Ok, in comparison with others, I’m hardly a serious bicyclist; I often ride my commuter bike to work, to work out, and around town on errands.
When wandering the aisles of the storage archives of The Public Museum I came across a shelf with a layered tangle of old bicycles. I recalled how important my bicycles were during my youth and realized the confluence of bicycle tracks in my life since moving to Grand Rapids. So I guess you could say as I sit at my keyboard, today’s the day I’m going to get serious about bikes.
A few childhood memories that maybe you have too:
My first bike was a tricycle and my father bolted blocks onto the pedals so I could reach them.
Mastery of the trike led to a “real” bike, red, with training wheels. Which eventually came off… I can still recall the thrill of learning how to ride “no-handed” (which I confess I like to do nowadays when whipping across the Blue Bridge).
A few years later, in November when the bike had been put away in my cellar, it seemed to disappear, and I was deeply confused and upset, thinking I had lost it, but my parents reassured me it was stored in the attic, a space that impossible for a child to access. On Christmas Morning, my bike made its return as a homemade stingray chopper bike, painted blue, with high rise handlebars, a banana seat, and a sissy bar.
Next, around 6th grade, was a ten-speed with wrapped drop handlebars. My parents also let me ride outside our neighborhood, too. Rode bikes like these through high school, college, and a little bit after—it meant freedom, independence, self-reliance.
Fast Forward to Grand Rapids, July 2011:
Fast forward to age 50, and I had just landed the job of Director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. My partner and I moved here from Austin, and had our stuff shipped ahead and unloaded in our apartment above the UICA. After a long flight, I will never forget opening the door, surveying the piles of boxes and jumble of furniture, sighing about the July heat and the unpacking job ahead. Then I noticed the handlebars of our bikes sticking out of the mess, and suggested we start the unpacking tomorrow, and go out for a ride tonight.
New to town, we recalled that there were some recommended restaurants up on Cherry Street, and headed up there…landing at the Green Well where we enjoyed Michigan beer and a tasty dinner. I’ve been biking around GR ever since.
October 2011: Signed up for Inside Grand Rapids, an intense 3-day introduction to the issues facing our city, meeting longtime leaders and new arrivals like us. We rode our bikes to the first day session, at a building appropriately named “Bicycle Factory” on Front Avenue amongst the expanding GVSU campus. We were a little puzzled to find a shiny new 3-story building that looked nothing like a Bicycle Factory. We learned from local developer Paul McGraw that when the beautiful 110-year old brick factory building was about to be renovated for apartments above a commercial first floor, a fire claimed the structure, so in memorial to it, the original name remains on the new one. It turns out that was the home of the Grand Rapids Cycle Company, one of six bicycle factories in the city. According to WOOD-TV, this company was the largest and put out 30,000 bicycles and the factory employed 200 people in its prime in the late 1800s. Bicycle manufacturing in Grand Rapids was abruptly halted in 1899 as most of the bike makers were bought out and shut down by the bicycle trust out of New York. By 1903 the bicycle industry was completely gone from Grand Rapids, and many other cities as well.
February 2012: Grand Rapids Magazine hits the newsstands with me on its cover—on a bicycle! The Museum’s Director of Marketing and PR had pitched the fact that I often ride my bicycle to work to be featured as part of their February “Fitness Issue” (ironic given my unfit state, but anyway…). Johnny Quirin took a great shot of me in front of the Museum on my way to work, scarf blowing behind me, lunchbox in my basket, and a thermos hanging off the side. I was shocked and thrilled to be on the cover, but it was a fun photo and fit well with my goal of being immersed in the sustainable, urban culture of Grand Rapids.
September 2012: From all the artifacts available in the collection of the Public Museum, I selected this artifact, an upside-down, damaged bicycle built by the defunct Grand Rapids Cycle Company. With tires separated from the rims, its has some issues, but as a kid my father taught me to flip my bike over to tend to the tires, oil the chain, and adjust the gears, and I feel the urge to do this to the antique bike in front of us.
My childhood was shaped by my bicycle (and bicycling) history, which is full of fond memories. As an adult, I ride with pride because of the way it saves energy, makes me a healthier person, and allows me to enjoy traversing the city with direct contact with the street, building, pedestrians and other cyclists. Bicycling gives me better contact with the world, past, present, and future.
Dana Friis-Hansen is Director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, taking the helm in July of 2011. Prior to joining GRAM, Friis-Hansen most recently served as Executive Director of the Austin Museum of Art. Additionally, Friis-Hansen is an accomplished curator, writer, and editor with dozens of exhibitions, catalogues, books, articles, and published papers to his credit.