Juliet Elliott spends time with Jenni Gwiazdowski founder of the London Bike Kitchen.
Hackney feels a long way from California, and not just geographically, but American expat, Jenni Gwiazdowski has managed to bring some West Coast flavour to the streets of east London with her London Bike Kitchen.
Nestled in a former DIY shop on Whitmore Road in Hackney, the London Bike Kitchen is an open workshop where you can fix your bike yourself rather than handing it over to someone else. With a full library of tools, plus friendly, helpful staff to guide you through your repairs, the idea behind the venture is to promote self-reliance, and (quite literally) give people the tools to help themselves.
The idea is reasonably well known in the States, but it turns out Jenny herself hadn’t heard of these community based workshops while in America. Now living in London, it wasn’t until she made a new year’s resolution to fix her own bicycle that a friend told her about them.
“I was trying to figure out a way to fix my bike but I had no tools, and wasn’t sure how I was going to get started. When my American friend told me [about bike kitchens] I just thought it was a such a great idea, such a brilliant resource for everyone to have and to use."
With a background in the environmental charity sector as well as experience working in not-for-profit after school clubs in America, Jenny was aware of third sector resources and how to set up non-profit organisations. Despite not having a huge amount of knowledge about bikes, she had an idea, and a good one at that, so after drafting a detailed proposal she applied for funding for the London Bike Kitchen through London Cycling Campaign.
“When I heard we’d got the funding, I realised I was going to have to actually do it,’ she laughs. “We didn’t have tools, but the LCC funding was the kick in the pants that I needed to get things going. I mean, I had to do it then!"
“It was a bit of a baptism by fire, I took a two week mechanic course to get myself started, but honestly, I learnt nearly everything by dealing with real life problems. I’m still learning stuff every day."
The LBK set out to be a friendly, non-intimidating place for people to come and use a bike stand and work on their bike with help on hand should they require it. Jenni and one of her team of mechanics like to guide people through their repairs without actually touching your bike – the aim is for your confidence to soar as you successfully complete things under your own steam.
Drop in sessions for general maintenance and repairs take place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and a ‘women and gender variant’ night every second and fourth Thursday includes a short lesson, bottomless cups of tea, and plenty of discussion.
Jenni told me more about the Monday night sessions and why she felt it was important for women and gender variant cyclists to have a night to call their own.
“Fixing stuff, playing with tools, it’s not something that girls are taught to do when they’re growing up, so it’s still not something that comes naturally. We’re still vastly outnumbered, so I wanted to create a space where we can feel comfortable, where we’re the majority and we can talk freely. It’s also really social, we drink a lot of tea, have lessons, and watch films."
Alongside the drop in sessions, London Bike Kitchen holds classes and courses on everything from a beginners introduction to bike maintenance all the way through to stripping and rebuilding an entire bike.
Courses and drop in classes are all priced at £10 per hour for members, and membership has the added benefit of getting you a 15% discount on both new and old parts to complete your build. The courses are wildly popular, selling out within days, meaning that just a year after opening, LBK has achieved its goal of being self-sustaining.
With an army of happy customers queuing for her courses, Jenny has just been nominated for a London Cycling Award and is up against both Bradley Wiggins and new cycling commissioner for London, Andrew Gilligan. She told me how she felt about running against such high profile opposition,
“I was shocked! I’d posted something about the awards in our newsletter but I was still shocked – I didn’t think anything would come from it."
“But whilst I’m delighted to be nominated for this award, I want to make it clear that London Bike Kitchen is not just me, our success is down to everyone who has helped, our mechanics, volunteers and the people who come here."
London Bike Kitchen is located at 28 Whitmore Rd, London N1 5QA UK
Voting is open now for the London Cycling Awards.