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Kansas City's first bicycle collective has transformed junk into reliable rides for 15 years

Volunteers and patrons in the work bay
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Volunteers and patrons make repairs and try on helmets in the work bay at the 816 Bicycle Collective, just off the corner of 31st and Cherry streets in Midtown.

A few steps away from Martini Corner and historic Union Hill, the 816 Bicycle Collective is transforming the lives of some of the city's most vulnerable residents.

Kansas City’s first community-owned bicycle shop, the 816 Bicycle Collective, celebrated 15 years of transforming scrap bikes into dependable transportation last month.

On an unusually mild fall afternoon, volunteers at the Midtown shop were scurrying about, trying to help every patron possible before closing for the day.

On the sidewalk just north of 31st and Cherry streets, one volunteer taught basic bike maintenance. A few feet away, another aired up tires at a free pump station. Inside, someone carefully replaced a patron’s kickstand.

“We teach you how to keep up with it, so you don't have to go to a newer bike store that's going to charge you, like, $70-plus for maintenance like lubrication,” volunteer mechanic Sidney Shelby said — not to mention the vital bike comprehension skills they teach for free.

Volunteer helping patron change brake lines
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
A Bike 816 volunteer helps a patron change the brake lines on his bike. The volunteers also teach basic bike comprehension skills for free.

“Once you learn, and you do it, you will keep that and you will be more inclined to be working on your own bike," Shelby said. "You learn something, and knowledge is forever.”

Shelby is part of an eclectic staff, who come from different communities and backgrounds across the metro.

His family ended up in Kansas City a few years after 2005, when Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans. After living in Baton Rouge and Atlanta, he said Kansas City, and the collective, made him feel accepted.

“People welcomed us and I felt like I needed to give it back. So that's why I put time into my career, into volunteerism,” he said.

Volunteer mechanic Sydney Shelby airing up tires
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Volunteer mechanic Sidney Shelby, who is originally from New Orleans, airs up tires in the 816 Bicycle Collective. He's volunteered at the bike shop for about 8 months.

All the collective’s staff are volunteers and most carry other, full-time jobs. Still, they show up every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.

Giving hope and confidence

The services Shelby and his coworkers provide aren’t just about getting more people to ride bikes — they’re about creating a community that provides resources for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

It’s the kind of attention some patrons say they don’t get anywhere else in Midtown.

Quinten Maraston, 56, grew up around what he affectionately calls “The Bay,” at Troost Lake near 28th and Vine streets.

After a neck injury left him disabled, doctors told Maraston he might not walk again. Without access to consistent health care, the bike provided by the collective served a secondary function.

Patron Quentin Maraston repairing his handle bars with a volunteer mechanic
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Quentin Maraston helps a volunteer mechanic repair his bike's handlebars. The collective uses a sliding fee scale to make bikes and service more affordable.

“I'm walking, and the bike is a wheelchair for me,” Maraston said. "I can coast on it when I have trouble walking. It helps hide my disability.”

Affordability is key to the collective’s operations and culture, which is why they use a sliding fee scale for purchases. Mechanic Dave Hanson said no one has ever been turned away for lack of funds.

“We work with anyone as long as they’re kind and obey the rules of the shop,” Hanson said. “We just want to make transportation easier for everyone, especially the underserved communities in Kansas City.”

Historically, these communities have struggled to find dependable transportation in such a car-centric city. The collective, also known as Bike 816, helps fill that need.

Director of Lotus Care House Alfredo Palacol is a former collaborator. He works with homeless people, and said access to transportation is critical for them.

In 2016 while working at Hope Faith, a homeless day center in the West Paseo neighborhood, Palacol and Bike 816 partnered to open a mobile bike shop. He saw how it changed lives.

Patrons waiting for service in front of 816 Bike Collective
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
A line of patrons waiting for service in front of 816 Bicycle Collective, just north of 31st and Cherry streets. The collective is open Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.

“Having a bike allows folks to get much further: to job opportunities, housing opportunities,” Palacol said.

And it goes beyond the ability to get to more places. For many of the homeless people he encounters, a bike is a way to reengage with society.

“There's that sense of confidence and self-sufficiency to be able to get to where I need to go,” he said.

Trash to treasure

Founder Sean Eagan said the collective takes recycling to a new level. Nothing in the shop inventory is purchased new, and they operate purely off donations. Eagen said he’s even reached out to landfills to secure bikes and bike parts that would otherwise be thrown away.

“We're the last stop before the bike goes and dies,” Eagan said.

For some patrons, a refurbished bike from the collective is their primary means of transportation.

Volunteers looking for spare parts for repairs
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Nothing in the collective's vast collection of bikes, tools and spare parts is purchased new. “We're the last stop before the bike goes and dies,” founder Sean Eagan said.

“It's a great resource cuz, without this bike, nothing would happen,” patron Roderick Smith said. “It gets me to work, the grocery store, to see my family and to see my grandma in the hospital. This bike gets me everywhere, man.”

As a Midtown resident who works in Riverside, he’s near major transit lines, so he uses his bike in tandem with the bus system to expand his range.

Smith said being a member of the Bike 816 community also helps him find peace in doing something constructive, and keeps him away from the pitfalls of street life.

“I guarantee right now I could be doing something foolish, but I'm over here,” Smith said. “This little hour working on this bike saves the city, you hear me?”

“This bike spot right here saves a lot of lives,” he said.

The collective is looking to expand their services and add more volunteers. Eagan said it’ll allow them to open more than their current two-days-a-week schedule, and connect more patrons to the community they’ve built around bikes.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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