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Photo: Ann Hermes/CSM.
Najari Smith, who founded the bike shop co-op and nonprofit Rich City Rides, stands in front of a mural depicting him on April 9, 2021, in Richmond, California, a town across the bay from San Francisco.

There’s something liberating about riding a bike, as my youngest grandchild learned after taking an REI class in Cranston. She used to be afraid of falling. Now she’s a biking dervish. Today’s post is about another biking enthusiast, who’s been liberating a poor city and making it rich.

Erika Page writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Najari Smith was down in the dumps the night he first heard the bicycles below his window. He was new to California, lonely, and felt he lacked purpose. On the street below, a costumed parade of cyclists rolled by blasting music. By the time Mr. Smith rushed downstairs to join the party, they were gone.

“Mr. Smith’s journey, though, was just beginning. After that night in 2010, he began riding his bike everywhere and joined every community biking event around. Slowly, his spirits lifted.

‘Shoot, bicycles kind of saved my life,’ he says. He became part of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee of Richmond, California, which improves bicycle infrastructure in the city. During a routine committee meeting, he got his big idea.

“ ‘I thought to myself, “We’re building this infrastructure, but, you know, who are we building it for? Who’s going to use it?” ‘ he recalls. How would he get his community – the Black community – excited about using the bike lanes he was advocating for? And how would he break down the stereotype that Black people don’t bike? He started small – fixing up bikes at the park with local mechanics and giving them out to anyone who wanted one.

“Today, Mr. Smith runs Rich City Rides: a worker-owned cooperative bike shop as well as a bicycle advocacy nonprofit. These two spokes of the organization are distinct, but both serve Mr. Smith’s vision of using bicycles to ‘bring people together for healthy civic change’ in Richmond. Just like the bikes he fixes at the shop, Mr. Smith believes that no one, no matter what they’ve been through, is ever broken beyond repair.

“ ‘He’s the type of leader that seeks out the strength that an individual may have, rather than identifying their weaknesses. … He’ll sit down with folks and try to figure out how to get them involved, no matter what,’ says Robin D. López, who volunteers as a photographer for Rich City Rides and thinks of Richmond as ‘a community of untapped potential.’

“Roshni McGee, the program manager at Rich City Rides and co-founder of the bike shop, agrees. ‘He always tries to, you know, put a little bit of extra pressure on people and make them really be that diamond in the rough,’ he says.

“Rich City Rides is situated on a busy corner of Macdonald Avenue in a neighborhood that locals call the Iron Triangle, notorious for high crime rates and gun violence. Even though they live just across the bay from tony gentrified neighborhoods of San Francisco, many residents struggle to make ends meet. …

“ ‘He leads with love. … He shows that this is what we can do as Black people. We can revitalize our downtown, and we don’t have to be afraid of each other,’ says Jovanka Beckles, a mental health specialist who served on Richmond’s City Council from 2010 to 2018. She says Rich City Rides’ success has inspired other small businesses to open too, helping put the neighborhood on a long-awaited upswing. …

“[The nonprofit arm] plans social and wellness rides, youth programs, and community outreach. Since the nonprofit began in 2012, it has given away more than 1,000 bikes, led hundreds of social bike rides with thousands of participants, and conducted countless youth bicycle workshops. And during the pandemic, Rich City Rides has been distributing grab-and-go meals to families in need – an idea suggested by one of the high schoolers who works at the shop.

“In fact, Mr. Smith says other members of the team, and especially young people, make most of the important decisions. ‘I’m just a connector,’ he says.

“Cameren Howard-Simons is one of those young people who has found purpose through the organization. When he first met the crew at Rich City Rides, he was in middle school, and his mother didn’t want him hanging out in the area because of its reputation.

“Now Cam, a junior in high school, spends most of his free time working at the shop. ‘It’s hard to keep me away from people like this,’ he says with a wide smile, as he tries to get a derailleur to behave on the pink bike that’s hanging from his repair stand. Rich City Rides has kept him out of trouble, he says, adding that it’s one of the few places where kids can be completely themselves, without judgment.

“ ‘You’re wheelieing next to somebody, and they’re clapping, they’re recording you [on their phones], and they’re showing you love – showing you that they actually care about what you do,’ he says. …

“The notion that Richmond is not poor – but rich – guides Rich City Rides. ‘We’re a community that’s really rich in creativity and capacity and ingenuity,’ says Mr. Smith.”

More at the Monitor, here.

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