Bike culture in the Bay Area runs the gamut, from high performance racing to hipster fixies. Keeping a bike can be an expensive hobby, and as with cars, some people use their bikes as an extension of their personal style.
At ColectíVelo, a community bike shop in East Oakland, bicycles are still seen for their primary purpose: transportation. The shop provides free space and tools, bike repair training in Spanish and English, and access to bicycles for those with low incomes.
One Bike at a Time
On a recent afternoon, Juana Paredes adjusts the gears on a kid-sized bike, mounted on a stand. Her hands are streaked with black grease, and her head tilts to the side as she stands back to watch the wheel turn, testing the adjustment.
She says she has worked here at ColectíVelo for about five Saturdays: cleaning, opening, and closing the shop. That's how she earned her first bike.
Paredes’s work exchange experience is not an exception here, it’s the norm because ColectíVelo operates without the use of money. The shop offers the use of its bike repair tools, equipment and space free of charge; but in order to take bikes or parts home, people are asked to volunteer their time and skills to benefit the shop.
Dreaming up an Affordable Bike Shop
Five years ago, a public health nurse and her social worker colleagues saw a need for affordable, efficient transportation among the day laborers they served in Fruitvale. They dreamed of a bike shop for them, and for the other low-income residents of the neighborhood. They found a space to launch this dream at the Oakland Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, a resource center that mainly serves the large Latin American community in Fruitvale. One of their services is providing transitional housing for recent immigrants at the House itself. Juana Paredes lived there when she moved to the United States from Mexico, and that is how she found out about ColectíVelo.
Bikes of every shape and persuasion line the walls and ceiling of the semi-open space. Heavy metal shelving holds bike tools and plastic bins of spare parts. There’s a friendly, organized-junkyard vibe to the place.
Kathleen Mills is also here doing work exchange, for a neat little folding bike she is fixing up for her granddaughter. She found ColectíVelo through the Catholic Worker House’s hot meal program. She was experiencing difficulty keeping herself fed, so she started exploring the neighborhood looking for food assistance, and found the Catholic Worker House.
“They gave me some beans and rice, and then I was talking to them, asking did they have job research and stuff like that,” she says. “But then they’re like, no but we fix bikes! I’m like, oh, great! So, I came around and I started working.”
Mills says she discovered her interest for bicycles here at Colectívelo. “I never knew about bikes,” she says. “I’m like almost sixty years old. So, never too old to learn something.”
She has been coming to the shop for five weeks, and has now brought her nephew, Steven Hobdy, into the fold. He is converting an old ten-speed bike into a faster, more efficient single-speed. “I wanted to make something more comfortable, and make me look good on the street, too,” he laughs.
A Safe Space
Juana Paredes has been here every Saturday for the past year. She says it feels like home, a definite contrast to how she feels outside on the streets because of the violence, drug use and muggings that take place.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, a shooting occurred at the car wash next to the shop, a serious reminder that safe spaces are a real need in this neighborhood. ColectíVelo’s main organizer, Morgan Kanninen, says the shared activity of bike repair helps build relationships in the neighborhood that otherwise wouldn’t exist. “It creates a space where people … feel like they belong,” she says.
Building A Bilingual Community
This afternoon in the shop, native Spanish and English speakers are working easily side by side, and Kanninen says this bilingual element makes ColectíVelo special. “They’re super friendly to each other and ... everybody adds to the ambience even if they can’t necessarily communicate directly with words,” she says.
Kanninen believes the feeling of community is also strengthened by the no-cash model of the shop’s operations. When people want a bike or parts, the first step is sitting down to a meeting to discuss possible work exchange scenarios. There are some set volunteer tasks, like helping to open and close the shop on Saturdays, but it is up to each person to propose what they think they can do to help the shop. Kanninen says volunteers have built awnings to protect the bikes from rain, constructed tables for the shop, painted signs, re-organized the shelves, and even created bicycle art to be hung in the shop.
All of the work takes place within the shop on Saturdays, when everyone is there. Kanninen says this is helpful because people can actually see each other doing the work, and it creates more of a communal atmosphere.”It’s kind of inspiring to see people’s different ideas happen,” she says. “I think it creates a lot more appreciation for each other.”
Making it Work Without Money
One of the reasons that ColectíVelo can afford to operate in this communal way is that, unlike other retail bike shops, they have very low expenses. The Oakland Catholic Worker owns its house, and charges no rent to the bike shop. Almost every item in the shop was donated or made by volunteers.
Kanninen says that they occasionally receive cash donations, and sometime people offer money instead of labor for bikes or parts. She says she appreciates the offers, but the shop’s eschewing of money is very purposeful. She points out that even sliding scale systems can contribute to a feeling of inequality among participants. For some, asking to pay at the lower end of a sliding scale can create a “sense of alienation or shame that just does not need to be involved in this bike shop," she explains. "I think it would only hurt the growth of community here, and the real sharing and learning from each other.”
It’s near closing time. As Kathleen Mills starts cleaning and putting away the tools, her nephew Stephen Hobdy puts the finishing touches on his ten-speed to single-speed conversion. This type of conversion has been pretty trendy amongst bicycle hipsters. And though Hobdy admits he does want to look good on his bike, he says he’s mostly concerned with the simple task of getting to work and back. At ColectíVelo, people are getting back to bicycle basics: human-powered transportation. And they’re doing it with the very human power of relationships.