December 13th, 2009

Hipster-Hasid Bike War in Brooklyn

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The tensions had to bubble to the surface at some point. That’s the consensus that has emerged since underground cylcing activists literally took their fight to the streets, reclaiming a fourteen block stretch of bike lane that had been removed in Brooklyn earlier this year — at the possible behest of the area’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.

The removal occurred on a stretch of Bedford Avenue, the main artery of Williamsburg. For the uninitiated, the neighborhood is roughly split between a gentrifying playground for youngish hipsters to the north and a tradition-bound, family-oriented Hasidic district to the south. The contrast between the two Williamsburgs can be stark, especially on Saturdays: whereas the northside is often packed with revelers, the storefronts of the southside are shut, and, save for families walking to and from synogogues, its sidewalks deserted.

Neither part of Williamsburg could remain contained within its own sphere for very long, and a culture clash was probably inevitable. The city cited safety concerns — including a prevalence of double parking and an increasing number of pedestrians being hit by bikes — as its reason for removing the lanes, but cycling advocates blamed Hasidic complaints that bikers’ skimpy attire was an affront to their moral sensibilities.

The idea was not merely a crazy conspiracy theory: a source close to the mayor confirmed that the lanes were removed to maintain the Hasidic community’s support for City Hall. Opponents repainted the lanes in the dark of night, posting the above video as a warning to not try and remove them again.

It wasn’t long before the guerilla bike lane painters — who are Jewish themselves — were apprehended by the Hasids’ vigilante “Shomrim Patrol” and turned over to police. Though the NYPD initially refused to arrest them, they were soon forced to surrender after what the cyclists’ group said was pressure on the police from the Hasidim.

The debate soon shifted to the amount of power the Hasidic community wields over the borough. Many rental buildings in the northern part of the neighborhood are owned by southside Hasids who have profited from Williamsburg’s gentrification (leading to accusations that, among other things, Hasidic landlords even shut down elevators on the Sabbath). That may have given them the ear of the city government, some say — but also means that they brought the culture clash upon themselves.

To be fair, the Hasidim have lived in Brooklyn for generations, and have had to put up with a lot to hold their ground, never meshing easily with the reality of modern, cosmopolitan New York. The Hasidic residents of nearby Crown Heights have engaged in decades of racial struggle with minority groups and immigrants, culminating in an infamously violent 1991 riot. And South Williamsburg is sometimes treated as an urban Amish country, a safari park for tourists on the lookout for broad-brimmed hats and wigs.

But the Hasids’ position is a non-stater when made public. Whatever the Hasids’ status, most agree the streets of South Williamsburg are not theirs alone, and cannot be turned over as a “reservation” where the a relivious sect is free to impose its own laws on outsiders. Yet as long as their community remains a powerful interest group, their effective control over the neighborhood will continue — and anger will continue to simmer among those subjected to it.


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