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Bikes get hyphy in West Oakland

on November 22, 2009

The large warehouse seemed empty late Friday afternoon, dark and shadowy, mirroring the approaching night as the sun set outside. On second glance, though, the activity in the room was contained in the back right corner, where nine youth of different ages and sizes were milling about, showing bikes in various stages of completion to volunteers, explaining design ideas that needed to be accomplished during the evening.

The next-to-last hyphy bike class offered to these young Oakland residents began informally in the large 6,000 square-foot warehouse in West Oakland belonging to The Crucible, a nonprofit organization that offers fine and industrial arts classes to children and adults.

But what, exactly, is a hyphy bike? Simply put, it’s whatever you want it to be. Customized bikes became popular in West and East Oakland a few years ago, and across the warehouse, these students—most between the ages of 12 and 15—were building their own custom creations. There were chopper bikes, tandem bikes, cruiser bikes, and sidecar bikes of various shapes and sizes and colors.

According to Ismael Plasencia, the Youth and Community Assistant Project Manager at The Crucible, the term hyphy was coined a few years ago in hip-hop music and has become associated with Oakland culture, although he acknowledges the organization offers a different definition than other Bay Area residents might provide. “Hyphy to us means being self-expressive,” Plasencia said, gesturing to half-finished bikes on stands around the workspaces. “There is a growing trend with customized bikes in West and East Oakland. We can provide space to harness creativity and get kids involved.”

The six-day, 18-hour class, provided free of charge by The Crucible to students in its Youth Program who have already completed either a welding class or a build-a-bike workshop, costs the organization over $700 per student. But the scholarship program allows The Crucible’s Youth Program staff to further some of their best students’ training in bike maintenance and shop skills like welding and grinding. “It’s our one reward class of the year,” Plasencia said. “We’re not allowed to do a lot of things with the equipment in our regular classes, but we can open the doors in this class and let them do things [with the equipment] that aren’t normal.”

Plasencia demonstrated what the teens were learning by showing off their nearly-completed creations. He stopped at 13-year-old Latif’s bike, suspended in the air with a brace so Latif could continue his mechanical work, and said with pride, “He wanted to make the longest chopper he could possibly make.”

Indeed, Latif’s chopper bike is going to be long. The front half consists of an old blue and red Huffy bike, embellished with gold lettering; the back half boasts a portion of the body from a dark green and yellow clunker. A large black wheel is attached to the back, but a long silver and red chopper fork gives way to a tiny, tricycle-sized tire in the front.

Latif is quiet and methodical as Plasencia—“Iz” to the youth—heaps praise on him and his mechanical skills. “He’s one of the best youth mechanics we’ve had since we started the program,” Plasencia said, pride in his voice. “All he’s wanted to do is open a bike shop in his backyard.”

Latif, tall and thin in a red Chicago Bulls cap turned backwards, red polo, and khakis, simply shrugged as he explained why he keeps coming back to The Crucible. “I just like them [the hyphy bikes],” he said, his voice barely audible above the din of machinery and voices around us. “They’re extraordinary, and it’s something I made myself.” (He has already earned two bikes through the six-week bike maintenance class, a prerequisite for consideration in the hyphy class.)

The hyphy bike class takes place over three weekends, each on a Friday night and Saturday. Fridays are saved for instruction and Saturdays for implementation, Plasencia explained—the first week covered layout plans and design, the second week was for welding and building, this week was reserved for finishing and painting of the teens’ elaborate designs. “We picked the kids we felt deserved the opportunity to take the class and were mature enough to take the class,” Plasencia said. “It takes a long time to build a bike. We’re always rushed when we build the bikes in six days.”

Instructor Max Chen gathered the nine lucky students—six boys and three girls, most from the West Oakland neighborhood—outside in a courtyard, and with hot halogen lamps beaming toward him, he demonstrated how to properly apply primer on 14-year old Guadalupe’s completed cruiser frame. He carefully cleaned the bike, showing how the bike frame is covered in oil to prevent it from rusting, issuing warnings about avoiding painting the brackets, the brakes, anything the brakes would touch, or the wheels.

Hoisting the bike into a tall, silver mechanic’s stand that stood on a blue, paint-covered tarp, Chen held up a can of primer to show the proper way to apply the base coat. “Go all the way around,” Chen instructed. “Start away from the bike and end away from the bike.”

The circle of kids and volunteers moved closer to him. “Primer’s brown?” one of the younger kids asked, and Chen told him there would be gray primer to use, too.

Most of the bike builders weren’t quite ready for paint, though, since Chen told them to make sure they were absolutely finished welding before they painted anything. Twelve-year-old Samantha headed to the grinding room to pry the handles off a basket she planned to use as a sidecar for her dog. According to Plasencia, this is the first hyphy class of the four that have been offered to tackle a sidecar model; they are difficult to build because the pedal structure of the bike has to be changed to account for the extra wheel. At least two of the nine children in this group built sidecar models.

Inside the grinding room, face hidden by a respirator mask and safety goggles, Samantha confidently chose an angle grinder and placed her basket on the edge of the table. After an adult volunteer attempted to smooth the edges where one of the handles was (the other handle was still stubbornly in place), she handed the grinder to Samantha, who rotated it between her clenched hands. “I haven’t done this in a week,” she said nervously, her voice muffled underneath her mask. Her volunteer encouraged her to continue, and sparks flew from the grinder as Samantha expertly smoothed the rough edges down.

Even though the economy has hurt The Crucible—only the two official instructors were paid for the class, although there were nearly enough volunteers with a welding or bike mechanic background for each student to have a dedicated helper—Plasencia said offering the class, and the other classes offered through the Youth Program, is essential. “I’ve seen it myself, being able to teach kids something most people won’t be able to try,” he said. “I see their growth from day to day. These classes provide good opportunities for self-expression and creativity.”

As the holiday season approaches, The Crucible will open its doors on December 12and 13 for Gifty, the organization’s annual open house. Local artists and students will be on hand to sell the work they have created, and staff and students will demonstrate the different areas—welding, grinding, ceramics, jewelry making, to name a few—in which The Crucible offers classes and workshops.

But on Friday, all eyes were turned to the clock and those bikes, as the students raced to finish before their Saturday deadline. Back in his station, Latif was reattaching the chain of his bike because he needed a bigger ring. “It’s so long that the chain stretches too tight” when the bike is extended, Latif explained, motioning with his hands as he guided the chain into the right place. He bent his head and quietly continued to finish his masterpiece.

For more information about The Crucible or the Gifty event, please visit


  1. Jan Schlesinger on November 23, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks to Lauren for capturing the excitement and pride we all feel about our hyphy kids and their projects. Their creations will be showcased on Saturday Dec. 12th at our Gifty, and we invite readers to come see for themselves the fantastic creations and the amazing youth who created them.

  2. Shirley on November 29, 2009 at 3:29 am

    I believe that this is an excellent outreach program that should be expanded to more children who need an outlet. Mr.Plasencia, Iz, is genuinely interested in these kids and it shows. His dedication to the program is something that is to be admired and hopefully mirrored by all people who work with the youth of today and take the time out to touch these kids lives. THe “Hyphy” bike program is something I will surely support year after year.

  3. […] the last few years, The Crucible’s Bike Program has become the organization’s most popular community outreach program. There’s a force for […]

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