Kelly Wallace was only 23 years old when a car struck her bike and killed her at the corner of Harvard Avenue and Cambridge Street in Allston. Her death came only one month after her friend Gordon Riker was also tragically killed by a car while biking. Four years later, these two fatalities continue to exemplify the disturbing price too often paid by cyclists. But the crashes also drove attention toward the need for more local bike-safety measures. As a result, bike lanes were finally installed in Allston in 2010.
But where the city took years to respond and work toward a more bike-friendly Allston, friends only took days. Shortly after Wallace and Riker died, their friend Zack Smith created Helping Everyone Live Longer (HELL), a program that provides free helmets for the Boston bike community. Under Smith, HELL distributed more than 300 helmets through donations and fundraising. Eventually, in 2009, Smith's friends Andrew Murray and Chris Knighton took over the project. The two are committed to serving bikers who most likely wouldn't be reached by the city-funded free-helmet programs.
"There are a lot of mainstream programs, like Boston Bike Day," says the tattooed 22-year-old Murray, sitting barefoot on the front stoop of his JP apartment. "But we're aimed more at counterculture — kids in the punk scene and the biking scene who won't be reached by those events, but still might not have the money to go drop 40 bucks on a helmet."
HELL is a distinctly DIY endeavor: "We've fundraised for every helmet," mostly through benefit shows, Murray says. Seeing as how HELL's inspiration — Riker and Wallace — were active members of the local punk scene, it was only natural that HELL would flourish in that scene, too. To date, the group has distributed nearly 600 helmets in Boston and beyond, often at punk shows and most recently at the Smash It Dead Fest at Mass Art.
Though HELL's primary goal is safety, it doesn't hurt that their helmets also happen to look really badass. "Some people see helmets as these awkward, bulky, dorky thing that makes you look like an eight-year-old," says Murray, "but if tons of people they're stoked on are wearing these helmets, with this label to it . . . it's making it cool to wear a helmet."
Upstairs, in the back of Murray's third-floor bedroom, a desk is littered with spray-paint cans and masking tape, next to a window nook filled with stacks of boxed helmets (which JP's Ferris Wheels bike shop provides to HELL at wholesale prices). One is bubblegum pink, with "HELL" branded in electric-blue-and-white spray paint. Another is white, covered in a sketched pink bunny face.
When he's not spray-painting and hand-delivering HELL helmets around Boston, Murray also volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an anti-hunger activist group that provides free public meals twice a week in Boston for anyone who is hungry. The two groups share a common fix-it-yourself mindset: "Our basic principle is, regardless of money, there's no one that doesn't deserve a helmet," says Murray.
With HELL and other likeminded bike activists at large, is this city a safer place for bikes than it was four years ago?