Montana, 33, has been riding dirt bikes and ATVs for more than two decades

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During evening rush hour on a cool September Friday, a group of ATV riders wheelied down Broad Street in blurring streaks of lime green, royal blue and golden yellow.

Known to one another mostly by their nicknames — V Hustle, Montana, Moo Moo — they weaved through cars effortlessly, flying past North Philly landmarks and street signs: Pike Street, Erie Avenue, Venango, Allegheny. And they stopped at every light.

Montana at one point lifted his body and placed his foot on the very edge of his four-wheeler, tilting it up to a nearly 90-degree angle, the front two wheels sky high.

Trailing clouds of smoke and scents of exhaust, the men were greeted with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some bystanders offered waves and smiles, while others turned up their noses as if the vehicles were garbage trucks on a sticky summer day.

Riding dirt bikes and ATVs through city streets is polarizing. And in Philadelphia, it’s illegal.

In the years since Meek Mill took up the mantle and began cultivating the community, the street sport has undergone a noticeable shift in atmosphere.

Riders say they’ve noticed less targeting by local law enforcement now that Mill, born Robert Rihmeek Willams, is an international celebrity. A Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson disputed any claim officials have become more lax in enforcing dirt bike and ATV rules.

The cultural depth of street riding in East Coast cities, which riders say Meek has strengthened, stands next to an equally extensive debate over public safety. It remains unclear whether wide-reaching changes can be made that satisfy both riders and authorities.

Either way, there’s little chance folks will stop gunning their way across Philadelphia pavement — or boulevards in Baltimore or New York.

Especially because Meek is basically now the president of #bikelife.

Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘Ain’t really nothing that can get me away from bikes’

In 2011, Meek cemented his then-budding music career with his music video for “Ima Boss,” which centered urban dirt bikers and today has been viewed on YouTube more than 87 million times.

“I feel like his word goes out a little deeper than ours,” Montana, 33, told Billy Penn. “I had little cousins that wanted to start riding dirt bikes after seeing that video, got girls who wanna learn how to ride just from seeing the movement in the street and all of that.

“People love this,” said Montana, who’s part of a crew from the Hunting Park neighborhood. “Look at Meek Mill. Look at everything he risked.”

It was a dirt bike incident that morphed the rapper’s case into a rallying cry for criminal justice reform, first through the #FreeMeek campaign and now through the Reform Alliance.

In 2017, the South Philly native was under a decade-long probation that began with a conviction when he was a teenager — in a case that rested on testimony by a police officer whose reliability has since been found to be questionable (the case was recently dropped). When Meek was seen popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in New York City, his probation judge sentenced him to two to four years in prison.

In one of his bike life vlogs, Mill declared his devotion to the culture. “I’ve been loving [bikes] my whole life. It ain’t really nothing that can really get me away from the bikes.”

While he was still on probation last fall, the Philly rapper organized a #bikelife event. He invited dirt bike and ATV riders from different cities to bring their crews to Pocono Raceway for a friendly ride-off. It was a day filled with speed riding and flaunting and fun. For the group from Hunting Park, it was their first time riding on anything other than city streets.

“Different cities came,” said Montana. “Connecticut, couple guys from New York, couple guys from Philly, D.C. [Meek] put them all on the same platform.”

Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘Certain people abuse it.’

Dirt bike riders, some neighborhood residents and other stakeholders say, pose a public safety risk, are a nuisance, cause chaos and are reckless.

Philadelphia City Council in 2012 passed a law prohibiting people “from operating, parking, stopping, placing or standing ATVs on a public sidewalk or public property, including parks and recreation centers.” The ordinance also gave police power to confiscate bikes and enforce fines. Urban bike life has instigated similar response in cities like Camden, Wilmington and York, Pa.

Fatal injuries do sometimes happen. In 2018, a 6-year-old child dirt bike passenger was killed and the 26-year-old driver was critically injured when an SUV driver crashed into the pair.

Even riders admit things can get dangerous.

“Certain people abuse it,” Montana said. “Then you got some of the young guys, kids — they might jump on curbs, and it don’t look good.”

Not everyone flouts the law, he clarified. “How we ride, we stop at lights,” Montana said of the Hunting Park crew. “We respect the law a little bit so [police] don’t really bother us.”

Philadelphia’s dirt bike and ATV laws impose a $2,000 penalty and allow PPD to impound the vehicles. If an impounded vehicle is not claimed properly, and the impound fee paid, it may be destroyed. Some variation of laws about ATVs and dirt bikes has been on the books for more than a decade, a police spokesperson said in an email.

The spokesperson added that department protocol about street pursuits calls on officers to find a balance between enforcement and action that might threaten public safety.

Police discretion was on display during a 2014 memorial for slain Philadelphia stunt rider Kyrell “Dirt Bike Rell” Tyler that attracted hundreds of riders. For the first few hours of the rideout, officers didn’t interfere with the on-street vigil. Eventually, the ride was quelled by motorcycle cops. “Rell Day” has now become an annual event.

Rell’s death did not happen when he was riding — he was found shot and killed inside a car in Southwest Philadelphia. The juxtaposition illustrates what proponents say is the positive side of riding: that it represents a constructive outlet for people who’ve watched community assets like recreation centers dwindle.

Many in the community like to say that bike life saves lives. It can even be turned into a profession.

Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Bikes brought people together’

Renowned Baltimore street rider Chino Braxton is a prime example of going pro.

Braxton signed with Meek’s Dream Chasers label in 2012, a few years after Meek discovered his riding videos on YouTube. Last year, he signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports as the first ever face of its motocross division.

Videos of Braxton’s stunts went viral before the kid hit puberty. The 22-year-old Baltimore resident learned to ride from a neighbor when he was five or six years old, he told Billy Penn.

“Truthfully,” Braxton said, “I never thought dirt bikes would take me anywhere because I already knew I was doing something illegal, I wasn’t riding on a track.”

That Braxton flipped the fun into a lucrative career isn’t the only notable thing about his rise: he’s been embraced by Philadelphia, despite the long-running rivalry between the two cities. That’s thanks to President Meek Mill.

“You can pull up old videos of Meek coming at Baltimore talking trash,” Braxton said. “Then, out the blue, Meek pop up with this guy from Baltimore and sign him. It calmed everything down.”

Chino is a featured rider in that viral “Ima Boss” video.

“Philly started traveling to Baltimore, Baltimore started traveling to Philly,” Montana said. “Now it’s in New York, Connecticut, Miami, Florida, D.C. In every city, they coming together. You got a lot of people who ain’t even like each other before this bike stuff. Bikes brought people together.”

Positive aspects notwithstanding, riders are still at odds with law enforcement and public officials every time they take to city streets

Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘Give us a private area to ride’

One of the most talked about avenues to a compromise between #bikelife culture and the safety risks is the building of a separate paved dirt bike and ATV track in easy reach of urban riders.

Asked what he’d request if given an audience with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Montana was quick with a reply: “Give us a private area to ride in.”

Montana explained: “We used to go to a strip called Beach Street, that’s behind Port Richmond. It was nothing bad happening back there. Everybody went there on Sundays. Then after a while, cops started shutting it down, so that started forcing people out onto the street.”

Late last year, Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas elevated a grassroots call to build Philly’s first dirt bike and ATV park.

“Bikers I talked to wondered if the city closes streets for certain events,” Ubiñas wrote on Instagram, “[and] if naked bike riders are allowed to ride…then why can’t they?”

Braxton told Billy Penn he feels like discussion about building a bike track in Baltimore has fallen to the wayside. Cities miss a huge opportunity, Braxton said, in failing to support an extracurricular activity that could expand kids’ career prospects.

“Growing up in Black communities in the ‘hood it’s like 25 percent wanna play basketball, 25 percent wanna play football — and, like, 50 percent wanna ride dirt bikes.”

Cleveland in 2017 approved a $2.3 million dirt bike track before tossing the plans in the fall of 2018. Conversations have reignited this year.

Residents dealing with ATV and dirt bike dangers in York, Pa. proposed that building a track for riders could help reduce injurious incidents and nuisance problems, in the same vein as dedicated skate parks.

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board made a renewed call for conversations about a dirt bike and ATV track in Philly last June.

As Meek Mill basks in his newfound prestige, he continues to tout his connection to Philadelphia’s urban dirt bike culture at every turn. Many feel he’s helping turn something historically viewed as a public nuisance into a national movement that unifies primarily young men of color as they rally around their own brand of extreme sports.

“I feel like his voice is real helpful, but that’s the most I can speak of on that because right now, we ain’t really have much change,” Hunting Park’s Montana said with cautious optimism. “A lot is in the making, but for now, I think he opened up a few doors for bike life.”

Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...