John Ossowski


Tell us about yourself (who you are, what you do).

I’d say I’m a dreamer who often has more ideas than time to pursue them. My interests are varied, but seem to revolve around art/craft/design (i.e.: I crochet weird things sometimes) and the social dimension of sustainability (i.e.: how do we sustain people and planet in a just and equitable fashion?). Right now, I’m in a transition of sorts and I’m hoping that what comes out of this period will be a personal and professional shift that aligns me more with what I’ve mentioned above.

How do bicycles fit into that?

For me, bikes are a win-win-win for people, communities and the environment. Aside from the obvious benefits of biking (fun, exercise, pollution prevention, traffic reduction), I believe bikes can do more to bring people closer together. I’m attracted to the idea of the bicycle as a “vehicle for social change.” As such, the bicycle can be a DIY community-building machine. I’ve tried a number of “things-on-bikes” to test this concept out.

A community bike ride (for example, this one in my home town of Utica, NY) is a great way to get people together and explore the place you live in. A roving caravan of friends, neighbors and acquaintances creates a temporary public space on the street for people. Not a novel concept, I know, but streets seem to be dedicated solely to automobile traffic these days – and truly public spaces seem to be eroding from the urban landscape.

I’m also interested in using bikes the way food carts seem to be used in some cities. Why not have a community cafe that comes to your block sometimes? Or a bike-in movie? These are just a few of the examples that lots of people are experimenting with right now, and I’m totally on board with that!

Tell us about your bicycle-based project.

The “joe cart” was a pilot project in Utica, NY. It was built almost completely from reused materials and was meant to be a simple, environmentally-friendly, fun way to make neighborhoods more livable and safe. In safe neighborhoods, people know each other, look out for one another and have a regular presence on the street. joe cart provided an instant, free, outdoor café venue where neighbors could gather and enjoy each other’s company over coffee or tea. In doing so, joe cart supported the social fabric of the neighborhood, which is essential to public safety. This project was connected to a number of projects that were part of the reUtica effort (active in 2010 – 2012). It was a lot of fun, too!

What inspired your project?

I get lost in thought about problems that seem too big to tackle. Every so often, though, some hint of a solution grabs me and brings me back down to earth. I noticed that the neighborhood I was living in didn’t really have any venues for people to gather in. Old timers would tell stories of neighborhood theaters, or bakeries, or other places where neighbors could walk to and visit with each other. Those places were long gone and now the streets seemed mostly deserted. What if, I thought, there was a way to carve out a little space on the street to offer something that people would normally go out in their cars to get – like coffee? I found some scrap materials, some coffee carafes and just tried it out!

What motivates you to keep working at it?

I’m not actively working on this project anymore for a number of reasons (the sum of which makes me think it’s definitely time for a big change in my own life!). When I was working on it, I was motivated by the way people responded to it. It seemed like they had a good time meeting around the cart. We even decorated the cart and towed it along for a holiday carolling brigade, offering hot cocoa instead of coffee that time.

In short, it seemed like a good idea and I had some fun, too.

Where can we go to learn more?

My project’s website – or check out this video.

What other bicycle-based ideas would you like to pursue?

If you’ve read my friend George’s profile on this site, you already know we share a flair for ads-on-bikes.  I like the idea of connecting local bicyclists with local businesses and causes.  I think the bicycle can be a means for grassroots mass communication – in a way that benefits the individual cyclist and the local community.

What kind of bicycle do you personally ride?

Nothing special. A black Trek 7.2 with disc brakes. I put some LEDs in the wheels (like reflectors…because I’m paranoid around traffic at dusk/dark). There’s a rack for bike signs – and coffee-cart hauling capabilities.  🙂


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