Keith Jackson Remembers the Industry
It’s an early February afternoon in Woodridge, DC. Cold rain mixes with the leftover snow on the ground, melting it into the storm drains all along Rhode Island Avenue NE. Locals make last minute runs to Zeke’s Coffee, but the benches in Chuck Brown Park sit empty underneath the shower. Not far from each of these, nestled between a soul food restaurant and a church, rests an unassuming white building. A broken light-box sits above the door, but the A-frame sign on the sidewalk in front says “Gearin’ Up Bicycles.”
This space hasn’t always been the home of Gearin’ Up, a Black-owned bicycle repair shop and non-profit. In fact, it was once a bakery and sandwich shop. Then it sat empty for a decade, but you wouldn’t know it.
Inside, rows of bikes hang from wall shelves, while even more of them are lined up across the floor. Behind them, bins of spare parts line shelves that extend into the back of the open floor plan. Workbays occupy the left half of the warehouse-like space, where two mechanics in the back chatter while performing repairs.
In a workbays toward the front of the building, Keith Jackson takes a road bike down from the workstand. He brings his face in close, moving around it while he inspects his work. He ends by jotting some notes down on a clipboard.
Keith has been a mechanic for over twenty years. The importance of this work doesn’t jump out if you’re not sure where to look. When you look, it’s hard to miss. Hard to forget. But Keith has had his eyes on it for a while. “I’ve been in the bicycle industry since the mid 90s and in that time, I can count the number of Black people who were in management positions on one hand,” he says. “And I’m probably going to have two or three fingers left over.”
Gearin’ Up Bicycles has a mentorship program that tends to draw Black teens and young adults through a pipeline of change funneling toward perceptions on Black folks and biking. For Keith, that starts not with the riders, but with the companies manufacturing and selling bicycles.
Understanding his perspective requires a trip back in time, prior to his tenure at Gearin’ Up–even before his time as a contractor with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Keith grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, where he got started racing BMX bikes in middle school. “Snake Valley BMX Track. It was a nonprofit, started by a police officer who went and saw some BMX races and saw that it might be a good way to keep some of the young brothers off the street. So he went to the town and got a BMX track built in the local park. It was a five minute bike ride from my house.”
He took part in a few national events, but sort of drifted away from it shortly before attending the University of Maryland, where he majored in mechanical engineering.
After graduating he secured a job as general manager at a shop that restored vintage cars. During the interview, he noticed bikes hanging from the rafters. The crew did lunch rides at Hains Point. This encounter brought Keith back to biking. The rides left him sore and beat up. He also remembered how much he loves riding his bike.
Things really changed in 1992, when Keith became assistant manager of Bikes USA. “That’s really when I started thinking about it from a bigger perspective,” he tells me. “I never looked at the bigger world of cycling and what that meant until I worked with Bikes USA.”
Working his way up in this and other biking organizations, Keith noticed a disparity in the industry’s racial representation. An industry that has run into numerous challenges in attempting to foster a genuine connection with Black communities. The issues making up these challenges–from the lack of Black people in management to a skewed geographical distribution of shops–begin with the companies selling the one thing necessary for the ride. Their corporate structures were, and still are, predominately white, interchanging forms of non-whiteness for one another.
Through wry laughter and moist eyes, Keith recounted an experience in which a corporate bike manufacturer sent over a Sikh representative who owned up to similar experiences. But they sent the brownest person on staff. The situation encapsulates a problem that applies down the industry’s chain: from corporate offices, to bike retailers and their shops.
“That was the thing that always gnawed at me. Why aren’t we properly represented in terms of managing, executive jobs, buyers, and doing all that other stuff in the business. That’s when I really started to see there was a bigger problem.”
Remember, this is the 90s, and DC is supposed to be Chocolate City. At this point in time, the city itself is still almost 70% Black. Not only that, but the population density of the city itself was on par with the region as a whole.
White flight continued through this time and, despite having a majority Black population, that population was not reflected in the makeup of those offering services to the community. It wasn’t that these companies and businesses didn’t give Black folks a chance. Yet, their stringent job requirements for mechanic positions often left people out of the running and with the inability to get the requested experience.
This creates a familiar feedback loop. Someone doesn’t have the experience for the role, so they can’t get their foot in the door. They can’t get that experience because there aren’t many opportunities to do so.
What’s at stake here concerns the economic outcomes tied to decision-making power and their impact on Black experiences in the United States. When highways were created in the 1950s, they were intended to funnel people to the city from newly-created suburbs. In the process, public planners engaged in a process known as redlining, which gutted Black communities by building highways through them. The impacts continue to reverberate throughout Black communities.
The rise of the automobile is directly tied to this process, and the creation of highways increased automobile ownership through induced demand, creating another loop of its own. We can only wonder whether having Black mechanics, engineers, and policy-makers in the room would have resulted in different conclusions.
For ten years, Gearin’ Up has stepped up to that problem, mentoring young Black kids from DC. That mission is even part of what motivated them to move to the new location, to serve communities that aren’t being reached. “I think it’s important for young people to know it’s the bike industry. It doesn’t stop here.” Keith waves his hand at the shop.
Keith brought to Gearin’ Up a set of educational resources to standardize teaching practices. They also outline the skills starting mechanics need to break into the industry. So not only do his mentees get an opportunity, they get a chance as well. Some have gone to pursue degrees in mechanical engineering and obtain jobs in the bike industry themselves.
Gearin’ Up Bicycles is more than just a bike shop. Yes, it’s a place of mentorship, but it is also part of a Black history still present. One also encompassing the ride clubs that have popped up since the 90s, like Black Women Bike, Black Girls Do Bike, We Ride DC, and Streets Calling DC. These bastions of Black joy organize local rides and the thrill that can come from riding a bike, whatever that looks and feels like for them.
Other Black-owned bike shops have been established too. But there are still only a handful in the region, such as Buna Bicycles, Patapsco Bicycles, and Jafe Cycling.
“We’re it,” Keith says curtly.
None of that mitigates any of the work being done by these folks, and its place in DC history. Just the opposite. Gearin’ Up just celebrated its tenth anniversary and continues to expand its reach to DC’s Black communities. My time with Keith is brief but impactful. The way I imagine a young mentee with their whole lives ahead of them might feel after a summer program.
Only time will tell how they fit into this history themselves, but Keith’s influence sparks hope.