Coco's Variety Store: A Look Inside the Northeast L.A. Cycling Community

The NELA Riverfront Collaborative is an interdisciplinary project that builds upon the growing momentum of efforts already underway to transform the Los Angeles River into a "riverfront district" and to create a focal point of community revitalization. KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative. For more information visit the website www.mylariver.org

Most people driving on Riverside Drive have noticed the flashy "Prada" sign, as a kind of kitschy landmark on their commuting route. But if you actually dare to go take a look inside, it turns out that this ritzy sign belies what's found inside: a thriving local business that seeks to combine a mix of quality customer service, eco-friendly sales, and curious knick knacks, all tended to by an eccentric staff.

Coco's Variety Store began in 2005, and started dealing with bikes in 2007. The store benefits from being in Elysian Valley, a convenient location next to the L.A. River bike path. The owner of the store, Mister Jalopy, has gained notoriety for his support of the Maker Movement. This movement aims to enhance DIY culture, focusing on bringing back creativity and encouraging practical imagination, in a world where machines or smartphones can fix everything for you. Thinking out of the box seems to be the driving force behind Mister Jalopy's actions, and this reflects on the ways he does business.

Coco's is a type of full service shop that encourages such practices. Mister Jalopy explains, "we sell and rent new and used bikes, fix any kinds of bikes, build from used bikes, we buy or trade used bikes, we collect scrap metal, we sell snacks and water, we loan tools, sell used parts." According to their website, there's a little bit more, like "vintage French flags, Japanese figural pencil erasers, old toolboxes, books worth owning, bicycle tools, wicker bike baskets and bicycle cargo bags for the carting of fresh produce, the transportation of books of French poetry, and the rescuing of kittens."

The great thing about Coco's, and bike shops in general, is that this kind of diversity of services offered to the customers brings the community together by attracting different types of people to the shop, each with different sets of purposes.

Increased efforts toward revitalization of the L.A. River has also brought the community closer together. With improved infrastructure and more activities planned along the river, bicycle culture has become part of a larger nexus of interconnected communities surrounding the river.

John R., the manager of Coco's, knows the importance of the river to the neighborhood: "When you're working next to the river, you are very aware of what's going on, what everyone is doing to improve the situation." Improvements on the bike path along the river has been a long process, but it has generally been successful. The first step was laying down foundations to receive financial support, and help realize the possibilities of opening up the river to a wider public. "Having the river classified as being a navigable waterway helped speed those things as you can totally put federal and private money for waterfront grants," says John.

Much of the improvements consisted of getting rid of bumpy faults and tree roots and repaving the road, and the construction of a rail along the path. This not only improved bicycling possibilities, but also improved the quality of life in the neighboring communities. "The path along the River is a lot safer than it used to be before," says John. "Now people go biking along the river at night all the time. They couldn't have done that 10 to 15 years ago."

Recently, the announcement of the Greenway 2020 plan by the L.A Revitalization Corporation has created excitement among the cycling community. The goal of the plan is to connect all the existing bike paths along the river to create a continuous, 51 mile-long bikeway from Canoga Park to Long Beach.

According to Omar Brownson, the Executive Director of the L.A. Revitalization Corporation, the completion of Greenway 2020 would not only impact cyclists' habits, but also facilitate economic investments, beautify the area, and tear down the boundaries between the different communities that surround the River.

For John, this is just one of many improvements to come as a result of current revitalization efforts around the river. "I look forward to the Greenway 2020, and I like it," he says. "I would like to have a movie event out there. I went to one of the bike-in movie events, and it was cool to see a bunch of people there. You couldn't hang around in this neighborhood at night 15 years ago, so it has really changed, and I think the river revitalization helps that."

Biking may still be a marginalized activity in L.A. these days, but this is changing fast. The LADOT Bike Plan of 2010 paved the way for improvements, and you see new efforts and initiatives rising all around the city. But, for John, the efforts must be focused on raising awareness among the different users of the road, and creating a feeling of safety among cyclists. "I think getting people to commute by bike in L.A. has less to do with facilities -- yes you could put a bike lane or physically separated paths ... [but] feeling of safety is not like having bike lanes, because bike lanes are just stripes on the ground. It is more about cyclists being aware of what is happening in traffic, and about the other users being aware of the bikers."

Just like skateboarders or surfers, when their respective sports broke through worldwide, some cyclists have a tendency to conceptualize the world only through the eyes of a cyclist, almost in a philosophical manner. Growing up in an urban European context, I tend to take for granted that a great percentage of folks would naturally cycle to go to school or visit their friends. Here, in Los Angeles, cycling as a mode of transportation is much more of a rare activity, which creates a specific state of mind, and it takes a certain dose of courage to be a cyclist in this city.


Photos by Quentin Blanchet

About the Author

Clément is a Master's Program student in Urban Planning and Political Sciences at Sciences Po Lyon, France. He is currently in Los Angeles working on his thesis.

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