The Bicycle Kitchen occupies, yes, a kitchen. It overfills the remainder of a studio apartment too. Inside the air smells vaguely of perspiration, mixed with the mechanical scent of bicycle grease and the talc-rubber aroma of inner tubes. People are cooking here, but not dinner. Their conversations drown out music from a boombox. It is impossible to not be in the way.
Described figuratively instead of literally, the Bicycle Kitchen encompasses quite a bit more than these busy, cheerful rooms.
In the word-of-mouth way that a warehouse nightclub becomes the favorite hangout of the after-hours party crowd, or that a strip-mall cafe becomes a nucleus for the neighborhood, the Bicycle Kitchen has become a center of gravity and a source of energy for bicyclists in the core of urban Los Angeles.
Bicycles in the center of city life here? Except for true believers, the words seem strangely disjunctive, don't they?
Southern California's enduring love and fateful dependence on cars have been on constant display for all the world to witness for more than half a century. Motorcycles too.
As usually happens, cliches are true enough. The motor vehicle is king, queen and court. But that won't get you all the way down the road. Not anymore.
Southern California's two-wheel culture spins on many spokes.
Sometimes it's hard to miss the scene. Energetic "roadies," with splashy Euro-style team jerseys and fanny-tight Lycra shorts, stream through Griffith Park or down Pacific Coast Highway in whirring pelotons. More numerous by far are the other cyclists who fade into the hectic background of city life. Hardly anyone pays attention, or really even "sees," these rusty bicycles being pedaled on sidewalks or along gutters, one by one, as the immigrant poor seek out the dream but, for the moment, are priced out of every transportation alternative, including buses.
In between, spread out in the diffusion of urban bustle and noise, college students ride. So do playful teenagers on their acrobatic BMX bicycles. Here and there, commuters too. Customized choppers and sculpted beach cruisers make the point that slow is stylish. In the high-rise heart of the city, messengers scorch across the pavement with deliveries that cannot be transmitted by e-mail or fax. Racers follow madcap seasonal campaigns for velodrome, road and time-trial matches. More leisurely cyclists take to the concrete river trails and park paths year-round for fitness, for fresh air, for the sake of a family outing.
Then there are those who embrace the city head-on, like the cyclists who congregate at the Bicycle Kitchen. Borrowing freely from the cultures of messengers and commuters and road racers, they are the small but expanding community of, let's call them, urban cyclists: They dare the crowded streets for the joy of it.
Some do it to save money on transportation. Some for the kicks. Some for the sociability. In the end, most do it because they believe it's the right way, the only way, to connect with the city. In their determination, some are drawn here from smaller and less crowded places, because if you're going to take on the chaos of urban life with a bicycle -- well then, Los Angeles is the promised land.
Jimmy LIZAMA, a Los Angeles native and a bicycle messenger, needed a place to work on his bike. There was an empty studio in the apartment building where he lives, the Los Angeles Eco-Village off Vermont Boulevard in Koreatown. He swept out the galley kitchen, hardly bigger than an elevator, and set up a work stand. Friends started to hang around and tune up their bikes.
Ben Guzman happened by, having just arrived from Portland, Ore., one of those cities where bicyclists do not ride in the civic shadows. Before he moved, his friends wondered what he was going to do with his bikes when he got to L.A., ha.
The two 30-year-olds talked. Their energy converged. Lizama wanted to do his part for the activist community at the Eco-Village, where self-propelled transportation is part of the creed. He didn't like composting, so why not help them keep their bikes running? Guzman was looking to pump up the profile of bicycles in this city where the car rules but not always benevolently.
That was two years ago. They cleaned out the rest of the apartment. In the living area, they hung up some bicycle storage hooks. An open closet provided room for supplies and another work stand. Parts bins piled up against the walls.
From the beginning, it was standing room only. "I wasn't the only one dreaming," Lizama discovered. "Because a bunch of fools started showing up with bikes, beer, love, tall tales, music.... You know, culture."