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Urban Legend - Mike Shih

By Leonard Bonarek

The name “Mantua” implies something romantic to many who’ve read Shakespeare. Those who are from Philadelphia, however, have a different word association. Mantua is consistently in the running for worst neighborhood in Philadelphia, neck and neck with the also deceptively named Strawberry Mansion among some others. In 2005, Mike Shih, an Asian-American in his 40’s, bought a house there. When asked why, he offered in an accent that betrays his Midwestern roots “That’s a tough one there. One doesn’t move into a neighborhood like this without trepidation. Then I said ‘fuck it.’ You gotta move and see what happens.” What happened was that he got jumped. He still occasionally gets rocks thrown at him while riding his bike in his own neighborhood, amongst other harassments. Why not rent in a better area? “Renting is a black hole. Something even here has resale value.”

His house would be described by most as a dump, the kind of place a contractor would completely gut to fix up. Paint peels off the walls in huge sheets, rotten floorboards abound, as do wavy ceilings and wobbly banisters. Well-worn paths on the painted floors lead the eye from tops and bottoms of staircases to the most used rooms. It’s clear that Mike has done little in the way of sprucing it up in his 4+ years living there. No TV, no cable, no internet, no computer. His only entertainment is his radio. There are squatters out there who live with more creature comforts, surely.

It doesn’t take long in his place to figure out where the love goes. In addition to being an Army vet, college educated mechanical engineer, welder, generator specialist, draftsman, wood worker, and accomplished (though he would say only decent) salsa dancer, Mike is a bike head. For real. His living room has no fewer than six complete bikes that he has built from piles of steel tubes and vintage Suntour parts. Then there’s several other purchased ones. His handmade machines are referred to by number. He currently spends most of his time on #4, an urban hauling bike with 26 inch wheels (for strength and a low center of gravity), rear rack, and a reinforced version of his telltale (and also handmade) front rack.

His lust for bikes started early, before many readers