Cycles of change

One has a Heineken mini-keg behind the seat. This one has a TV on it. That one has a PlayStation affixed to the back end. Pastel colors glow, polished chrome sparkles.

They're among the dozens of custom bicycles lined along the curb in front of this one house that has no neighbors on either side of it. In fact, just about everything on this street looks drab and depressing. The old houses, the beater cars parked in front of them, the empty lots that sprawl out next to them. Everything except these bikes, which shine like gems in this bleak setting.

They belong to the East Side Riders, a custom bicycle club whose members meet here at what's become their temporary clubhouse on Peter Hunt, an odd little street only a few blocks long near Van Dyke and Harper, deep in the inner city. Club members fish rusty old bikes out of the trash or find frames left curbside and transform them, through painstaking work, into cool, beautiful things.

The club was founded by Dywayne Neeley, now its 41-year-old president, and his brother Mike, 45. Both men are big and tall; Mike's got thick arms, Dywayne is beefier. They dwarf the bikes they ride. 

The club has grown so fast since it began earlier this year that they found a need to write bylaws, create their own Facebook page and implement dues to buy little things like reflectors and host club events. "We're fittin' to set it all up," the president says.

They've done extraordinarily artful and inventive things with the bikes they've rescued. Long, shiny handlebars rise above shoulder height on several of them. Fenders feature fine detailing and lettering with razor-sharp edges. There are trinkets in the spokes and decals on the frames. 

Naturally, all these glittering custom rides caught the attention of the kids on the block who were riding around on battered old bikes. Because in a poor neighborhood like this, kids just don't see nice-looking bikes. Certainly none like these. 

"Their bikes was raggedy," Mike says. "They didn't have no brakes, they was ridin' around on rims, ridin' on old bikes, so we just said if we can get the parts, we'll just fix the bikes for 'em. That way they can at least ride safe in the neighborhood, they can stop if they have to, they don't be getting hit by no cars out here."

Other kids saw their friends with improved rides, and soon whole groups were showing up in front of this house, sometimes with flat tires to fix, other times just to hang around, watching and learning. In a place where most kids grow up without their dad at home, a yard full of adult men making cool things is a draw for young boys with few role models.

"Normally there'll be like 20 of 'em out here," Dywayne says, looking at the half-dozen of them standing shyly on the periphery, staring at the club's bikes. "We got our crew; they got their crew."

When this pack of kids kept returning, they adopted this place and granted the Neeleys their trust, and the brothers felt compelled to look after them a little. "I give them popcorn and cotton candy and I have a big 5-gallon thing of Kool-Aid for them," Dywayne says. He has four children of his own. Mike has a daughter too. Sometimes their children are among these kids out front.

Another reason they started hanging out here is because teenagers would chase them away from the portable basketball hoop that's set up a block over. So the Neeleys put a hoop up here so these smaller, younger kids could play unharassed. 

"That's some of the stuff we do for 'em," Dywayne says, shrugging. His tone is aloof. It's really not a big deal, he insists. It's just what you do when kids start showing up at your door.

But with those small gestures, their house became the neighborhood's house, and the Neeleys found themselves doing what so many others in so many places in Detroit do. When the area declines, when families fall apart or were never families in the first place, when the city stops fixing the lights or sending the police, sometimes a handful of people will step up to restore a sense of order in little ways here and there that add up to a community. 

The Neeleys and their friends just wanted to ride cool bikes. But before they knew what was happening, they were slowly drawn into helping their neighborhood, watching over some of the kids in it, and joining volunteer groups they'd never have thought themselves the type to join before.

"You know, it's our neighborhood," Dywayne says. "We gotta do what we can for our neighborhood."

And all of it started because of some old bicycles they made new again.

The East Side
Riders began with four guys and some dirtbikes they used to get around town.

"Since we was kids, we always was riding bikes over here in this neighborhood," Mike says. "Ridin' 'em, fixin' 'em, buildin' 'em." They'd roll down to concerts at Chene Park or the annual fireworks show on the riverfront and see dozens of guys gathered there on these amazing, tricked-out custom bicycles, grilling food on portable barbecues and watching the show. The sight made Mike's crew and their wheels look sorry by comparison.

"I said, man I can't ride like this no more, I ain't comin' down here like this no more, " Mike says. "So I changed my bike. I put handlebars on it, I put shocks on it, put the diamond whitewall tires on it so you could have the cruise, I put everything on it. And we started riding better."

The appeal of a custom bike is putting your own stamp on it, expressing your individuality through it. For years custom bikes have been part of Latino culture in places like southwest Detroit where dozens of clubs flourish, but in recent years custom bike clubs have spread to new demographics, like the downriver suburbs and the neighborhoods of Detroit. A big reason is because it doesn't cost much to make one unique. About $35 for fenders. Maybe $75 for handlebars. Another $35 for a better seat. A little paint and a lot of patience. "Little $35 here, $25 there, and the bike will come together," Mike says, "But you have to want to put the money in the bike." 

The brothers get by nowadays fixing cars and doing home repairs for people, and slowly invested what they could into their hobby.

It wasn't just kids drawn to these new creations parked on the street. Some of the Neeleys' adult neighbors, many of whom use a bike as their main transportation, admired how these guys had transformed their rides and formed a club, and wanted to join up with them and learn to do the same. 

"Everybody saw how we was having fun, going to different little places and riding, and it just grew and grew and grew," Dywayne says. The East Side Riders' membership has risen quickly; it's about 60 or so now, both men and women, boys and girls, with more asking to join.

Soft-spoken Brian Goldsmith found the club the way it found other custom riders — down at a Chene Park concert, where he was hanging out all alone with his custom bike, admiring this club's amazing wheels. "I purchased my bike a couple years ago," the 32-year-old says. "My bike was a Plain Jane when I first got it, then ever since then I learned how to fix it up." His has yards of chrome, little air horns, big bright headlights, polished mirrors. "My grandmother would kill me if I got a motorcycle," he laughs, "so this is the next best thing." Though he's from a different east side neighborhood, the club liked him and his bike and invited to him join. 

With so many now riding in their crew, the Neeleys needed a set of rules for hanging out, to make sure things didn't get loose and unmanageable. When you invest your time and money into something like this, it becomes worth protecting and preserving.

So if they gather or hang out somewhere, the bikers must collect their own trash and take it with them. If the club is barbecuing someplace, the charcoal must be extinguished, bagged and brought home. Bikers have to stay with the pack when they ride and not veer off. If an older member gets tired while riding, the others stop and let him or her rest. And above all, don't start trouble.

"You can't antagonize nobody," Mike says, firmly. "If somebody say something to you out of the way, you say, 'OK,' and keep on going, because we don't carry no weapons or nothing. We ain't trying to be in no trouble. All we trying to do is ride our bikes and have fun." 

But then the kids came with their broken-down bikes, looking for help fixing them. Once Mike and Dywayne inadvertently found themselves in the bicycle repair business, they started looking to get a building of their own where they can fix them, teach repair classes and show bikers how to do an orchestrated ride. Problem is they don't have the money. They're hoping for a sponsor or donations or a free space to use.

Most of all they need a clubhouse, one that isn't Dywayne's daughter's home. Right now her house, the one sitting astride a grassy plain with the bikes lined up out front, serves as a storage space for many of their bikes, which are kept inside. They want a fitting place for their club and what it has become.

"It's like a whole 'nother world," Mike says. "I don't even really know how to explain it, 'cause everybody I ran into that's on these bikes that got their bikes hooked up and they come down there, everybody's like family."

The bodies
started turning up in empty houses and empty lots last year. All women.

When Georgia Johnson learned this was happening where she lives, she was determined to tell her neighbors to watch out for themselves. "Most peoples in the area did not know that eight women, some say 11, had been murdered," says Johnson, the 74-year-old president of the City Airport Renaissance Association, a neighborhood group with three decades of history. "So they were shocked. We wanted to get these flyers out to alert the peoples in the community and let them know to be careful."

She typed up a list of common sense safety tips, like, "Avoid walking alone" and "If a driver stops to ask directions, avoid getting near the vehicle," and set out to distribute them in her area. 

She's been a member of CARA since 1982, its president since 2003. The group exists to pester the city to do the kind of things for the neighborhood it used to do. Fix streetlights. Tear down abandoned homes. Mow the parks. Give grants to poor seniors with leaky roofs. They don't have much luck, she admits.

Her group runs Angel's Night patrols to deter Devil's Night arsons, hands out baskets at Thanksgiving, gives away presents at Christmas. "The city doesn't give us anything," she says. "We are all volunteers, all our money. Whatever we have to do."

But CARA has suffered because its older members have moved on or passed on, and the younger people in this shrinking neighborhood don't seem interested in joining, leaving people like her in charge long after she'd prefer to retire. "I'm a senior and I would love to have a young person come in and fill this void, to fight for the babies and the community, but they seem distant. So that's why we're still here."

In early summer, with the body count rising, she called the local TV stations and newspapers and scheduled a press conference. To show that other residents in this sparsely populated part of town were behind her, she asked the guys she'd seen riding those outlandish bikes to appear in front of the cameras with her, to demonstrate community strength. They were the biggest group she'd see gathered in the area.

"They didn't really have nobody to come out," Mike says. "So they said, 'Bring the bikes up there and we want y'all to represent the neighborhood.'" And the cameras saw the surreal sight of an elderly couple, a handful of concerned residents and a large crew of large men rolling up on these strange bicycles.

Before the East Side Riders showed up, it was left to people such as 79-year-old William Johnson, Georgia's husband, to slowly walk the long distances between houses and hand out fliers, one at a time. 

Instead, the bike club took a stack of them, spread themselves out and covered the streets in a fraction of the time, leaving a copy at each house. Suddenly, CARA had a fast-moving, mobile unit at its disposal. "They were a godsend," Georgia says. She was so thankful, she made everyone in the East Side Riders members of her group. Once again, the bikers were drawn into community service.

Now there was no doubt — the club had transformed into something bigger than before. And it became a point of pride among its members.

"Talk about our charitable work!" several riders implore Mike as he's explaining the role of the club. They're excited about this new dimension to their club.

But they don't really brag about it. They just note it. "We're just some guys, man," Mike says, dismissively. "Basically all we're trying to do is help."

The story of
their east side neighborhood is the same one heard all over the city. How it was a great place once. How something happened. And how it is now.

There used to be houses end to end, they say. The street was full of families. Kids were looked after by all the mothers on the block. And there were fathers around then too. 

"When we grew up around here, if I was down the street down there, doin' something wrong and somebody mama came out their house, I was gonna get it all the way down the block," Mike says. "And then when my mama found out that they got me, she gonna get me again. But it's different now. There's no structure in the home." The guys standing around him nod in agreement. And the stories start to flow.

"The difference that I see from now and then is, when I was coming up as a kid, I wouldn't dare disrespect an adult because the consequences were way too heavy," says Harold Crawford, 48. "And today it's just totally different. It's just really sad that there's not good guidance for the young."

Others say the same thing in different ways. People moved away. Their lingering empty houses made others want to leave too. Soon there were more empty houses than occupied ones, and soon after that there were more empty fields than empty houses. A vicious cycle nobody's yet figured out how to stop.

"Most of the neighborhood is gone," Mike says. "All of the houses. All through that block was full, all of this block was full. You couldn't even cut through this block. You couldn't walk through any fields on this block. And there were more families here."

The Johnsons have figures about their own street to illustrate the decline. "I went counting the houses before this came about, and I counted 75 houses," William says. "Now it's about 15 houses."

That's the backdrop to the sparkling bikes lined up on the street, the backdrop to the childhood of these kids gathered by the house. The Neeleys recognize the difference between their upbringing and what these kids face. They remember others in the neighborhood helping raise them, and as they get older they suddenly find themselves with the opportunity to do the same, after a band of children showed up at their doorstep one day.

"They see that we're doing something that's cool and they want to emulate what we're doing," he says. "They don't really know what it's all about, but they just wanna be around us."

It's Saturday
evening. The kids have scattered or moved on to playing basketball under the hoop in front of the house. The grown-ups are getting ready for another ride to the river. Later that night they'll be a striking sight, moving in sync through the downtown streets. Bus drivers will honk, cops will wave. Mike will lead the pack, wearing a reflective vest, stopping traffic in the intersections, making sure it's safe for his crew to pass through.

Right now, though, he stands next to his bike, with his friends gathered nearby, pausing to think how to explain, even a little to himself, how they all got here, how a few guys with a few rusty bikes got the chance to be better than they were, and to make the neighborhood better than it was.

"There's a time in every man's life where it's time out for all the crap and you gotta give something back, you know what I'm saying?" he says. "That's basically what we trying to do. I'm not gonna sit up here, preach to you and tell you I'm a saint, 'cause I ain't. But there's a time for everybody to give something back. And it's my time."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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