Keenan: Stoked to be on spokes again

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

To say Jean Wilson rolls with the punches is a bit of an understatement. A little over a week ago, the lifelong Detroiter and artist peered into the brick building on Vermont Street, off Grand River, that is home to WRENCH, a fledging volunteer bike repair community effort, and discovered she’d been robbed.

Gone were about a half dozen bikes and a sundry of bike parts: chains, frames, brakes and tires. Wilson said she believes they were stolen by scrappers before she’d been able install a couple of doors with locks on them.

Instead of screaming about the injustice or assailing the thieves for robbing several inner-city poor kids of their first-ever working bike, Wilson has already moved on.

“I thought about going to the police,” Wilson said, “and then, I thought, ‘OK, a white person buys a building and all of a sudden there’s a police report. How is that going to help anything?’

“Actually, I think it was my fault; I left it open,” she added. “Really, when they looked in there, they could have thought nobody really cared about this stuff. So, I’m not going to blame a scrapper for that.”

It’s that kind of humble, free-spirit that led the 58-year-old found-object artist last May to purchase the very run-down brick building in the neighborhood known as Core City just across Grand River from the Woodbridge district. While abandoned structures in varying states of decay still dot the neighborhood, there is a strong family presence in the existing homes, which Wilson says accounts for low crime in the area.

“If you look on crime mapping, this neighborhood is so clean,” Wilson said, while no less than six members of the Johnson family circled their favorite resident. “When everyone is related to one another, they take care of each other.”

Wilson planned to turn the 1,500-square-foot space into a workshop and art gallery, maybe even have a rooftop garden to grow food and open it to the community. Neither bikes nor kids were part of the initial plan. But as she was surveying the building this spring, no less than a dozen little kids swarmed like bees around the skinny, gray-haired white woman with the easy smile.

“They were asking me what my plans for the building were,” Wilson said. “When I said a workspace, they asked if I would fix their bikes. We went for a walk and around the corner, there were like six or seven dead bikes all along the fence. They were twisted and broken and had flat tires.

“I took one look and I figured, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to be fixing some bikes.’ ”

Wilson went home that day and started working her social media contacts, including the Woodbridge neighborhood association where she lived for over 20 years. Those messages led to donations of several bikes and WRENCH was born.

Defined as “a group of bikers, hackers, writers, artists and neighbors who believe that every kid deserves the freedom and autonomy of a working bicycle,” the call went out via Facebook.

On several Saturdays in the lot next to her building, chains were replaced, brakes were fixed, bikes were distributed and several dozen kids ranging in age from age 3 to 12 went pedaling as if there was no tomorrow.

A self-described “innovator, builder and community activist,” Wilson has always had her hand in some social project for good. But the fact that she became so enamored with kids came a surprise.

“You have to understand these kids are so infectious,” Wilson said. “They are so engaging. And they are so excited to have their bikes. These kids’ parents are so not soccer moms, you know? We can’t even get them into the HUB (the nonprofit bike repair on Cass Avenue) ”

Since the bike collaboration has gone so well, Wilson has expanded her plans for the building. In addition to bike repair, she envisions karate and art classes, taking the building off the grid and installing solar power. But first she has to fix some gaping holes and reinforce the roof. A GoFundMe page “Help Detroit’s Kids Ride Bikes!” has been set up to get the building secure and make it safe.

Wilson has poured what money she has into the building, which, as an artist, is an admittedly paltry sum. For now, her full-time job is being a primary caregiver to her 93-year-old mother.

With that ever present roll-with-the-punches smile, she said: “My mother is blind, she lives by herself and she still wants to be independent. So I go there every day and take care of her and be her memory.”

While the kids now happily tool around, bikes “steered me on a different course, a real course,” Wilson said. “I feel like I’ve found home. Like there is ample opportunity for doing good things here.”

She said she hopes the influx of artists moving to Detroit would think about doing something similar to WRENCH.

“I am hoping that people integrate instead of simply ‘create’ when moving here, “ she said. “These kids are hungry for role models.”