Photographer Kimbra Audrey gets to know the neighborhood
From her Crown Heights apartment, Kimbra Audrey could see a dark, mysterious bar with a revolving door of distinctive clientele. “I lived across the street, watching this place and not really knowing what it was.” She soon discovered that she had been spying on the clubhouse of the Imperial Bikers MC, a predominantly African-American motorcycle club founded in the 1970s. The Imperial Bikers MC were originally established to fill a lack of clubs in the ‘hood, and became a hangout for motorcycle aficionados.
Audrey’s preconceived notions of motorcycle clubs had kept her from visiting the establishment, but it was her friend, Alex, a Harley-Davidson fanatic, who finally managed to coax her to go inside. She felt “nervous being a young, white girl, seeing big, tough biker guys.” The entry process didn’t help, either. “To enter you have to be buzzed in, and someone opens a sliding peephole to vet you."
But once inside, Audrey's fear subsided. “I was greeted by a friendly woman wearing her personalized Imperial Biker cut with the name ‘Hershey’ proudly adorned in hot pink on the front.” The walls were covered in memorabilia, trophies, and photo collages of the club’s history. She ordered a beer and began to chat with other members at the bar, and was soon invited to the Imperial Bikers MC’s “annual blessing,” a neighborhood block party.
Every July, a section of St. Mark’s Avenue is closed for the MC’s annual party. Although the club is well known in areas such as Long Island and part of Connecticut, to find out about the block party you need to be in the know. “They don't do Instagram,” Audrey says. “They don't care about social media,” but are more about community and spending time together. "Little kids on mini-dirt-bikes. And really old men smoking cigars. Everyone parties together—no exclusions.”
From her apartment, Audrey could hear the commotion below as the bikers set up for the annual event. Soon plastic chairs, barbecues, and beer buckets were lining the street as members revved up their custom engines in anticipation for the day’s events. “When I saw people putting lounge chairs out, I thought I have to shoot this. Although I was really shy about it, people were really friendly and open, even though I looked out-of-place."
After shooting some Hondas and Harleys, Audrey became fascinated by the names, the cuts, and the women on bikes in high-cut shorts. "With club names like ‘Outcast,' ‘Thug Riders,' and ‘Satan’s Sidekicks,’ you wouldn’t expect these people to be friendly. But what struck me the most was the camaraderie between motorcycle clubs… One guy even introduced himself as ‘Gunsmoke’."
The friendly atmosphere and emphasis on community set Imperial apart from what Audrey came to expect from biker culture. After reading books about the Hell’s Angels and seeing shows like Sons of Anarchy, Audrey admits she was biased before the experience, believing there was “usually animosity, and illicit behavior such as drug runs.” Instead, the Imperials greet each other with hugs and laughter, pray for the members who have passed, and organize toy-drives at Christmas.
"It gave me a more open mind in general—and, I mean, I have a different perspective. I don't associate them [bikers] with hardened criminals in movies and TV. Mostly it opened my eyes to the neighborhood I lived in. When I first moved in, I didn't think I would fall in love with the culture across the street. I didn't expect them to be welcoming to outsiders."
While candidly shooting the colorful individuals, Audrey still managed to get the club's opinions on the shifting economic landscape, and how quickly Crown Heights is changing due to gentrification. "Bedford-Stuyvesant is known for rappers, and I had lived there for four years. Crown Heights is known for drug dealers and prostitutes, and for ten years was not safe to live in." Now, as a result of gentrification, New York prices are increased, and Williamsburg is pretty much a mini-Manhattan. "They also explained to me that the barbecues they have every weekend are actually always to raise money for other things needed in the community, local basketball teams, or members of the club, or their family members who may need financial help."
For Audrey, who now lives in Paris, the MC’s clubhouse and block party are a thankful reminder that communities can still flourish in the face of gentrification. "It's nice to see a place that has not changed and is supporting the people who are part of the community.”
See more of Kimbra's biker series in Us of America's second issue. Available at Barnes & Noble nationwide and WH Smith across the United Kingdom. Get in touch to find an outlet near you.