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Wheels of fortune

Tulsa Hub, making change one bike at a time

Norman Waters works in “the boneyard” at Tulsa Hub, which distributes road-ready bikes based on community need.

Nathan Poppe

Ren Barger has a permanent titanium matrix in her spine and similarly fixed convictions about the benefits of bicycling for transportation.

Barger’s neck and seven other bones broke more than a decade ago when she was hit by a car in Chicago. She was 21 at the time. “I was riding my bike home on a Friday night, then woke up in Cook County Hospital,” Barger said.

The incident left her in a halo for weeks, dependent on others for care and support. But Barger recuperated, her belief in bikes intact. She returned to her native Tulsa in 2008 to find a downtown district twittering with new construction projects and redevelopment. The city’s streets weren’t exactly safe for riding bikes, but Barger, saddled with student and medical debt, didn’t have much choice in the matter. “I couldn’t afford a car, so I rode my bike everywhere,” she said.

Ground broke downtown for the BOK Center, an arena built to hold nearly 20,000. Staples like McNellie’s and Dwelling Spaces both opened that year. Amid a nationwide recession, the district was nonetheless teeming with signs of life.

“Listening to all the language about all this new development around downtown made it seem very exciting and interesting,” Barger recalled. “But the folks taking advantage of the social services and reliant on bicycles for transportation—the powers that be discussed them as a problem to be moved out of the way.

“They were talking about this problem of poor people hanging out in downtown. There wasn’t a lot of empowering language. … I wanted to create a facility that would help with transportation, normalize bike culture and look at the root causes of people’s poverty.”

In October 2008, Barger founded Tulsa Hub as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Its mission? To change lives through cycling. But what does success look like for such an organization? A few weeks spent riding my own bike around downtown to interview Hub staff and clients might provide some answers.

Location, location, location

Dozens of wheels dangle above Rob Franklin’s head as he fastens a water bottle cage to a child’s sturdy, sky-blue bike frame inside the Hub’s garage. Work benches, filing cabinets and shelves line the walls, every inch of available surface occupied either by a tool or a spare part. Bikes hang from racks affixed to the ceiling in various stages of completion: Huffy, Raleigh, Roadmaster, Schwinn, Mongoose, Diamondback. It’s messy, but not disorganized. Little goes to waste.

Franklin and the rest of Hub’s mix of full-time, part-time and volunteer staff affectionately call this cheery space “The Boneyard.” You can enter off the street if the garage door’s open, or through a break room that connects to the Hub’s one-room office via a short hallway. Hub rents the building on a
sweetheart deal with a local landlord. It’s a block west from the BOK Center, on the south side, a short walk from the Denver Avenue Bus Station, Central Library and the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless. “The location is pretty ideal,” Franklin says. “We’re not far from a great deal of our clientele.”

Barger estimates that Hub takes anywhere from 10–20 bicycle donations per week. In the garage, Franklin and his colleagues break each donated bike down for parts or refurbish it, depending on the make and quality of the bike, as well as current demand. Garage space is limited, so they have to move bikes through quickly.

Once refurbished, bikes are delivered to a nearby warehouse where they wait to be sold, donated or used in Hub programming. Hub’s social entrepreneurship model enables it to distribute road-ready bikes based on community need, but they also sell fancier bikes for revenue. Payroll and rent are their two biggest expenses, according to Stephen Place, Hub operations and programs co-director.

Hub boasts the only adult earn-a-bike education program in the state. The Adult Cycling Education program costs participants $35, a fee often waived in exchange for three-and-a-half hours of volunteer work, and covers how to ride safely, legally and responsibly. Program graduates also learn how to do repairs when their bikes break down. Barger says the A.C.E. program has opened access to transportation for more than 1,400 people struggling to make ends meet.

“Generally, we’re looking for mountain bikes, something rugged,” Franklin says when I ask what makes a good bike for an A.C.E. program graduate. “You can carry your groceries on it, your laundry. It’s not for show, it’s for go.”

On the mend

Chains and gears click together in perfect timing as I speak with another mechanic, Norman Waters. He’s a big man with weathered hands, a handlebar mustache and long hair pulled together by an American flag bandana. It’s much easier to imagine him tag-teaming with Hulk Hogan in a wrestling league for retirees than balanced on top of a bicycle. Waters works in the Boneyard now but when he first came to Hub four years ago he was new in town, working construction and living on the street without transportation.

Waters threads an old brake cable through a new casing as we talk. The bike he earned through the A.C.E. program got him to and from work in Berryhill, about six miles from downtown Tulsa. “Not all construction sites are on the bus route,” he points out.

Waters gained and nearly lost housing after the company that employed him went out of business. He sold plasma to survive. But all the while he exchanged work for upgrades and repairs to his commuter bike at Hub and eventually it turned into a mechanic job. He likes the work itself, the repetition of it and the friendly people who come in and out of the garage.

I rode over to Hub one Tuesday evening during their open garage hours to see that friendliness in action. Waters was there at his workstation, mending battered bicycles and cracking jokes.

Franklin gives instructions to a new volunteer and to another man, Edward Martins, a Nigerian immigrant working in exchange for upgrades to his bike. Place is there, too, rehabbing a high-end carbon fiber donation with the help of a long-time volunteer. A man with a pickup truck stops by to donate used bikes, which his sons ride around the parking lot next door. The garage doors open to the sunset.

“I didn’t start this organization so I could lobby elected officials. I started this organization because I wanted to love people with bikes,” Barger says. “And hopefully I can love those people enough that they can get healthier and then they can say, ‘What would it take to do systemic change?’”

Systemic change in Tulsa seems a long ways off. A local transportation system that’s friendlier to bicyclists of all socioeconomic status will require massive public buy-in and a significant civic planning effort, not to mention decades of implementation.

Until then, Hub’s at the ground level making change one bike at a time.

This article originally appeared in Issue 40 of The Curbside Chronicle, whee it won first place for magazine feature writing at the 2019 Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalist awards. Curbside is a publication created for and sold by people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City. This street paper’s model provides the homeless with an amplified voice and a means of income, empowering them to rise out of poverty. Click here for more info.

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