Rubarb (Rusted Up Beyond All Recognition Bikes) is a volunteer-run community bike shop in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward. A chunk of its work centers around teaching and equipping people in the neighborhood and beyond to repair their own bikes. The rest of Rubarb’s work centers around community. All are welcome at Rubarb and can come fix or purchase a bike if they are 3 or 103 years old. If you’re low on cash, you can volunteer for bike bux to help pay off a repair or a whole bike. If you’re young and want to pass the time after school or on Saturday afternoons reading, playing games, doing arts and crafts, and eating healthy snacks, then Rubarb is your place. Rubarb also throws parties for special events like MLK day and back-to-school, and even sometimes takes kids on field trips to places like the beach.
Rubarb launched its operations after Katrina, when its founders collected bikes and bike parts abandoned around the city to restore into new bikes to give and sell cheap to those who needed and wanted them. As donations of bike parts grew, Rubarb moved into its current location, a simple CMU-brick shotgun-shaped building. The building’s interior can be divided into two parts: the “productivity zone,” which is full of recycled tires, seats, chains, frame bits, cables, nuts, bolts–you need it to fix or build a bike, Rubarb’s got it–and the smaller “chill zone,” with tables, chairs, games, books, and art for kids to hang out and pass the time. Separating these zones is a front desk and tire-changing station.
Rubarb’s interior is playful and completely home-made, with brightly painted walls, recycled crates and shelves for storage, and hand-painted labels and signs for everything, giving the space an extra welcoming feel. Art such as a Mardi-Gras-bead chandelier and paintings by the kids and local artists adorn the space; photos of beaming kids at parties and field trips hang over the side-door in the “chill zone.”
About the Small Center
The Small Center (full name: Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design) is the Tulane School of Architecture’s community design center. Among dozens of ongoing projects and activities at the Small Center, each semester a group of Tulane architecture students works together under the guidance of a professor to design and build a project for the New Orleans community.
This semester, the Small Center is partnering with Rubarb. Our professor is Emilie Taylor-Welty.
We, the students, entered this design-build studio knowing very little about our partner and project. Instead, we were given several readings about bicycle equity; a set of fabrication tutorials on welding, metal cutting, wood shop, and concrete pouring; a bicycle assembly tutorial from our neighbors at the bike shop YEP (Youth Empowerment Project); and our first assignment: disassemble an old bike and make the parts into something new but functional.
That say that that assignment was challenging, even for architecture students, is an understatement. I broke the “functional” rule and made a dragon. Others stuck to the guidelines and made unexpectedly beautiful objects such as chairs, tables, shelves, a clock, and in the case of one ingenious student, a steampunk shoe.
Weeks 2 and 3
We then began to learn about our partner, Rubarb. We kicked off this research with an interview on a chilly January afternoon, and then over the next couple of weeks, groups of us volunteered at Rubarb to gain more of a feel for a place and make note of as many observations as we could.
Meanwhile, our site data-gathering and precedent research evolved into thinking about Rubarb’s what, where, and how: where are the design opportunities, and how could we mold this into a creature?
Weeks 4 through 7
This process continued over several weeks. We divided into groups and then reshuffled twice, bringing our printed and modeled ideas alongside pizza to Rubarb at interims for feedback, and then finally agreeing that even though there’s still a lot left to figure out, we gotta start building this thing.
Which brings us to now. Our current work focuses on a canopy for shade and rain protection mainly on the exterior of the “chill zone,” which occupies the building’s western corner (along Piety Street). Systems for seating, bike storage, and water catchment contribute to our strategy. The canopy structure relies on the language of a bicycle frame, especially the part called the chainstay.
Follow us as we document our project from original Rubarb to the Small Center’s finished intervention! We hope that fellow and future design-builders and casual onlookers alike can gain from our process.