Workshop Houston started out simple. Right after graduating from Oberlin, four idealists — Zach Moser, Katy Goodman, Seth Capron and Benjy Mason — drove to Houston in a pickup. Between the four of them, they had $20,000 in grant money — enough to launch the Third Ward Community Bike Center, a tiny place where, for free, people could learn to build and repair their own bikes.
They saw the bike shop as an anti-poverty project, giving people in the Third Ward both a skill and a means of transportation — especially necessary in a neighborhood where jobs and grocery stores lie miles away. And for a while, the four got to know poverty firsthand themselves. They shared a four-bedroom apartment. They used foodstamps. They got donations.
They noticed that their 12- and 13-year-old regulars were getting into trouble — out cruising the streets after school, getting tangled in gangs and drugs, going to jail. Bike repair wasn’t enough to break that cycle. A kid can only spend so much time lubricating a chain.
The idealists reformulated themselves as Workshop Houston, with a plan to give middle-school kids something to do every day after school. The Bike Shop would continue, but there would also be the Scholar Shop, with academic tutoring; the Style Shop, with silk-screening; the Beat Shop, with computers for mixing sound; and the Chopper Shop, a place where kids could not just fix a bike, but transmogrify it.
Land is cheap in the Third Ward, and a couple of years ago, Workshop Houston bought a dingy bungalow and a couple of run-down four-plexes on Sauer Street. The original foursome, plus new hires and volunteers, stripped the bungalow down to its studs, painted it lime green and teal and orange, and turned it into the kind of bike shop you expect in a college town.
Kids drift in when they feel like it. Some come only for one of the shops. Some come every day, for everything. Some disappear, leaving half-finished projects behind.
If a kid comes often to the Chopper Shop, the staff gets to know him. They ask about his grades and want to see his progress reports. They nudge him to academic help next door at the Scholar Shop. They go see his teachers. They ask what he wants to do with his life.
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