A person on a dirt bike is pictured.
Ariel Schalit/AP

The sport is growing in popularity, but illegal on many city streets. Can the country’s first urban dirt bike park overcome prejudice and become a model for building community?

For more than three decades, Johnnie Burton has ridden dirt bike in Cleveland. For him, it’s a family sport. His father rode dirt bike, and his grandfather started a motocross team.

It was only natural that Burton, a leader in Cleveland’s dirt biking movement, became instrumental in creating the first urban, city-run dirt bike park in the U.S.

Dirt biking has gained popularity in urban areas from Atlanta to Baltimore and beyond, but in many places, including Cleveland, it’s illegal on city streets. That has led to some tense relations between police and the predominantly black communities where dirt biking is popular. In June, Cleveland Police conducted a major sting where officers ticketed and arrested riders and confiscated dirt bikes. Baltimore City Police created a dirt biking task force in 2016 that has confiscated hundreds of bikes.

Some riders go to legal rural areas to bike, but many don’t have that option. They end up riding in the streets and running against police. Burton wanted to help the city make space for such a popular activity, instead of criminalizing it.

“Pretty much all the inner cities are going through a lot of things—all the violence, the murders, the drugs,” Burton says. “We’ve got to develop something to distract the kids from that stuff.”

In addition to running a motorcycle repair shop with his cousin, Burton founded the Bob Burton Foundation, named after his grandfather. The organization holds motorcycle events in the countryside more than an hour away from Cleveland, but Burton also wanted to provide people with places to ride in the city. The idea started gaining momentum in early 2016 when he gave Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson blueprints on his ideas for a park.

But dirt biking is often caught up in the racial politics of cities, and Cleveland hasn’t been any different.

“The public at large feels that the bikes are a nuisance and dangerous,” says Roland V. Anglin, dean of Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs. “It’s a headache for police because they really can’t stop these bikers because they’re so nimble and elusive.”

Burton says skateboarders and BMX riders have parks built for them, but dirt bike riders don't have the same facility.

“People see that the guys in the inner city are riding dirt bikes and they don’t look at the skill set that’s in place,” Burton says. “All they’re looking at is that this is a black guy on a dirt bike, so he’s automatically a dirt bag or a bad person. That’s one of our biggest issues that we’re dealing with, trying to change that perception.”

When the Cleveland City Council was debating the issue last summer, one official, who’s now a member of the council, put it more bluntly. In a post on Facebook, he accused the council members who opposed the dirt bike project of veiled racism. “Because they are young, black and aggressive, people totally demonized the project,” then-Community Relations Director Blaine Griffin wrote. “Race is always lurking in the background.”

When the issue came up for a final vote in January, a divided city council approved the $2.3 million dirt bike park in a 9-7 vote. Opponents said they objected to the city spending millions on a dirt bike park while its current parks and recreations centers need repairs.

Renderings for Cleveland's proposed dirt bike park.
A rendering of Cleveland’s dirt bike park. (City of Cleveland's Office of the Mayor)

Mayor Jackson says the park won’t stop every dirt bike rider on the street, but having a legal place to ride will curb it as the sport grows. “The dirt bike riding is not going away. As a matter of fact, it’s getting even more prominent,” he says. “We have to give people who ride bikes and four-wheelers alternatives, particularly if we’re enhancing penalties and enhancing enforcement.”

The park is scheduled to open in southeast Cleveland by spring 2018, Jackson says. The park will cover at least 15 acres, including the track, parking and other facilities, built on Marion Motley Park, the site of a former landfill. The park is in Central, a predominantly black neighborhood.

Burton, who is helping the city with the park, plans for this to be more than a track. The Bob Burton Foundation is buying broken dirt bikes, and starting in September, Burton will lead an after-school program teaching kids aged between 12 and 18 how to fix them. This will help build the park’s stockpile of bikes for kids who can’t purchase their own, and it will give them the skills to fix small engines.

Burton and Jackson also hope the park attracts the attention and money of the dirt biking industry.

For young people, the park will occupy time, focus energy and provide education, Anglin says. “Once you start connecting the young riders to a structure, good things will happen, the same way you connect kids in youth baseball, youth basketball,” he says. “It builds accountability because if you want to do the sport, you have to follow the rules and the regulations, and that’s a good thing for young people who are often in an unstructured context.”

The overall success of the park depends on two factors. One is whether the park’s design will fit in with the surrounding neighborhood. The second is acceptance by a community that views dirt biking as a nuisance. “It’s already a question mark in the minds of the residents, and what you want to make sure of in planning and designing the park is that community voices are heard and acknowledged and acted upon,” Anglin says.

Cleveland’s experiment, as Anglin calls it, is still in the works. The community worries about noise from the dirt bikes, which Jackson says is a legitimate concern. He says the city is looking at what to do, but doesn’t have a solution yet. He also doesn’t have an answer about how riders will bring their dirt bikes to the park when street riding is illegal.

Those are the kinds of details that the city still has to work out, he says, adding that more of the community will eventually support the park. “Anytime you do something innovative, it really takes some time for people to adjust to the innovation,” he says. Jackson says people of all races, genders and ages ride dirt bike, and it’s up to each city to determine if a park would work.

If done right, Cleveland’s dirt bike park could become a model for urban areas across the U.S., especially those with an excess of vacant property and low land values. In 2016, Baltimore formed a task force to study creating a park, but nothing has been approved or built so far.

Burton hopes it can also be a model for helping youth get to know their community by volunteering in it. He says just like any sport, education and community play a crucial role. “When you go to a football game, it ain’t a bunch of people from out of town. It’s everybody from the community sitting in those bleachers, all the parents supporting the kids,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to get to happen with this.”

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