In New York, rabbis take on bohemians in a bicycle war

By Ellen Tumposky, September 10, 2009
Willamsburg’s Chasidim object to the city’s attempts to create bike routes because they say riders are immodest

Willamsburg’s Chasidim object to the city’s attempts to create bike routes because they say riders are immodest

On one side of Broadway — a main street in the New York suburb of Williamsburg — bohemian 20-somethings in sunglasses and shorts work on laptops at an outdoor café.

Across the street, Satmar Chasidim in black hats stroll outside the office of Der Yid, the Satmar Yiddish language weekly.

Tensions between the two communities, living cheek by jowl but rarely interacting, have recently risen to boiling point over an unlikely issue — bike lanes on avenues that run through both their sides of the neighbourhood.

These accommodations to cyclists — set up by New York City officials who plan to create a “greenway” along the Brooklyn waterfront — have become a symbol of the changes that have transformed this neighbourhood in the past decade, since artists migrated across the Williamsburg Bridge into an area populated by the Satmars and low-income Hispanics.

The artists were followed by the young bohemians — known as “hipsters” — and then affluent young professionals, who moved into waterfront condos.

“For a long time they couldn’t give away property in Williamsburg. It was able to insulate itself from mainstream New York life,” says Teresa Toro, head of the local Transportation Committee. “The bike lanes represent an intrusion of more mainstream New York culture in the community.”

Specifically they represent the hipsters — who, says cycling advocate Wiley Norvell of the group Transportation Alternatives, have made the area “the capital of cycling in New York City”.

Satmar anger grew last year when the city created a two-way bike lane and eliminated parking on Kent Avenue, a thoroughfare near the waterfront. Parking is important to the Satmars, who typically own minivans to accommodate their large families.

“The community was very upset,” said Simon Weiser, a Satmar member of the community council. “We have a small area where we live, bike lanes really take a lot of space. It’s too much.”

The bike lanes were a foreign concept to Satmar families, he explained.

“You don’t have to be a hipster to ride a bike, I personally rode a bike in college.” Still, he said, “in this community, it’s just not the way of life to ride bikes.”

The Satmar leaders were already upset about another bike lane that goes past some synagogues on Bedford Avenue in the heart of Williamsburg.

“We’ve had some back and forth about the issue of modesty regarding the attire of women cyclists,” says Ms Toro. “No offence is intended — it’s simply a rubbing together of cultures.”

Now the city has agreed to restore some parking on Kent Avenue while creating a bike lane separated from traffic and making the street one-way.

“It’s hard to say that everyone’s happy,” says Mr Weiser, noting that the one-way system has backed up traffic on adjacent streets.

As tensions still simmer, Baruch Herzfeld, a modern Orthodox Jew who owns the Traif Bike Geschaft repair and rental shop on the southern edge of hipster Williamsburg, is making a quixotic effort to bridge the gap. He is encouraging Satmars to try cycling.

“There’s no prohibition, they’re all just scared to start,” says Mr Herzfeld.

He says Satmars don’t really need their minivans — “the only time they leave Williamsburg is when their baby gets born in Manhattan. I’m going to get them all on bikes.”

“He deserves a Nobel Peace Prize,” says Mr Norvell. “We could use more of that in north Brooklyn.”

Last updated: 5:13pm, September 10 2009