A padlocked chain secures the rusted garage door behind which Peter Reich tightens the bolts to a folding bicycle.
The New Jersey native and industrial designer who developed and manufactures the Swift Folder, a single-gear bicycle that folds to half its size, lives and works on the western edge of Brooklyn. The city’s plan to rezone Gowanus from industrial to residential is a challenge for Reich’s one-man-in-a-garage manufacturing ethos, as well as his vision for the neighborhood’s future.
Reich lives and works at 280 Nevins Street in a four story former factory building with a sign hanging above the door that reads “Artists in Residence on 2nd–3rd–4th floors.” His workshop is sandwiched between his home and the Gowanus Canal, a century and a half old commercial waterway recovering from years of pollution by industrial sludge and sewage overflow.
“The canal used to be the no-man’s land between two gentrifying neighborhoods—now the artist folk have been forced to the water’s edge,” said Reich. His mustache, graying temples and a white tuft of hair on his chin complement Reich’s cut-off jean shorts and John Lennon-style eyeglasses to provide an air of casual artistry.
Reich initially thought he wanted pursue a career in medicine, like his father. However, his interest in sculpture and painting led him to switch from a pre-med concentration to a dual major in biology and fine arts at Colgate University in upstate New York.
He furthered his education at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he met his wife, Karen Gibbons, a painter-turned-sculptor-turned-art therapist.
Pursuing his creative bent, and searching for a practical application of the skills he possessed, Reich entered the world of industrial design. “It’s the dichotomy between the engineering mind and the artistic mind, and it’s kind of dangerous to let somebody who’s too artistic handle the whole manufacturing process. It’s a rare Renaissance designer that can do it all,” said Reich.
Reich, though, has tried to do both. Not satisfied with the basic definition of industrial design—“fixing stuff so it will sell”–Reich has designed products from the start that keep human use and need in mind.
His past inventions include a compactable lift and transfer device for quadriplegics and a float tank that condenses for storage, but the invention that has put the bread and butter on his table for the last 15 years is the Swift Folder bicycle.
The Swift Folder, brainchild of Reich and alternative-transportation enthusiast and Oregonian Jan VanderTuin, transforms to half the length of a conventional mountain bike in seconds.
By releasing two levers, lifting the seat post and pushing in the rear tire, the Swift Folder folds small enough to fit into the closet or to carry onto the subway.
The average Swift Folder costs $900. Bob Mason of Williamsburg spent $4000 on his custom-built bicycle. “If you get a Schwinn or whatever the hell, at the end of the year when you go in for service, Mr. Schwinn won’t do it—with a Swift Folder you get it from the guy that designed the thing and built it,” said Mason.
Reich manufactures 50 to 100 steel-framed bicycles a year in his small, minimalist shop on the Gowanus. His partner Xootr, a Pennsylvania-based urban transportation company, mass-produces his design with aluminum frames and sells the bikes for only $650.
Reich always envisioned his Swift Folder as “the people’s bike,” but he could never produce it at a price that people could afford. “Xootr brought that dream to fruition,” said Reich. Xootr also allows his business, Design Mobility, Inc., to survive in a neighborhood where gentrification continues to push many out.
Developers like Shaya Boymelgreen and the Toll Brothers have bought property in Gowanus, anticipating the city’s plan to rezone the neighborhood from industrial to residential. Boymelgreen’s proposed development, Gowanus Village, includes 400 residential units in four-, six- and 10-story buildings along the canal’s banks.
Such developments may force out the current industrial businesses in Gowanus. “Their rents will go up, if they are not displaced,” said Rachael Dubin, policy and planning manager for the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation.
Gowanus, the former hub of commercial activity in the borough, produced and manufactured raw materials that were used to build the brownstones of the surrounding neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.
Decreased reliance on barges since the late 1940s, and, in turn, the Gowanus Canal, transformed the Gowanus area from a place fit for oil refineries and concrete plants to a home for artists like Reich.
Reich, and a host of other artists, activists and community-based organizations hope to prevent this post-industrial artists’ mecca from transforming again into the next SoHo or Williamsburg.
“I’m envisioning boutiques or businesses that mean something along the Gowanus Canal, but I get the feeling there are going to be a whole ton of high-rises,” said Reich.
The profits from Xootr’s sale of the aluminum version of the Swift Folder design allow Reich to continue manufacturing his American-made steel bicycles in a one-room workshop that abuts the banks of Brooklyn’s past.
“He’s been doing it there well,” said Mason of Design Mobility. “Why shouldn’t he continue doing it there?”
For now, Reich remains in his workshop, happy to be in Gowanus. “It’s a good business for one person in a garage,” said Reich.