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The Challenge of Encouraging Recreational Riding in Watts: A Chat with the Owner of Watts Cyclery

3:37 PM PDT on May 9, 2012

No, no voy lejos, said José. Mi madre no me deja.

I had asked José, who I judged to be about 20 years old, how far he normally rode on his bike. His mom wouldn't let him go too far, he said. She didn't want him getting jacked for the bike.

Hay que salir de la casa de vez en cuando, no? I said. (You need to get out of the house every now and then, don't you?)

"Oh, no," he laughed, shaking his head. Although he wanted to ride more, he agreed with his mom -- it just wasn't all that safe.

I had run into him and his friend, Alex (also about 20), outside the Watts Cyclery. Alex had bought his first bike in years earlier that day and needed brake cables. He used to ride a lot as a kid, he said, and wanted to start up again to get back and forth to work and around the neighborhood. But he also wasn't too sure where else to go with it. Like José, he had concerns about safety.

You could try a Critical Mass ride, I suggested.

They looked puzzled.

Like many of the youth I've spoken to in South L.A., they had never heard of L.A. Critical Mass or the Midnight Ridazz and had no idea how much group riding happens north of the 10 Freeway.

Even the high schooler working at the Cyclery had never heard of such a thing.

"If you want to have an event maybe you should advertise it on the news," he said. He also suggested trying the local English and Spanish-language community papers to inform people about upcoming rides.

But when I asked if he thought people would actually ride, he wasn't so sure.

"They don't have time or the budget [for the bike]," he said. Or, like him, they are afraid about getting jacked. He had an old mountain bike that he rode back and forth to school, he said, but people had tried to steal his bike twice while he was in class, once right in front of a security guard.

I was down at the Watts Cyclery (on 112th and Wilmington) because I was checking in to see how well people had responded to the Ride South L.A. map created by USC's ParTour team during a group ride in late January. A few weeks prior, I had ridden through Watts with representatives of the East Side Riders and the ParTour team, distributing copies the map to local businesses and attractions such as the Watts Towers.

The ParTour team sees their map as a tool for social change. In addition to presenting a route to the Watts Towers and other landmarks, they sought to include a guide to community-based organizations active in the area, businesses that support social change, and ideas about how cyclists can take action to help make Watts a better place.

It's a great tool for people who don't know the area at all. But we weren't sure of the extent to which people in the community would cotton to it.

Stalin, the owner of Watts Cyclery, had mixed feelings about the utility of the map.

He admired the larger goal of integration and of trying to bring people to the Watts area, he said.

"We want people here," he said. "We do feel isolated."

And, he said, "people do want to ride." But he was also realistic about the obstacles that keep residents from getting out on a bike in the first place or from viewing it as more than a commuter vehicle.

Their concerns are more immediate, he said, ticking off a list of things including dependency on food stamps, miniscule budgets for bikes and bike upkeep, fear of theft, and concerns about safety.

Residents might need bikes to commute to work, he explained, but they don't always have the budget to pay for them. He had had to create lay-away plans that allow residents to take as long as six months to pay off the cost of even a very low-end bike.

"I'm not here for the money," he shrugged. "I'm here because I want to build community. That's the extent of my agenda."

Looking down at the Ride South L.A. map on the counter, I tried to bring the conversation back to how we might make a tool like that work for the residents themselves, not just outsiders.

There was no good answer to that question. We kept returning to the idea that taking on community habits, culture, and socio-economic constraints required a sustained commitment to community engagement, including extensive outreach, a visible presence, and even speaking directly with some of the families or youth that have clout and who are responsible for some of the safety problems in the streets.

But you do have to start somewhere.

"Ride with the explicit intent of integration," he suggested. "If you ride for the goal of integrating people, and you are explicit about it, people will join and then more people here will feel compelled to ride."

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