Though Zena Carlota has owned bikes throughout her life, she’d never thought about fixing up or building a bike on her own.
But that changed when the artist moved from Oakland, California, to North Carolina a few years ago. In a new and unfamiliar place, Carlota found her way to WTF Wrench Nights.
Hosted at the ReCYCLEry NC, a local nonprofit that encourages bicycle use, the WTF Wrench Nights create a shop space for women, trans, femme, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming identifying community members.
Participants can choose a donated bike to repair alongside a volunteer mechanic and take home with them. They can also work on individual repair projects or community projects. The training and resources provided through the WTF Wrench Nights are free.
It was during these Wrench nights when Carlota first saw Buttercup.
Buttercup is a vintage, sunshine yellow bike with a white basket in the front that holds flowers Carlota tucked between the wires. Carlota had worked on two other bikes before choosing Buttercup this past summer.
Amid COVID-19 and racial justice uprisings, Carlota said, learning how to repair bikes and riding Buttercup helped her feel more empowered.
“I didn’t know something as simple as having a bright yellow bike that makes me smile every time I see it would be something that could actually help with my healing,” she said.
Carlota became involved with the WTF Wrench Nights after meeting CL Graves, a postdoctoral fellow at UNC and board member at the ReCYCLEry, who helped start the Wrench nights and organizes Queer Ride Carrboro, a monthly bicycle ride for the local queer community.
In all the places Graves has lived, she said there have been spaces for people who hold identities often marginalized in cycling to ride and repair bikes. When she moved to North Carolina, Graves wanted to host a ride for queer-identified community members on Bolin Creek Trail at night.
But when she mentioned the idea, a trans queer community member said they would never do that alone, especially at night.
Upon hearing this, Graves knew there was a need to create safe bike spaces for the queer community.
“It really was born out of wanting to share that as a group and in realizing that we had to do it as a group so that everyone felt safe enough to do it,” she said.
A welcoming place for all
Elias Gross, a transgender volunteer mechanic at the WTF Wrench Nights, has been working with bikes for the past 10 years. Now a graduate student at UNC, Gross said what makes the Wrench nights special is that he gets to be himself without worrying about what others in the space might think.
“I’m with my folks and the people that want to hang out with us,” he said.
Gross works during the Wrench nights on Wednesday evenings and during workshops on Sunday mornings to train others to be mechanics.
“It's amazing to see that there are a lot of different mechanics that all have different styles and come from different communities across our town,” Gross said. “But we all have this one thing in common, which is bikes.”
Though she didn’t know much about bikes before, Carlota has stayed involved with the Wrench nights. She said she feels comfortable referring other queer community members to the WTF Wrench Night space, knowing that they would be supported and taken care of.
“As Black, queer women in North Carolina, I don’t know that there’s many spaces that I can say that about to be totally honest, so it feels good that that is one of those places,” she said.
In spaces like the WTF Wrench Nights, Carlota felt she could finally call North Carolina something she didn’t when she first moved to the state:
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