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Christina Vassallo: The stubborn cyclist

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/29/14 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Biking

GreenCityBlueLake is launching a new series of personal stories that shows how people in Cleveland are lowering their carbon footprint, but still leading "profitable" lives. Within the series, we offer "Car Free in CLE"—profiles of people living car free or car lite. We kick it off with this story of Christina Vassallo, Executive Director of SPACES Gallery.

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“I’m the stubborn cyclist,” Christina Vassallo says by way of explaining her choice of vehicle since relocating to Cleveland in February to take the Executive Director position at SPACES Gallery.

The New Jersey native started riding a bicycle in New York City where she recently worked at the non-profit arts organization, Flux Factory, in Long Island City, Queens—about a five mile commute from where she lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Before biking, she commuted into Manhattan on the subway. But, spotty train service between Queens and Brooklyn, plus a work environment that was less high heels and more grounded in experimentalism, gave her license to try biking, even on the mean streets of the city.

This was before New York’s vaunted bike plan—put in place in 2007 by former Mayor Bloomberg and his Transportation Czar, Janette Sadik-Khan—spurred a 58% increase in cycling, or 36,496 daily bike commuters, according to the Census.

Pretty soon Vassallo was hooked, and making weekend trips with her boyfriend up and down the Hudson River Valley on her blue Bianchi road bike loaded up with camping gear and her lap dog, Truman, in a basket attached to the back.

“I felt like I was getting addicted,” she laughs. “Like if I didn’t ride, I felt...off.”

Vassallo shares that biking forms her daily exercise, which, with Type 1 diabetes, she relies on to keep her sugar and cholesterol levels balanced.

“Cycling offered great perspective on my health.”

She makes no bones that biking is also an exercise in free will.

“I didn’t get a car, and I don’t plan to,” she says about picking up at the same place in Cleveland, where she moved to Tremont, and bikes daily to the office.

“You have total control over your commute,” she adds. “It’s a statement of independence.”

Vassallo rounds out her statement by adding that if she were a parent, she might see the need for a car.

For now, how is she managing the duties of executive director while being car free in Cleveland?

“People are generally very forgiving,” she says. “I only showed up late to one meeting and that was because I didn’t know where I was going.”

She readily admits that her sector gives her the confidence to sometimes show up to a meeting feeling a little Dutch.

“I’m leading an organization that’s socially conscious, that is working on the public realm, and wants to have some social impact with the work they do,” she says, adding, “I will bike in heels, even though I don’t brag about.”

When asked about her drivers for why she bikes, Vassallo lists ecological and political reasons among her chief concerns.

“I hate to be manipulated to think that I need a car, and reject that there’s only one way of getting around.”

Does she feel like not owning a car can make a difference while the vast majority is driving and pumping out unsustainable levels of carbon dioxide?

“I think there’s a ripple effect,” she says. “In New York, nobody noticed that I was a cyclist, because a lot of people do it. Here, when I show up to a meeting with my helmet, people notice. Their first reaction is of utter shock. Then, they’re curious. They ask how long it took to get there, and ‘OMG you’re in a skirt.’ Some people feel guilty. I just tell them, ‘go at your own speed.’”

Does she think Clevelanders could be convinced to add biking to their mix?

“Absolutely,” she starts, “but, maybe it’s a gradual process. I grew up in New Jersey where getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage. If I grew up in Cleveland, maybe it’s not my lifestyle.”

“But, I’m a stubborn cyclist,” she repeats, “and I believe I can get to anywhere on my bike. I will not give up my right. We need help, though, and to expand the bike network. We need better lanes—none of this sharrow business—and street lights and to fix the potholes, and better transit. It’s a multi-layered process. One person cannot convince another to ride without these things.”

Vassallo posted a brave confession on her Facebook page recently. “There’s life after New York,” she wrote. Even though her boyfriend still lives there, and the Big Apple is now a bike capital with 600 miles of bike lanes ("so many Class-One lanes," she gushes), Vassallo seems to be taking in all that Cleveland has to offer. This summer, she biked to Kelley’s Island (via Sandusky and the ferry), from Tremont to and down the Towpath Trail, and 100 miles in the inaugural VeloSano ride.

As for her plans for SPACES, Vassallo is focused on shepherding the organization’s sale of its building and move to a more walkable area on the Near West Side, possibly in the emerging Hingetown. She is also in the midst of exploring very SPACES-like themes for the coming exhibition schedule. Pointing to her blackboard wall space in her office, she offers that all major shows could ask artists to respond to themes such as equity, transformation or lighter, local topics like the east-west “divide.” Is there room to take on climate change and the fate of the planet?

“I think we absolutely should,” she concludes. “I don’t think it’s too didactic. We take a playful approach to serious issues. I think that’s what we do best.”

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