Building a bike community: A Q&A with Bike East co-organizer Kevin Joseph

July 30, 2019 Micah Danney
Kevin Joseph (center) leads a group on a bike tour. Photo courtesy of Kevin Joseph
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For Kevin Joseph, movement has always been key to quality of life. First he was a dancer. Then, he took up biking. Now, he’s on a running kick. But when he looked around his community in East Brooklyn, he didn’t see many opportunities for his neighbors to get active — so he made one.

Joseph started Bike East, an annual free bike tour through East New York and Brownsville, in 2014. The 20-mile ride starts in Lincoln Park and ends with an all-day fair. Joseph sees the ride as a chance for a community that is often disenfranchised and denied resources to come together for something recreational.

With the sixth annual Bike East tour coming up on Saturday, Aug. 17, the Brooklyn Eagle spoke with its co-organizer about the event’s history and significance.

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Eagle: What is Bike East?

Joseph: It’s a free community bike tour through East New York and Brownsville. We start at Linden Park and ride 20 miles for about three hours. We’ll also be holding an all-day Active Lifestyle Fair where people can do free fitness and dance sessions. There will be beginner’s bike classes for kids and adults who want to learn to ride.

Eagle: Tell us about yourself.

Joseph: I’m a first-generation Caribbean-American from Trinidad. I grew up between Trinidad and East Brooklyn. I met Lakai Worrell through hip-hop dancing when we were kids, and we both went on to dance in college and train professionally. We traveled around the country and the world, and we decided to develop The Purelements Dance Company. We focused it on the community that we came from, with arts as a tool to motivate people to have conversations about what we needed in order to grow.

I had always been a cyclist, riding to work and eventually training to ride competitively. I spent a few years competing until about two years ago. But now I’m running a lot. It’s in my blood. I have to be physical.

Eagle: How did it get started?

Joseph: We were touring around the country and the world and coming back and seeing how our community still didn’t have all it needed. Kids from here aren’t going to go all the way to Alvin Ailey American Dance Company on 59th Street. Parents often don’t see the need to do that, or if they do, they can’t afford the tuition. So Purelements was about activating that physicality, trying to do something that involved moving and required you to focus on you.

I was helping out with The Epic Ride [which travels from Greenpoint to Riis Park Beach] and I mentioned that I wanted to do something like that in East Brooklyn. I was introduced to a few people who were working with the Department of Health and Department of Transportation to look into putting bike lanes in East New York and Brownsville.

On the day of our first ride, it rained more than I had seen in maybe 10 years. We were going to cancel the ride, but the 40 or so riders said they wanted to go, so we went. The rain got so bad that we pulled off under a shelter and offered to send some tour marshals back with anyone who wanted to quit. They started this chant, “Let’s keep going! Let’s keep going!” It was so amazing. That was just a sign that this was doing so much for them. I saw how much that was needed — to just explore, to find yourself, to just do something different than what you had been doing.

Eagle: How has it grown since then?

Joseph: We don’t do a lot of marketing, so mostly through word-of-mouth and our press releases we’ve grown pretty steadily to about 200 riders, including marshals and volunteers. Bike New York helps to promote us.

Riders come from all over but the majority are from the community. Most aren’t riding regularly. It’s something they might wish they could do more but maybe haven’t found a way to do it or are scared. Having the marshals and the NYPD escort makes them feel supported and allows them to enjoy something they may not have done in years.

Eagle: What’s your goal with this event?

Joseph: Communities like East New York and Brownsville have had a lack of resources for so many years. They’re portrayed as very dangerous, economically poor and even lacking intelligence. That has hovered over this community. People have been living under that cloud. We don’t have to let society determine who we are. The people in East New York or Brownsville are like people anywhere else. There are families, businesspeople, students, professionals, and coming together and seeing people for who they are — we’re all riding this bike tour together, we’re all going to be challenged together and we can all win together.

I’m really big on the idea that it’s important to spend time with yourself. We spend time getting to work, paying bills, taking care of your life day to day. We may think that it’s a privilege to spend time on yourself, when it’s actually necessary to excel as a person and as a community.

Cycling is just a tool we’re using to get people to do that. Accomplish something you haven’t done in a while or done at all. Maybe you’re seeing new territory. It’s no different than getting on a plane. That type of awareness about seeing new things and new places strengthens you and broadens your perspective on life.

Eagle: You mentioned a historic lack of resources. As many neighborhoods are gaining cycling infrastructure like bike lanes and Citi Bike stations, is eastern Brooklyn being neglected?

Joseph: Let’s look at that through two separate lenses. For people who ride for sport or for daily transportation, it feels like it’s hard to get out of East New York or Brownsville. It feels like there’s a bunch of things you have to do before you get on a main road that you can take to Prospect Park or your job or where you’re delivering an order. For the occasional rider, I don’t think there’s enough to show them that they can do it safely.

I think there is a strong focus on it in some neighborhoods but not in the outer boroughs’ outer neighborhoods. There is not enough investigation or change-making action being done to address it. I’ve been in a few meetings about adding bike lanes to these communities. My message was that it’s hard to get out or get in.

I don’t know how much people in the community see themselves on a bike. We see professional sports, but bikes are for kids. I always had one and so did my friends, but I don’t know what happens from the teenage years into young adulthood. I think that’s where, as a sport, it stops.

Representation is important. This year we have Josh Hartman, an East New York resident who might qualify for the 2020 Olympics. But traditionally, I don’t think people see this as something they can do. I think it’s important for people of color — black, brown — to see that they’ve been riding since they were kids, and they can use it as transportation, mobility, sport or any way they see fit. As a competitive cyclist, I can count on one hand the amount of black people, especially black men, who are racing with me, especially outside of Brooklyn.

Eagle: What should be done about it?

Joseph: Our focus has always been community first. A lack of resources shouldn’t determine anyone’s future, but if certain elements are known to enable communities to thrive then we should be making sure every community has each of those elements.

We’re very grateful for the new Shirley Chisholm State Park because that’s going to be an outlet for people to go ride and explore and do new things in. It’s one of the best things that has happened here. Having access to clean air and open space and walking, hiking, fishing and kayaking — these are all things that a lot of people living in very urban environments don’t often see or have never seen.

As dance artists, we’re nutritionists in that we take care of ourselves and what we eat. East New York and Brownsville are considered food deserts. Brownsville has some of the highest rates of diabetes in New York City. That comes from the lack of healthy food that is immediately available. It’s great having the farmer’s markets, but fast food is so much more accessible. If you’re not aware, or if you haven’t been taught to be conscious about what you’re eating, it’s very hard to change that mindset.

But it’s easy to jump on a bike and ride. We can change some of these things by changing what we do every day. But again, it goes back to seeing it not as a privilege but a necessity. That’s what Bike East is all about.

The sixth annual Bike East tour will take place Saturday, Aug. 17. Check-in is at 8 a.m. and riders depart at 9 a.m. RSVP and find more info here

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