My bike gave me my first sense of autonomy as a kid. Looking back on a childhood spent without a phone and without GoogleMaps I have to suppose that I used primitive technology like paper maps or my own memory to get from my house to a friend’s house. The useful world got a little bit bigger, and the things I had access to expanded quite a bit.
I explored some very different neighborhoods as well. If I left my street and went south I was in the poshest community in the region: Longmeadow. Occasionally I would ride on those winding streets of Colony Hills and see how different things were from what I would experience if I left my home and travelled north. To my north was the South End and Six Corners. They were, even then, among the poorest of neighborhoods in the city.
In a few years I was riding my 10 speed enough that I started dreaming of becoming a cyclist; I mean, I would ride for an hour, sometimes even two hours a day. I was getting really good, or so I thought.
One day I was in the South End and heading towards Johnny Appleseed Park in the Six Corners neighborhood when some kids on their bikes; crappy, multicolored, rusting, one speed contraptions, spied me, the curly haired White kid on the brightly colored 10 speed bike. They voiced their displeasure at my intrusion onto Locust Street. I was a little scared. I decided to outrun them with my superior skills and equipment; I was surrounded by all of them before I even made it to Mill Street.
One kid grabbed my handlebars, the rest formed a wall around me. I was asked what I was doing in that part of the city? I told them I was just riding around. I can’t remember what else was said. I didn’t try to hide that I was sufficiently intimidated, which is to say, scared shitless, and I rode off to the south.
I spent an hour or two on my bike each day, if I didn’t have church, or baseball practice, or if we weren’t doing something as a family. These kids spent all day every day on their bikes. They lived for their bikes.
Those kids still exist in Springfield. In a day and age when society is screaming for adolescents to get off their phones and go outside, dozens of mostly Black and Hispanic young men are doing just that and, in the process they have become inconceivably talented riders. The people who have taken the time to actually ask these kids why they spend so much time riding have discovered that, contrary to popular myth, they do it to get away from drug and gang culture, not to participate in it.
They are exploring the world outside the world of screens, and, in many cases, away from spaces and places tempting them to head down darker pathways.
As one would expect to happen with adolescents, they push boundaries. Anyone who has walked the sidewalks or driven the streets of the city of Springfield in recent months knows that some of the young men among these dozens of kids on bikes engage in extremely reckless acts. They ride wheelies down the middle of two lane, and multi lane one way streets and attempt to get as close as possible to on-coming cars, they weave in and out of traffic and parked cars, they make pretty obvious attempts to startle motorists and pedestrians. I’ve seen them intentionally ride on the wrong side of the street to place themselves in the path of cars backing out of driveways. I’ve seen them scare pedestrians by suddenly changing direction and cutting across their path.
These young men want attention. Yes, they break the rules that govern vehicular traffic, as do many motorists, but mostly they are putting themselves in grave danger. It is critically important to understand that this predictably reckless behavior engaged in by adolescent boys should not and must not be conflated with violent and criminal acts engaged in by adults riding motorized dirt bikes and ATV’s on some of the same streets. Unfortunately, some recent incidents involving the latter group has caused the mayor of the City of Springfield to release a statement in which he does just that.
Engaging in vandalism and even sexual assault using dirt bikes and ATV’s as both weapons and the means of escape is inexcusable and must be dealt with, but criminalizing “bike riding while brown” will not make our city a safer place. I disagree with people who claim that there aren’t any places for these kids to go, right now, today, and ride freely and safely; few cities in the world have the abundance of park land and wild land that Springfield contains.
The questions we need to answer are why these young men don’t ride in Forest Park, in Blunt Park, or Van Horn, or along the paths which exist, or used to exist, in any one of a dozen dingles and undeveloped areas of the city? Are they made to feel unwelcome? Are they unaware that they exist? Are these children in need of recognition and acknowledgement that they won’t get hidden away in a park? As any parent or teacher knows, a child who craves attention will settle for negative attention if affirmative attention isn’t forthcoming.
Here’s what I know, making these young Black and Hispanic young men feel even more alienated by criminalizing the one activity which brings them the most joy will not make Springfield a better place for those of us who live here. Yes, for those who merely come here to earn a salary and for whom the streets of Springfield are just traffic sewers through which they must pass to get home to their suburban paradise, they won’t care what the consequences are of clearing their pathway home. But for those of us who live here with these kids, and whose children attend school with these young men, there is much more to the story than just clearing the streets. These young people are a part and will continue to be a part of our community. Whether or not they see themselves as cared for, respected, and recognized will have real consequences for all of us for decades to come; in the long run that is much more significant than the inconvenience of having to slow down in our cars from time to time because a child is behaving childishly.
I’m not ignorant of the fact that the behaviors I’ve outlined aren’t just a danger to the kids on bikes, they endanger all of us because a startled driver or pedestrian can make sudden, yet catastrophic, decisions. Fear itself is an enormous problem because it drives so much of the anger surrounding the issue; if one of these kids is hurt, even unintentionally, by a motorist it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the group were to respond aggressively toward the driver. I’ve felt this fear as a child has whizzed past my car with one wheel high in the air and one hand flailing toward my rear view mirror. I was scared for him, but I was also scared that I might be blamed for some horrible outcome.
There is no simple “solution”. Any intervention which will “eradicate” the problem will do more harm than is being done right now by the bad behavior. Mitigation is a better and more achievable goal.
Let me sketch this out. Cops chasing and, even on occasion, successfully catching one or two kids riding bikes recklessly will not put an end to the behavior. Getting cops to chase them will become an end unto itself for these kids, most of the time only the weakest and least experienced of the riders will be the ones who are caught and, eventually, either a police officer or a kid on a bike will make a really bad decision which will lead to the kid on the bike being either seriously injured or killed, and that will escalate the problem well beyond where it is today.
If we put this into perspective, just a little, before we move forward it would be helpful. I’ve lost count of the number of pedestrians and motorists killed, that is KILLED, just this month in the Springfield area. Killed, each of them, by motorists. As reckless and foolish as these behaviors engaged in by these kids on bikes are, I haven’t heard of a single serious injury, let alone one death, directly related to them.
It’s a problem. It’s a serious problem. But it’s not a crisis. The ADULTS need to come together and formulate a strategy controlling the only thing we can control: ourselves. It isn’t about, it can’t be about, retribution; it has to be about changing what we can change to alter, improve, and diminish the bad behavior. We need to communicate with the kids themselves, but we need to understand that it is in the nature of youth to rebel. We will never get to 100% compliance. We need to investigate and study what we can do on our part and then we will be left with whatever outliers remain in terms of behaviors and individuals and move forward from there.
Kids will be kids. When I hear adults bemoaning the state of childhood today it usually involves how sedentary and unadventurous today’s children are. These kids are “going out to play”; change the vernacular and the racial make up of the kids and they are re-enacting episodes from Stand by Me, The Goonies, It, Stranger Things, and countless other works of fiction where we idealize and even celebrate the excesses of youth. If you squint just a little you might see that these kids aren’t that different from me and you when we were young. Contemplate the excesses of your youth. And would you say that you had more or less to deal with than these young men?
I can still see the rusty fence that runs along the berm between my parents’ house and the Temple Beth-El parking lot placed there because some neighborhood miscreant stole one too many hood ornaments off the cars there. I wonder if they ever caught that kid? Or if that shoe box is still in the basement?