Inside Philadelphia's dirt bike, ATV subculture

Philly Hang Gang members ride along a North Philly street on a recent Sunday. DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Philly Hang Gang members ride along a North Philly street on a recent Sunday. DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: May 31, 2012

THE DIRT-BIKERS and ATV four-wheelers gathered under a tree in Hunting Park one recent Sunday, the roar of their engines as much a part of the sunny scene as the ballplayers and picnickers and the guy selling barbecued chicken on skewers.

As more and more riders arrived, they greeted each other with hugs and handshakes, admiring the modifications they made to their bikes and swapping stories about getaways, crashes and infamous rides, like Pupo’s legendary 12-mile wheelie up I-95 that helped Philly "defeat" Baltimore in a friendly contest of skills.

Riders allowed anyone in their group to ride their bikes — they trust one another’s skills that much — and when Pupo hopped on another rider’s Yamaha, he went ripping across the edge of a gravel track near the soccer field, climbed a hill near the gazebo and launched the bike into the air. It was something you’d see on ESPN2 or in the X-Games, except that Pupo wasn’t getting paid.

Just past the basketball courts, a police cruiser entered the park. Conversation barely paused, but most riders kept a cool eye on the cruiser, ready to run if the patrol car turned their way. It didn’t.

Riding quads and dirt bikes is illegal in the city, except on private property with the property owner’s permission. Riders unlucky enough to encounter cops while riding illegally face traffic citations and confiscation. And the danger posed by renegade riders on city streets consistently ranks among the top complaints from residents.

Yet hundreds of people — kids, women, teenagers, men old enough to have grandchildren — do it every weekend, and they love it. It keeps them off street corners, they say, and away from the drug game because many make a living repairing and modifying the bikes.

Over a few hours, the Daily News didn’t see even one small beef among the many riders who met in Hunting Park, on Beach Street in Fishtown and Kensington, and on the Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park. Few cops were in sight.

"All we want to do at the end of the day is to have fun," said Pooch, 24, as he munched on a sandwich and prepared to embark on another trip across the city. No riders would give their real names, for fear that police would issue them citations or confiscate their bikes and quads.

‘We’re not a gang’

The "bike life" in Philly is nothing new, and far from unique. Riders like 43-year-old T.Y. remember learning how to ride in the 1970s. Groups like the Philly Wheelie Boyz and the Banshee Boys used to compete with each other and with daredevils from Baltimore and New York. But a few of Philly’s older riders, unhappy with the negativity of the rivalries, formed the Philly Hang Gang about a year ago to merge the groups and to encourage camaraderie.

The group is so organized that it had a meeting to vote on a name and has a private Facebook page with more than 130 members. The riders have T-shirts picturing dreadlocked T.Y., a founding member, doing a wheelie — or a "hang" — with his elbow dragging on the ground, his signature.

They also have their own shorthand (like "Bullie" for the Boulevard) and hand signals (patting the top of your head means a cop’s coming). They document most outings on video and have produced several documentaries, complete with commercials for area businesses. On dozens of YouTube videos, you can watch the gang buzz just as brazenly down Broad Street and Roosevelt Boulevard as they do along narrow residential blocks.

They’d like to organize some sort of charity, "to give back and show the city who we are," said Mook, 32, of West Oak Lane, one of the group’s founders.

"We’re like a family. Bikes bring us together. We’re not a gang; it’s a movement. We are about positive things."

With the weather warming, now’s the time when the Philly Hang Gang and other riders hit the streets to show off their one-handed wheelies, doughnuts and other stunts that would make them rich if Urban Street Riding were a real sport.

The riders are oblivious to the fact that countless frustrated city residents are annoyed by their high-pitched exhausts and the way they take over a street during their rides like a scene from a Mad Max movie.

Dominick Brown, 48, said wheelie-ing quads and bikes are such a frequent sight in his Oxford Circle neighborhood that riders should face felony charges, rather than traffic citations.

"What they are doing is such a deterrent to people being able to live their lives in a community that it’s really destroying the community," Brown said. "These ATVs and dirt bikes are [potentially] a deadly weapon, and that’s what Mayor Nutter has to address them as. This is just as bad as any crime, one of those things that makes residents leave this community or shut their doors and stop caring."

Riders insist they respect traffic laws and hurt no one, yet they blast through red lights and stop signs. At intersections, riders will block oncoming traffic so that a friend doing a wheelie can fly through without getting T-boned. In parks, riders spin in doughnuts so quick they spray grass like a lawn mower on meth and leave the ground nearly bare.

‘These guys are superstars’

On the recent Sunday, reaction on the street was mixed as members of the Philly Hang Gang shot past. Some motorists honked furiously, and a Mister Softee driver who got swarmed by 16 bikers simply stopped in surprise, waiting for the chaos to subside. A bicyclist pumping uphill toward Belmont Plateau scurried to get out of the way, and a father frantically scooped up his toddler at Hunting Park when a wheelie-ing quad charged by. But other people waved and cheered, and at one intersection a woman waiting for a bus and talking on a cellphone ran to hop on the back of a quad, catching a ride for a few blocks.

"That happens all the time," rider Tay said. "These guys are superstars."

If any spot in Philly is emblematic of the dirt bike/ATV conundrum, it’s the dusty quarter-mile strip of Beach Street behind some warehouses along the Delaware River in Fishtown and Kensington. It seems like a no-man’s-land, the kind of barren industrial area where someone would dump a car or a body.

But on a recent Sunday afternoon, it was alive with noise, the smell of gasoline wafting through the air as a parade of dirt bikes and quads, street-legal motorcycles and small foreign cars tore down a roadway as slick as an ice rink in spots from burned rubber and oil.

On an adjacent wooded hill that stretches all the way to the river, dirt bikes and ATVs zipped in and out of the trails, stopping occasionally to see the stunts and drag races down on Beach Street.

Hundreds of spectators were there. Some families watched the action, in the same way a suburban family might attend a Phillies game. But Beach Street held real danger, too: The slightest jerk of a steering wheel, or a new rider losing control of a nervous wheelie, could send hundreds of pounds of metal into the crowd. Even some members of the Philly Hang Gang thought it was a little too much, even though no one was injured during the hour they were there.

Jae, a 28-year-old rider from West Philly, sat on his Yamaha Banshee ATV on Beach Street, watching the action. He said it’s a controlled chaos, and it happens every weekend, whenever the weather is nice.

"Ain’t no nobody getting killed. Ain’t nobody fighting. This might not be a typical Sunday for most people, but this is a Sunday for us," he said.

That’s a refrain they like to repeat: No one gets hurt, no one dies. But ask enough people, and the bodies pile up.

Beeb has ridden bikes and quads for 20 years. His cousin died in 2007 when a car hit him at 22nd and Allegheny as he rode a Banshee four-wheeler.

"I said I wasn’t gonna ride no more. I ain’t ride for like nine months," said Beeb, 36, of North Philly. "But it’s my past. I love it. I knew he’d want me to ride, too."

On March 13, 14-year-old Jermaine Alexander of Frankford died when he collided with a car that turned in front of his dirt-bike as he sped toward home.

Tay tried a trick — drifting — that went horribly wrong in Northern Liberties in 2007 when his ATV wheel hooked on a trolley track and sent him smashing into a parked car. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Wearing a helmet isn’t mandatory in Pennsylvania and almost no one in the Philly Hang Gang wears one. Jae, who works as a sales rep for Nike, said helmets restrict vision and would be pointless in a high-speed crash anyhow.

"All a helmet’s going to do is preserve your face for the funeral," he said.

For Tay, no helmet meant brain surgery.

"They took half my skull off," said Tay, 30, of North Philly, rubbing the scars that stretch across his bald head. "I was asleep for a year. I lost half my memory and had to learn to walk and talk all over again.“

Two years later, he got back on his bike again.

“Some of us love our bikes more than we love our wives. She know her level," Tay said of his wife.

Pupo, 27, of Feltonville, was on a dirt bike with faulty brakes when a car pulled in front of him a few years ago. "I hit the door and flew through the air. When I landed, my leg was sitting next to my face," said Pupo. A six-month recovery did little to squash his passion for riding.

"It’s like my breath, right here. This bike," he said, patting his custom-painted blue Yamaha YZ-250, "it’s my everything."

Dirt-biker Mike Miles, a Hang Gang founder, agreed: "Some people get bit by sharks and they go right back in the water. This is an adrenaline rush."

Contact Dana DiFilippo at difilid@phillynews.com or 215-854-5934. Read her blog at phillyconfidential.com.

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