappers. Not surprisingly, music plays a big role with the Scraper Bike Team: Stevenson’s got speakers mounted on his bike—with the word “Champ” displayed—and he blasts music from hip-hop artists like Too Short, Sage the Gemini, Mac Dre, and Tupac when the team goes on long rides together through Oakland, snaking down streets in a long line.

“In the beginning, I was just making bikes in my backyard, and my cousins would ride with me. Five became 10, then 10 became 25,” Stevenson, 25, says. “After watching the custom cars in East Oakland, we wanted to put our own style on the bikes, to represent our identity.”

The 30 or so community members who work on bikes in Stevenson’s East Oakland shop represent Scraper Bike 2.0: As the 2010s push forward, the shop provides a safe, organized place for locals to learn bicycle maintenance and help fix residents’ bikes, in addition to creating their own scraper bikes.

Stevenson spends a big chunk of his time fundraising, pursuing sponsorships, and gathering up donations: cases of spray paint, gift cards. The oldest riders are around 25 and have access to tools and bike parts—and they are expected to keep the place tidy.

“It’s a chance to be artistic, but also be part of something,” bike shop volunteer Morgan Kanninen says. “We’re not trying to make this like school, but it is safe here, and they are held accountable.”

“We’re not trying to make this like school, but it is safe here, and they are held accountable.”
Morgan Kanninen

The scraper bike movement is expanding in other ways: The Scraper Bike Team is now a 501(c)3 nonprofit, with active feeds on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Scraper bikes have been on display in the Addison Street Windows Gallery in Berkeley and the Oakland Museum of California, and are on exhibit at the Los Altos History Museum through October. Stevenson is developing business plans to extend the scraper bike program to high-crime communities in cities like Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago.

But it’s business as usual back at the shop. Riders continue to come and work on bikes, and it’s all about the little details. One’s high seat post is not just an aesthetic choice; it has a purpose: They want to be easily visible when they ride on streets like International Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare that is not bike friendly or safe—it’s rife with the worst kind of crime. Stevenson’s goal is to help reclaim areas like this. It’s not been an easy task. Damage from a fire behind Stevenson’s house last summer forced him to move in with a friend—but things are looking up: He’s now a recreational leader with East Bay Regional Parks and works with Oakland Parks and Recreation to put scraper bikes into community events.

“I love seeing the reaction on people’s faces when we show up. It’s like a party,” he says. “We’re established now. People know who we are. We just roll through neighborhoods and public parks and talk to people.”

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07 2014 The Red Bulletin

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