Former site of the Halem Bike Doctor

2001 5th Ave.
New York

Former site of the Halem Bike Doctor

Bicycle SiteLocal BusinessGentrificationRepair Shop


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"The Doctor Is Out, Moving From Harlem to Brooklyn" post by J. David Goodman on the New York Times CityRoom Blog at 11:00am on September 8, 2009:

Thirty-five years after his father first began fixing bikes uptown, the Halem Bike Doctor is moving his storefront to Brooklyn.

This news requires a bit of explanation.

First off, the missing “R” is deliberate. Or at least, it has been deliberately adopted as the name of Donald Childs Jr.’s Harlem bike shop since his wife accidentally misprinted fliers announcing its grand opening on Marcus Garvey Park two years ago.

“The only ones who noticed were the kids,” Mr. Childs, 47, said with a laugh. “We gave them a $5 discount.”

His business cards — adorned with a drawing of a penny-farthing in a nod to bike tradition — also carry the R-less name, as does the handmade sign above the shop, a garage on the park near 124th Street. At least, that’s how the sign read until earlier this year, when repeated visits from the Department of Buildings forced Mr. Childs to remove it.

The second thing about Mr. Childs’s move to Brooklyn is that he is going not entirely by choice. He would like to stay in Harlem, where his family has had bike shops in seven locations since 1974, but the neighborhood is different now, he said.

Mr. Childs opened the shop when he was released from prison two years ago, he said, and for the first six months, the location was great for business. His name — the bike doctor — came form his use of a stethoscope to listen for loose ball bearings. “A lot of places will charge you to take it apart just to see what’s wrong,” he said. “I can tell without going in.”

He connected with his father’s old customers and made many new ones, including some from the recently renovated brownstones and condos that now ring the park. He tried to do things by the book, he said, getting a small business license and tax identification.

But agents from the Buildings Department began responding to complaints and ticketing the shop for operating in a residential area.

“First it was the sidewalk, so, you see, we’re not in the sidewalk anymore,” he said, standing among eight upside-down bicycles on the side of the curb in front of the closed garage. “Then it was the zoning. We paid the fine. We took the sign down. But people still complain.”

While some have objected in online forums, Sid Miller, a real estate broker who has lived around the corner on Fifth Avenue between 124th and 125th for 10 years, has been more active. “I don’t object to him running a bike business, or giving training on bikes to kids, but not on my block. Not in violation of the zoning. Not in violation of the quality of life. No, no, no.”

Mr. Miller, who knew Donald Childs Sr. as a neighborhood property owner and a “very sweet man,” began working with Mr. Childs earlier this year to find a permanent shop in Harlem through the local community board. (The elder Mr. Childs died in 2003 from a heart attack while jogging.)

“I am continuing to work with Donald and the crew to find him a place, because he does a great job for the neighborhood and the kids,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Childs made a presentation to the community board, but he became discouraged. “They’ve got 30 people in there before you,” he said. “By the time they find me a place, it’ll be five years from now.”

And in the meantime, Mr. Miller said he would continue to report the shop’s violations of zoning and other infractions. “What’s going on there is a cancer on the block,” he said, objecting to the grease, the children who run into the street, and the mechanics and customers who hang out all day with Mr. Childs.

Some, like Rick Rainey, 55, who arrives on a rusting beater with a flat, are too poor to pay. Mr. Childs gently ribs him while replacing his inner tube for no charge: “This guy’s been coming here for a hundred years, and we’ve been fixing his flats for a hundred years!”

When he was released from prison, Mr. Childs found that opening his own business was the only way he could find to fulfill his parole requirement to work. “I got a college degree, but people don’t realize, it’s not easy,” he said. “I couldn’t get a job stacking cans at the supermarket.” Despite a degree from Borough of Manhattan Community College, his felony history — he has spent many years in prison for selling crack, which he also used — kept him out of work.

“I learned I have to be careful of the people I’m around,” he said. “Anything could send me back to prison now. In Harlem, people don’t realize, it’s dangerous. When you’re black, people want to challenge you. I have to set my demeanor in a way to avoid the challenging mind.”

As Mr. Childs moved among the bikes on a recent Sunday, a handful of local mechanics worked. Across the street, his partner, Sam Sweeper, inspected a customer’s mountain bike. Both men now run their businesses out of their vans, using a curbside area. Both were raised in Harlem, but now they commute to the neighborhood each day: Mr. Childs from Peekskill, N.Y., where he lives with his wife and children; Mr. Sweeper from Staten Island, where he moved to take care of his mother.

Mr. Childs said he sees the move out to Brooklyn as a business opportunity. On a recent night, he visited a potential storefront on DeKalb Avenue and Clermont and was immediately taken by the borough’s bike culture. “You look and it’s like a hundred bikes on the block. They’ve got women on bikes with their dresses, with flowers — it was like something out of the 18th century.”

Right now, he’s planning on opening his shop — tentatively called the Brooklyn Bike Doctors — in November or December, but he said he would keep a foothold in Harlem. Mr. Sweeper said he would remain, as would several of the other mechanics. Mr. Childs, too, will come back, he promised.

“I’ll still have guys hang out here,” he said. “I’m going to set up in Brooklyn. But I can be in between.” is a great video on the Halem Bike Doctor


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