by Caitlin Donohue
Photos by Andy Donohoe
Translation by Christine Marie-Andrieu and Kevin Vaughn
Abandoned pizzerias rarely hold any promise when your bike needs a tune-up. Past any lingering traces of cooking grease or possible rain cover, they're rarely an optimal match for those in need of two-wheeled skill share. But should you find yourself in Villa Urquiza, a northern Buenos Aires barrio, break by the train tracks when you see the sign for La Ideal pizza.
Of course, it's not exactly abandoned anymore. Inside Ideal's facade lies one of the city's neighborhood asambleas -- community centers that sprung up (many in abandoned buildings like that of La Ideal) in the wake of the 2001 economic collapse. Asamblea de Villa Urquiza was convened in the former restaurant in 2002 and now hosts movies, an anarchist library, and alternative education hours among other community forums and events.
It's an incredible scene – only none of those things are going to help your faulty front breaks. For that, you'll need to head to a small room in the back of the asamblea, where you'll find the Fabricicleta.
Fabricicleta volunteer Francisco de Vedia
“Above all, it's an exchange of knowledge,” says Gustavo Troncoso, a volunteer mechanic at the free bike workshop. On Tuesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 4 to 8 p.m., the shop opens to anyone whose two wheels need a little TLC. Bring your sad steed in, and a group of dedicated bike riders await to escort you into bike riding self-sufficiency free of charge (though donations towards the shop's upkeep are always appreciated).
Just don't expect to coast through your visit – the shop's focus is on empowering the community to grab their own handlebars and steer. On a recent Saturday, Malena Avila and Lara Caccia were being helped through some routine tune-ups and a flat tire by Troncoso and Nahuel Espinoso. Avila dipped her tire tube into a bucket of water per Troncoso's instructions, and started looking for the telltale bubbles that would pinpoint the location of the offending puncture.
“The shop has about six core mechanics, but people come to spend the day and end up doing work,” says Troncoso, who we caught in the earlier portion of open hours, a few minutes before the shop filled up with people examining bike parts, drinking mate, listening to music, and connecting over a shared admiration of self-propelled transit. At times, the workshop can play host to ten bikes, each with multiple people working on them. “I'm not an expert in bike mechanics myself,” Espinoso says. “So it's nice that I can come here and learn something also.”
The Fabricicleta has a decidedly community-oriented approach to bike activism. Troncoso says there are plans in the works to start a program that would get bicycles into the hands of low income riders, and a mobile workshop so that volunteers can take the show on the road is in its beginning stages. The bottom line, for many of the people who spend their time in the asamblea's back room, is that learning bike maintenance skills is one way of combating the modern day 'throwaway' consumerist culture.
And some days, being a bike rider in Buenos Aires ain't easy. “It's a little bit complicated at times,” said Avila, who despite being a regular rider finds that some streets in Buenos Aires are more conducive to bikes than others (a.k.a., provide higher rates of bicyclist survival in heavy traffic).
Despite the past year's dramatic increase in the number of ciclovias around an exhaust-heavy city, a certain stigma still exists around biking in Buenos.
Troncoso, who grew up riding bikes in a small town in Buenos Aires province, started taking the city via velo four years ago and became involved with the Fabricicleta (which opened in the spring of 2010) through friendships formed through the Masa Critica group rides. He says that especially among older people there's a perception that bike riding for sport, for hippies, for poor people – and that many think that bike paths take valuable street space away from cars and buses. “There's a question of respect,” he says. “Riding bikes isn't very well integrated into Buenos Aires, and you can see that on the streets.”
Avila and Troncoso figure out what's wrong with the tire – not a flat after all, but a leaky valve – and Avila wheels off, another rider who knows a little more about her mode of transportation. “It's a lifestyle,” says Troncoso. “When you get in a car and go somewhere quickly – well you're not leaving much room for yourself. It's this modern concept of 'losing time.' The bike makes you autonomous, free, you can do it yourself.”
So maybe places like the Fabricicleta aren't just about skill sharing, but rather about providing a place where a Buenos Aires community can come together over shared values – a little bit of support and calm amidst honking taxis and lurching colectivos. People power, or at least people, pedaling.
You can usually find Caitlin Donohue cruising the streets of California as the culture editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She totally dug the onda in BsAs, obvio.