Blog: Mark Maynard

Mark Maynard publishes the magazine Crimewave USA, puts out records, comics and blogs when others sleep. He is one of the founders of Ypsilanti's popular Shadow Art Fair, co-chair of YpsiVotes, and a member of Ypsilanti's 2020 Task Force on the future of the city. He has a keen interest in economic development and will be writing about why he's enthusiastically chosen to live in Ypsilanti.

Post No. 3

 Who's Up for a Pedal Powered Film Festival in Ypsi's Riverside Park?

Those of you who read my blog know that a lot of things occur to me during the course of a day. Most of my ideas are admittedly pretty stupid. Recently, for example, I was arguing that Ypsilanti should position itself as a regional hub drive-thru chicken slaughter.

Occasionally, however, I come up with something really good. The last one of those that I had was for a bike-powered film series in Ypsilanti's Riverside Park. And it wasn't really all my idea. I just got the ball rolling.

The origin of the idea was pretty simple. I have a favorite movie, and I wanted to watch it some spring evening with my friends on the banks of the Huron River. The movie was the 1955 film noir Night of the Hunter - the only film ever directed by actor Charles Laughton. The film follows two children as they travel down a river, away from their mother's killer, a murderous preacher played by Robert Mitchum. It's a brilliant film that I love sharing with people, and I can't imagine a better venue than alongside the Huron at dusk, there among the frogs and crickets. That, anyway, was the impetus. And things evolved from there.

Shortly after posting the idea, two things became very clear. First, I found that there are a lot of people who really feel passionately about Night of the Hunter. And, second, I found out that there are a hell of a lot of people who want to see movies in our park. And, best of all, I learned that representatives from both groups are willing to help. Within hours of posting my idea, I had offers of sound systems and projectors. I had people offering to shimmy up trees to hang screens. I had people offering to bring popcorn. I also got the sense that this was going to happen with or without me, which was really cool.

Then we found out that it we couldn't get electricity in Riverside Park. That's when conversation on my site turned to solar cells. I ran the idea by Dave Strenski, the fellow who built the solar system at the Ypsi Food Co-op, and he, for various reasons, suggested we not go that route. (I think there was some mention of acid sloshing around and getting into kids' eyes)

The wheels, however, kept turning, and we ultimately settled on bike power, which is probably where we should have started in the first place. It works on every level.

I cannot imagine a better community-building event than a free, people-powered movie series. (And, yes, somewhere along the line it also became a short series, which could include other river-centric films, like The African Queen, or offerings for kids.) It has a whimsical Gilligan's Island kind of feeling to it that makes me smile whenever I think about it. I envision kids peddling with their parents, neighborhood associations signing up for blocks of riding time, folks from our senior housing developments coming out - everyone happy and enjoying the evening.

There would be another benefit too. If we pull it off, I think we might be the first in the nation to do so. I imagine some positive press might come from it, and maybe, just maybe, it'll be enough to attract the attention of an alternative energy company looking to open a facility in the Midwest, or a green developer --like this one. I know it's a reach, but as long as we're rebuilding Ypsilanti, why not do it right? Why not go green? Why not say to the world that we're a forward-looking community, thinking about sustainability?

I don't know how successful they've been, but
there's a town in Kansas that's doing it. They were hit by a tornado, and they've decided to rebuild green. They're using the opportunity to recreate their city. Why can't we do the same thing, starting with the 38-acre parcel we call Water Street?

We've already started doing it from the bottom up. Volunteers led by Dave Strenski have already converted our Co-op over to solar. And dozens of us have already pledged our own money to do the same for City Hall. The citizens of Ypsi are stepping in and doing it themselves, and this bike-powered movie project would be one more, very visible, illustration of that fact. This movie series would be an inexpensive, fun way to show the world what we value and what we're capable of.

As for the costs, I don't expect they'd amount to too much. I've got people willing to donate bikes. The only real significant cost then, assuming that we can borrow a projector and sound system, would be the City's fee for the use of the park and the generators. But, before we worry about that, we need to figure out how many bikes we need. Following are two assessments from my readers.

This first one comes from Paul G, an engineer in Silicon Valley:

    I've thought about trying to build a bike generator. You could just replace the 
    rear wheel of an old bike with a motor, add an energy storage/AC inverter box,
    and presto, you'd have free power (and get good exercise too).

    When I learned how much power can be generated by a human body though, 
    I got discouraged. For instance, a super-fit, Tour de France-caliber bicyclist 
    can sustain about 400 watts over several hours. But even that would barely 
    be enough to run the portable theater.

    The main problem is the projector, with its super-bright lightbulb. A quick 
    google search reveals the average projector consumes about 250 watts. Add 
    a sound system and factor in generator inefficiencies, and you'd probably 
    need Lance Armstrong to power this thing. And he'd be pretty tired by the 
    end of the film.

For the average "fit" adult, you could count on around 150 to 200 watts being 
    available (after inefficiencies, maybe 100 watts). So you could power the 
    theater with three or four such riders, or maybe 6-7 kids. The effort would be 
    similar to riding a real bike (with wind resistance) at about 20mph for a few 

And here's what local alternative energy guru Dave Strenski had to say:

Human powered generators would be the best option for safety and 'coolness' 
    but can be expensive…

If I'm reading your mind correctly, this is what you want.

You can find DIY plans for bike generators here, here, here, and here.

    You can also buy finished bike stands
here or

Keep in mind that a healthy/fit person can produce about 100 watts of power 
    for maybe 30 minutes. I think you would need 10 to 20 bikes plus a line of 
    would-be pedelers. Each bike would have it's own small battery to smooth out 
    the power coming from the bike and to handle people switching riders. All the 
    power would then be collected behind the screen (some place safe) and 
    combined and sent to an inverter to convert the DC power to AC to run the 

Sounds like a great event, but would be costly to put on. Maybe you could sell 
    the bike stands after the show to recover some of the costs. I could see 
    people sitting on the Riverside Park's sledding hill watching a movie with a 
    line of bikes in back...

And then there's my friend Eric, who suggests that maybe we just have people bring their own bikes. Or, better yet, we scrap the idea of bikes altogether. He suggests we locate some old paddleboats and create recumbent pedal-power stations. And, as I'm not an engineer, I'm not sure that his would work, but he also seems to think that maybe we could do it with one big crankshaft, where everyone worked together to feed a single generator. I was skeptical, but he reminded me that 3-person bikes exist. So, maybe he's on to something.

So, let's say we want to do this – is it possible to do it now, this spring? As I see it, we'd need at least three working groups to pull it off. One to handle the math, engineering and implementation. One to handle the pr, marketing and fundraising. And one to handle the logistics, permits, etc.

My guess, just looking at the notes from Paul and Dave, is that we could probably do it with 14 bikes, if we had a constant stream of fresh riders to rotate in. I know that we could get 14 used bikes donated. I even suspect that we could find someone here in Ypsi to contribute space to store them and work on them. And, if we're lucky, I bet we could even find some local mechanical types to help us put all the pieces together. So, all we'd really need to do is raise money for the motors and City's $100 fee. My friend
Homeless Dave just built out a system in his house (see his video further down) and I suspect he'd be willing to help us cost everything out.

Another approach that may be worth considering is getting a number of local businesses, not-for-profits, high school classes, social groups, neighborhood associations and the like to each sponsor a bike. We could give them the plans, and help them out, but they would each be responsible for getting the bike there on the day of the event, having it staffed with riders, etc. It could be pretty cool.

So, here's the question… Am I stupid to think that this might be possible? Is it unreasonable to think that we can get 20 bike riders to rotate in and out for the duration of a two-hour movie? Is the cost of 14 or more motors going to be too much?

I don't know. There are a lot of components and a lot of unanswered questions. It's exponentially more complicated than something like the
Shadow Art Fair, but I think it might be worth it. (I'll tell you more about the Shadow Art Fair in my next post.)

How cool would it be to get something like this off the ground? And, once it's up and running, there's no reason it couldn't be done on a regular basis. (Unless we follow Dave's advice and sell the bikes afterward, which is also a good idea.)

Once all the pieces are together, we could break everything out several times a year if we wanted to. We could even use the bikes to generate energy for other events. We could run the PA at the annual Heritage Festival. We could use it to power the lights at other city-sponsored events. We could even keep them somewhere, like at the Senior Center, for people to charge their phones and laptops with…

I'm sure there are other things that need to be said, but I'm going to leave you now with Homeless Dave's video on bike power while I start my letter to Al Gore (inviting him to Ypsi to show An Inconvenient Truth in the park). Watch it, imagine the possibility of what I've laid out here, and let me know whether or not you'd be interested in helping out.