Let ’em ride! Philly needs a bike park | Helen Ubiñas
Picture the possibilities: a park cosponsored by a dealership or celebrity — Meek Mill is a big bike fan. Teams, competitions, job opportunities for the skilled riders to teach younger riders.
He got his first dirt bike at 15 or 16. Bought it with money he saved from a part-time job, and learned how to ride it up and down an alleyway near his North Philadelphia home. With a helmet, he promised his mom.
At 18, he's one of the best riders in Philly, I'm told. To prove that, he shows me a video on his cell phone of just one of his many signature moves:
Foot off the brake and over the handlebar, bike tipped impossibly back into a wheelie. One hand touching the ground behind him. Mouth spread into a triumphant smile.
You have to see what this guy can do. Who is he? Over a late lunch/early dinner of pancakes, home fries, and a glass of milk at the Mugshot Diner on York Street, he explains that he doesn't want his name out there. Same with the rest of the bikers I talked to this week. Especially after the uproar following last weekend's ride that attracted hundreds of dirt bike and ATV riders from around the country.
"The people who know, know," he says, wearing a hoodie that reads BIKE LIFE #NOTACRIME 215.
Except that technically, it is a crime. About 20 people were arrested last Sunday after the pack rode through Philly to honor Kyrell Tyler, a 23-year-old known as "Dirt Bike Rell" who was found shot to death in a car in Southwest Philadelphia four years ago.
Gangs, one TV anchor called the riders who descended on Philly from all over the city and country. Another called them ATV anarchists. Catchy, but a stretch.
Where so many see lawlessness — and make no mistake; right now, it is against the law to ride most of these bikes on the streets of Philadelphia — I see passion and skill and potentially, a way to reach a lot of young people in this city.
We're failing to reach them because we keep telling them what we think they need while not hearing what they're saying. And, in this case, showing us, what they want.
What so many young people in this city clearly want to do is ride — bicycles, dirt bikes, ATVs.
So, why not figure out a way to make that happen that works for everyone?
A bike park isn't a new idea — it's come up several times at least in the last decade. Council members Curtis Jones Jr. and Kenyatta Johnson have led the exploration, and after Sunday's "Rell Day" ride, Johnson expressed his support again. "The city of Philadelphia needs a dirt bike park for the youth!" he declared on Instagram. Jones remembers touring some bike parks and potential sites for one of our own a few years ago. The rub was the tension between a community of bikers that wanted to ride without fear or punishment and residents who wanted no part of them, their noise, or the potential dangers to riders and pedestrians.
And trust me — I get it, it took me a while to get to this opinion. All those issues would have to be addressed, quality of life and safety chief among them. Keep it safe. Keep it friendly. But I think Sunday's ride not only shined a spotlight on the gathering that made national news, but also an opportunity to showcase the talent in our own backyard.
Picture the possibilities: a park cosponsored by a dealership or celebrity — Meek Mill is a big bike fan. Teams, competitions, job opportunities for the skilled riders to teach younger riders. Riders will pay to ride without being harassed. Fans will pay to see their local and social media favorites.
But something else, too. An opportunity to get this underground bike-life culture and movement, as they refer to it, out of the shadows to help do some good. It already does plenty good, they told me. The irony is that while they ride on the streets, riding keeps many of them off the streets. And riding together has squashed more than a few beefs, they insist. Those bikes, they said, offer something they don't always feel in their own lives: unity, power, freedom.
We have skate parks and dog parks. We even have the Philly Pumptrack, for BMX riders, so there's precedent. We turn over our streets for lots of things in Philly: naked people, saunterers who want to enjoy a traffic-free afternoon, the Pope. So even if we can't get a bike park right away, maybe we can at least find a way to open up some streets every once in a while for these riders.
Last month, Mayor Kenney gave his administration 100 days to come up with a new approach to combat gun violence in the city and reach young people.
These riders just gave them one.