Where does the Atlanta BeltLine go from here?

In Adair Park, Bearings Bike Shop builds bicycles and community character

Bearings Bike Shop
Malachi, an 11-year-old Venetian Hills resident, earned tires through the program.

Photograph courtesy of Bearings Bike Shop

A few steps from the Atlanta BeltLine’s Westside Trail, in a steamy Adair Park basement workshop, 17-year-old Pedro Ellis uses a three-way hex tool to loosen the brakes on a dusty, donated Diamondback bicycle. The high school senior is performing a tune-up he’s surprised he knows how to do after completing a summer internship at Bearings Bike Shop, which earned Ellis his first real job. Without it, he’d be “at home, playing video games, eating junk food,” he says.

Ellis joins more than 800 kids, ages 6 to 18, who live in southwest Atlanta neighborhoods and have worked with the growing nonprofit during the past nine years. Most of them have earned fixed-up bikes, donated or collected in bulk by churches and businesses throughout the metro, via a four-level work program. Learning everything from the intricacies of handlebar stems to bike safety and the importance of punctuality, kids earn “stars” as currency to buy bikes. “It’s like a little micro-economy in here,” says cofounder Becky O’Mara.

O’Mara and her husband, Tim, decamped from Barrow County in 2008, looking for a historic intown neighborhood with low housing prices and high potential. They landed in Adair Park. What they hadn’t bargained for was the constant gang fights, piles of garbage, and blatant drug use around them at the time.

One day a fourth-grade girl asked for help fixing her flat bicycle tire. Instead the O’Maras challenged her to rake leaves and then furnished the hard-worker with a new bike. Word spread among neighborhood kids, who were soon picking up trash in exchange for bikes donated by the couple’s suburban friends. Tim studied bike repair on the internet and launched Bearings down the street in a basement space they leased in a mechanic’s shop, raising funds through donations, bike sales, and by renting shop space for $5 per hour to riders who needed tools to do their own repairs.

Bearings isn’t the only Atlanta nonprofit to use this model—others include South Atlanta Bike Shop, WeCycle in West End, and Sopo Bicycle Cooperative in Reynoldstown—but the O’Maras think they’re the largest in terms of bikes fixed and kids served.

This year Bearings purchased its entire property (15,000 square feet spread across four buildings) with a short-term loan. If the community is supportive, Bearings could launch a capital campaign to fund renovations. It has also opened satellite locations on church properties in Westview and on English Avenue, part of a long-term goal to dot the entire BeltLine trail with shops.

Since Bearings’s inception, Becky says, homes in Adair Park and other southwest Atlanta neighborhoods have risen in value, renewing fears of gentrification and displacement. As surrounding neighborhoods inevitably become more expensive, the O’Maras are urging kids to embrace the BeltLine as an opportunity, with major redevelopment projects such as Lee + White offering jobs.

“A lot of the kids we work with are transient and come and go from different neighborhoods,” Tim says. “The expanding network of shops gives us a means of keeping in touch.”

Some of the earliest participants have progressed into college, and others like Allanna Heaven, 12, seem destined to follow. “I learn about the business aspect going on around here,” says Heaven. “My whole plan is to own my own business when I grow up.” —Josh Green