Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Williamsburg Bike Lane Debate

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, generally a friend to bicyclists, has helped get new bike lanes added to busy streets all over the City. These narrow lanes are little more than visual buffer zones for bikers, and they may not protect them from getting doored by parked cars, but some statistics say biker injuries and deaths drop significantly when such lanes are painted in.

Bloomberg ordered a lane removed on a section of Bedford Avenue in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn recently. Why? The story goes that the Hasidic community through which the bike lane flowed was offended by the scantily clad hipster women who rode by. Can that possibly be true? It seems too moronic to be real that even very conservative religious people would think that a bike lane would have any real affect on what some young women wear passing through. It's even more unbelievable that a mayor would listen.

But that's how almost all media reports have it. Here's a synopsis from the New York Post in September 2008:
Leaders of South Williamsburg's Hasidic community said yesterday that bike lanes that bring scantily clad cyclists - especially sexy women - peddling through their neighborhood are definitely not kosher.

The red-faced religious sect is calling on city officials to eliminate the car-free lanes on Wythe and Bedford avenues, and to delay construction of a new one planned for Kent Avenue.

"I have to admit, it's a major issue, women passing through here in that dress code," Simon Weisser, a member of Community Board 1 in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, told The Post.
In the beginning of the month, the City announced that 14 blocks of the Bedford lane would be removed, with bikers re-directed to the Kent Avenue lane. About a week ago, bike riders calling themselves "self-hating Jewish hipsters" videotaped themselves re-painting the lane (see video below). They were arrested, charged, and the lane was removed again.



One bike activist (and notice here that all parties are Jewish, both pro-bike lane and anti-bike lane; only in New York), Baruch Herzfeld, who Gothamist describes as "an Orthodox Jew who runs a South Williamsburg bike clubhouse," had this brilliant rant upon Mayor Bloomberg's trip to Denmark for the climate change conference:
"How can Mayor Bloomberg go to Copenhagen and pose as a green mayor after this? He's a hypocrite, and I believe his office directed the DOT to remove this bike lane as a political favor for the rabbis, who want to keep South Williamsburg a ghetto enclave. There was no discussion with the community, like with the Kent Ave bike lane. And this bike lane was just a visual reminder for drivers to keep their eyes open for cyclists. But the rabbis don't want a visual reminder that there are other people in the neighborhood besides the Hasidim.

"One woman asked me if she should go topless [during an upcoming protest] and I told her no, because we're not trying to create more confrontation with the Hasids, who actually hate the rabbis much, much, much more than I do. The Hasids in the community are not the problem; they give me the thumbs up when I bike by, and even Hasidic women have told me they really approve what I'm doing. They hate the rabbis for trying to control their lives, intimidate them and scare them."
An article in the Jewish Daily Forward from August -- the single-best article about this bike lane mess -- explains that part of the problem is that the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews who live in this part of Williamsburg are not only averse to men and women wearing shorts. They think that bikes are for children. Adults ought not to ride them.

Herzfeld, who was the subject of the Forward story, has little patience for such restrictions: “For the love of God — I’m Jewish, you’re Jewish, borrow a bicycle. Who are we hurting?” His bike club has hundreds of bikes for local residents to borrow.

But the issue for the Satmar Hasidim is really about isolationism. They resent the gentrification by young hipsters, and the fight against the bike lane is one way they've found to resist change.

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