Citizen Green: Bike culture from Portlandia to the Triad

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

The bike racks protruding from the trunks of cars parked at the auto-repair shop across the street were a dead giveaway.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 25, a line formed outside of Green Door Wheel Works, the bike shop owned by Steve and Kirsten Hollingsworth in High Point.

Inside the green door, Steve took tickets and ushered guests towards a long table brimming with vegan dishes — greens and tomatoes with a light oil dressing, rice, fruit salad and chutney, along with the odd six-pack or two of craft beer. Another set of tables along the length of the north wall showcased books about cycling and other urban activities.

Cycles hung from the ceiling of the cavernous shop that opened recently. Paintings adorned the wall and flowers protruded from freshly turned ground outside, signs of care and new life.

From North Main Street where the furniture showrooms are clustered, the bike shop is two miles out West English Road — a 12-minute bike ride past the drug treatment centers and halfway houses, the underused warehouses and used car lots.

It’s kind of nowhere, and yet it also certainly must qualify as what urban planners call “an activity center,” one of a half-dozen that have cropped up around the Triad’s smallest city.

A handful of guys in standard bike caps and cycling jerseys from Salisbury sat in the front row. But for the most part the dress code favored cutoff blue jeans over Spandex. Many of those who paid the $15 charge for a vegan meal and presentation by Elly Blue — billed as a “cycling advocate and bike economist” — and filmmaker Joe Biel were not primarily cyclists. A landscaper who beautifies urban storefronts, a volunteer curator at a gallery in the Washington Street historically black business district, a TEDx organizer, a nonprofit executive director and a woman interested in organizing a makers co-op at the Depot, they are all involved in various individual efforts to build social cohesion, encourage expressive arts and culture and reinvest the city with commercial vitality. By a show of hands, about 60 percent of the audience came from High Point, while others came from Winston-Salem, Greensboro and even Durham.

Before the activists from Portland, Ore. started their presentation, the Hollingsworths welcomed the guests to their shop.

“Our mission is to serve our community and advocate for the best cycling infrastructure we can get,” Steve said. “High Point is ripe for the picking. We’ve got the right bones to make something amazing happen here.”

Blue and Biel showed a series of film clips, including an excerpt from Biel’s feature Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, his short about a woman who carts her six children around on a bike, and footage of a wealthy misanthrope plowing through a group of cyclists in Curitiba, Brazil.

Blue ran through a history of Portland and Amsterdam, where citizens revolted against the auto-oriented trend of building freeways through cities and starting in the early 1970s pushed for major investment in cycling infrastructure. She talked about the controversy surrounding critical mass — a coordinated event in which large numbers of cyclists take to the streets together — and the art of lobbying elected officials.

“It doesn’t have to be a protest to be effective,” she said. “It doesn’t even have to be political.” She added that cyclists in many cities turn out on their two-wheelers for bar crawls to demonstrate their economic clout.

She cited Detroit Bike & Brunch, a multiracial, multi-age group that combines cycling with eating as an example of effective bike activism.

“Please go out and ride your bike and change the world,” Blue closed. “And have fun.”

It didn’t take long for several people in the audience to start generating ideas and making plans.

“I’m used to taking my bike on a train in cities like New York and Buenos Aires and riding around downtown, going to museums and so forth,” said Mike Farrell, a furniture and fabric designer who spends about seven months out of the year in High Point. “I think we need to all show up somewhere with our bikes and get on a train.”

Beka Butts, a Greensboro artist who commutes to High Point to curate the 512 Collective gallery in the Washington Street district, enthusiastically endorsed the idea.

“The train station is right downtown here in High Point and right downtown in Greensboro, but no one uses it.”

You might not pick up on it from the news headlines or from following the sclerotic proceedings of city council these days, but there is a cultural renaissance underway in High Point driven by the complementary efforts of a number of community activists eager to reciprocate one another’s support. As an example, after the cycling presentation, Butts made a plug for Jazz in June, a weekly street festival whose purpose is to increase the vitality of the Washington Street district. Steve Hollingsworth committed on the spot to lead a group ride to the festival.

“You all are the leadership; they’re the public servants,” he said. “The call to our elected officials will not end well.”