SCHENECTADY -- The community center at MacGathan Townhouses on Jerry Street is a bustling place on Thursday evenings.
The Schenectady Housing Authority building is crowded not just with children, teens and adults up through retirement age --there are bicycles, bike repair mounts, racks of skinny tires and drawers full of parts.
In October, the MacGathan community center became the new home of Electric City Bike Rescue, a local volunteer non-profit group that repairs old bicycles that often go to children and people who can't afford a new bike but are willing to learn bike repair skills.
It's busy there even at the end of November, with traces of snow on the ground, and organizers expect it to stay that way through the months when many people put their bikes away.
The bike rescue, which turned 5 years old this year, lost its location downtown at the Edison Tech Center on North Broadway last May, as part of settling an ownership dispute between the building's then-owners and the city of Schenectady. Electric City was out of business over the summer, but in October was offered space by the housing authority, in a low-income neighborhood off Watt Street where bike use is common.
"We were out of commission for months," said Dave Davis, the group's founder and president. "We can't believe our luck in getting this."
Now, there's an open house from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. each Thursday, when people can bring bikes to donate or come in to learn how to repair their bikes.
"It's a great spot," said Schenectady Housing Authority Executive Director Richard Homenick, who offered the space in return for Electric City paying only utility costs. "What better for our community-oriented mission? It's transportation, it's education, and it's all volunteer, that's what I love."
Many people in public housing rely on bicycles, he noted.
"It's a major source of transportation in the city," Homenick continued. "I see people riding right through the winter."
Electric City Bike Rescue, while made up of dedicated local volunteers, many of whom are avid cyclists, is part of an informal national bike repair and restoration movement that sees old bikes being restored for new users in communities across the country. In the Capital Region, there are also bike rescue groups in Saratoga Springs, Troy and Albany.
Andrew Burdick volunteered for the bike rescue in Wichita, Kansas, before moving to this area in September to take a job at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna. Like other volunteers, he said he learns something every week.
"It's knowledge and it's getting to know people," Burdick said. "You learn stuff, and there's no stress. I learn something every time I come in here."
The new space is larger than what the bike rescue had at the Edison Tech Center, and Bike Rescue Vice President Art Clayman said organizers hope to be able to attract more volunteers and offer classes in bike repair basics, like how to change a flat tire or replace a brake cable. In the summer, the plan is to continue to hold bike clinics at various locations around the city, as volunteers have in the past.
"You go out to some of these neighborhood events, no one comes for the first half-hour," said Rich Vertigan of Rotterdam, the group's treasurer and webmaster. "Then one kid comes, and then you're mobbed. By the end of the day, there are 20 kids riding around on new bicycles."
The group sells refurbished bicycles at low cost, or sometimes gives bikes away to low-income youths, if they have spent hours learning repair and maintenance skills.
"People bring us bikes we don't fix it for them, but we show them how to fix it," Clayman said.
The organization accepts bikes that can't be repaired, since those can be stripped for their parts. The whole effort, Clayman noted, keeps unused bicycles from being sent to landfills.