by Peter Schmidke / photos by Peter di Antoni

On a humid Sunday afternoon at the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective on Clyburn Avenue, Ian Fritz hands out bicycle rims to a bubbly Ricky Ramirez and two other neighborhood kids. Seated knee-to-knee on overturned milk crates, they stare curiously around at the gaggle of tools and bicycles as Fritz explains their mission–to remove the worn spokes from the rims so they can replace them with new ones. Ramirez fixes his pliers around a spoke and gives a couple of hard squeezes, each with no result. Fritz repositions the pliers in the middle of the spoke and this time it crinkles cleanly. “The collective is a loose affiliation of folks who help kids in the neighborhood and the community,” explained Fritz, who coordinates the collective. “We provide space, tools, parts, and instruction for people to work on their bikes, or to build one if they don’t already have one.” The organization occupies an airy upper loft at 2910 W. Clyburn in a building owned by Fritz’s father. In addition to Fritz, other volunteers include Shea Schachameyer, George Wortz, Dan Lionberg, and Trevor Munroe. The group started moving in during March 2001, and they opened their doors that June. They closed their operations that winter because the upper loft is unheated. This winter they will also stop operations, and resume in the spring. Fritz said he became inspired to start a bicycle collective when he saw non-profit shops in Oakland, Tucson, and Philadelphia. “Rather than needing a lot of money to buy a bike or repair a bike, places had a ‘sweat equity’ idea where if you worked for them, that could be exchanged for a bike or parts for a bike.” Between 75 and 100 bikes at the Milwaukee collective last year were distributed through sweat equity, Fritz said. “There are some things that are beyond the kids, and I sort of do that stuff. But there are definitely things in the process that they can learn for themselves so that they can maintain their bikes when they’re not in the shop. And there are some kids who make themselves really useful and will even help other kids work on bikes.” Patching flat tires, straightening rims, and installing brakes are just a few of the tasks Fritz and the volunteers help their customers master. “The majority of people who come here are kids around this area. Sometimes kids’ parents or other adults come in too,” Fritz said. “There are a couple of kids from 17th and Locust who come–they ride their bikes here.” Fritz emphasized the collective’s need for more volunteers. “The folks who are volunteering right now are mostly just people I know. We’ve had people come and go over the last year and a half. Mostly it has been word-of-mouth.” Fritz said that volunteers who are not knowledgeable about bike repair can still lend a hand by sorting parts, cleaning, or answering the phone. The shop also has a continuing need for good parts. “We have a lot of parts, but a larger percentage of it than I would like is junk,” Fritz said. “I’d like to see an increase in the quality of the stuff we have. If it’s junk, we end up with the burden of having to get rid of it.” The collective has received donated parts from Corey the Bike Fixer, Wheel and Sprocket in Port Washington, and Rainbow Jersey in Whitefish Bay. “My employer (Corey the Bike Fixer) helps us out a lot, and he doesn’t really see this as a threat to his business, because it’s all the way across town, and we don’t have any money.” The collective also serves mostly under-privileged kids who would be unlikely to be able to pay for bike repair services. Dave Schlabowske, Program Manager for the Milwaukee branch of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation, has met with Fritz at the collective. “I think it’s a great thing,” Schlabowske said. “There are very few bike shops in that area. When I visited the shop, there were lots of kids waiting for the door to open.” In the near future, Fritz would like to organize repair classes and create a web site. Fritz is currently applying for federal tax-exempt status to allow the collective to receive tax-deductible donations. To contact the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective, call 431-0825 or email them at Shop hours are Sundays 3-7 p.m. and Thursday 5:30-8:30 p.m. A similar program is offered by the Boys and Girls Club (not one near Ian’s shop) Their contact person is Dana Nix at 447-5333.

Ian’s “Freegan” way of life was the subject of an earlier Currents article and one of Crocker Stephenson’s “snapshots” in the Journal-Sentinel which Dan Knauss replied to in this month’s issue of the Currents and his “Current Media” column online.

Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 9 – October 2002