Photograph by Traci Hukill
Gearhead : Jason Fletcher, proud Bike Church member, takes a break from toiling on his two-wheeler.
Power to the People
Rejoice, Santa Cruz--the Bike Church co-op is taking its egalitarian model and expanding into computer repair.
By Paul Davis
Bike culture is woven into the fabric of Santa Cruz life. As are co-ops, those loose federations of like-minded individuals running businesses or homes in truly democratic fashion. So it's not surprising that Santa Cruz's venerable Bike Church has enjoyed success since it relocated last year to Pacific Avenue. What may come as more of a surprise, however, is just how successful the new Bike Church has proven to be.
The Bike Church isn't just any old bicycle repair shop. Formed by an egalitarian collective of bicyclists, messengers and grease monkeys, the Church long ago established itself as an activist-minded meeting-hub for bicyclists. With its avowed mission statement to "provide the tools, shop space and supervision for a diverse community to learn, share knowledge and effectively repair bicycles at low cost," the Bike Church has become an integral part of the local bike culture fabric. The new space offers tools, repair assistance and regular classes for those who want to escape the grip of the high-priced bike-repair racket. This is about fishing poles, not fish.
The Bike Church's significance in the community has grown with the move from its previous location on Cedar Street. Volunteer mechanic Idit Agam explains, "The last shop was basically a closet, and most people had to do their work outside. We are able to serve lot more people now because the shop is more intentional; we have specific work areas set out for different aspects of the bicycle."
Founding member Josh Muir puts the evolution in a historical perspective. "Cooperatives evolve," he says. "I think the Bike Church just finally found the broader community that takes care of it and runs it like a true collective." Muir is particularly pleased that the current collective has been able to successfully bridge the gender divide. "It seems like we have just in the last few years figured out how to attract and include women as core mechanics," he says. "Our gender balance is better than ever."
Still, Muir sees much work still be done to ensure the diversity of the collective. "While we are working on our bilingual abilities, we have yet to make any advances in the racial make-up of our collective," he says, though the collective has taken steps to improve this oversight, helping Chicano activist group the Brown Berets open the Bike Shack, a similar organization in Watsonville.
The new Bike Church has proven so successful that the collective has plans to expand. Turning its attention to another ubiquitous failure-prone tool of the modern age, the Bike Church is planning to open a technology-oriented co-op in the office space currently occupied by the nonprofit People Power, which will be moving next door. Muir says, "The Computer Kitchen will provide educational opportunities and material recovery/recycling services in much the same way the Bike Church does with bikes. They will also be looking to provide nonprofit organizations with tech assistance and affordable hardware."
It's heady times for the cooperative. There are also plans to open an Info Shop, a free library of independent and activist literature that takes its cues from similar spaces in San Francisco and Olympia, Wash. The Info Shop, Bike Church, Computer Kitchen and People Power will all operate under the auspices of the Santa Cruz Hub for Sustainable Transportation, the nonprofit that holds the lease of the entire property. As one might imagine, working in a completely egalitarian manner isn't without its challenges. "Consensus decision-making can be a long drawn-out process," Agam grants. "We do consensus-minus-one, but we all get along pretty well and rarely have to spend hours on any one decision."
Muir acknowledges that the process hasn't been without its hitches. "At one point, there were just a few people who felt empowered to make decisions for the Bike Church," he says. "An openness to bringing in new people takes time and some times it doesn't work out."
Even though there are challenges, the success of the Bike Church stands as a testament to the potential of cooperatives and the role they can play in the community. "It's like you actually have to interact on a realistic level with your community to get something done," Muir notes. "In a consensus-run collective, there is a structure and understanding that attempts to keep everyone empowered to make decisions and take responsibility."
THE BIKE CHURCH is at 703 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, open 3-7pm Monday-Saturday. For more information, call 831.425.BIKE.
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