I’ve been following this story for a while now, not only because I also live in a gentrifying/gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, but because it’s an interesting clash of liberal ideals — religious tolerance, feminism, environmentalism, skepticism about gentrification. Basically, Williamsburg is a Brooklyn neighborhood that is currently synonymous with hipster-ism (even though like everyone else I kind of hate that term and I think it’s vague and encompasses a lot of different types of people, I will use it here because it’s handy short-hand). Williamsburg is Ground Zero for hipsters — for plaid shirts, beards, dive bars and fixed-gear bikes (and students and artists and some professionals and whatnot thrown in too). It’s also a neighborhood with large Hasidic, Latino and Polish populations. Here’s how New York Magazine sums up the most recent neighborhood fight:
At immediate issue is the Bedford Avenue bike lane. It’s the longest in Brooklyn and runs through every imaginable ethnic enclave—including the South Williamsburg redoubt of the Satmars, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sect. In December, after many complaints from the Satmars about “scantily clad” female riders, the city sandblasted off a small stretch of the lane; some enterprising bikers painted it back in protest; the city then painted over the unauthorized paint job. Now two activists are up on criminal-mischief charges, the lane is gone, and the two groups are glowering at each other with even less empathy than usual. Worse yet, each group finds itself standing in for a larger one in a larger fight: the Satmars for all Orthodox Jews and the bikers for all young secular Williamsburgers, i.e. hipsters.
The Satmars have been in Williamsburg since after WWII, and the neighbhorhood is home to the largest Hasidic enclave in the world. Traditionally, the Hasidim lived on one side of the tracks, and Latinos lived on the other. Then, in the 1990s, more and more young white folks started moving in — mostly artistic types who were looking for cheap space. That didn’t go over very well:
But after a while, says one Hasidic real-estate developer, “People started talking to the rabbis—‘Hey, something’s happening, all these young white people are moving in.’ ” When the Satmars realized that the Artisten—the Yiddish name they used for the bewildering newcomers—were there to stay, something like panic set in. Rabbis exhorted landlords not to rent to the Artisten, builders not to build for them. One flyer asked God to “please remove from upon us the plague of the artists, so that we shall not drown in evil waters, and so that they shall not come to our residence to ruin it.’’ Rabbi Zalman Leib Fulop announced that the Artisten were “a bitter decree from Heaven,” a biblical trial.
I’m sympathetic to wanting to maintain the character and tradition of your neighborhood; I’m definitely sympathetic to not wanting lower-income people pushed out of the places where they grew up in order to cater to wealthier outsiders. And of course I’m sympathetic to the necessity of maintaining a tight-knit community when you came to this country explicitly to flee persecution and genocide based on your religion. But it’s a little more complicated than that, here. The New York Magazine article frames the problem as Hasidic Jews vs. Secular Hipsters, but that’s not all that’s going on. For example, there have been lots of complaints of Section 8 (and other) tenants being either refused housing or evicted from their buildings because they didn’t share the religious faith of the landlords. And there have been tenants who have been refused apartments or pushed out because the landlords want to rent to the wealthier newcomers. Those clashes have been going on for decades, and have largely involved Latino residents who are pushed out or refused apartments. And of course lots of landlords throughout the city aren’t particularly accommodating to religious folks, and I would imagine that a lot of Hasidic Jews and Satmars face all kinds of problems in trying to rent apartments from people outside of their community, or obtain apartments through public housing. So this isn’t just “obnoxious hipsters are ruining our neighborhood” (although it’s also that). And as the NY Magazine article says, a few outspoken people have become the face of All Hipsters, or All Orthodox Jews, which is… horribly inaccurate. But the bike lane fight again brings up legitimate questions of how much seclusion one can reasonably expect, especially in a city like New York where everyone lives very, very close together. It brings up legitimate questions of how far one should be able to go to achieve some sort of cultural separatism and purity, when that separatism relies on excluding outsiders from resources.
New York, for all of its diversity, is a pretty ethnically and racially divided city — there are Russian neighborhoods and Polish neighborhoods and Italian neighborhoods and Black neighborhoods and Jewish neighborhoods and Chinese neighborhoods. There are also neighborhoods that are very intermixed, obviously, and these neighborhoods all bleed into one and other. But a lot of ethnic groups have carved out their own areas where most (or at least many) people share some sort of common background, and the signs are in your language, and the stores carry the kind of food that you eat. It’s awesome, in a lot of ways — many of us want to live around other people who are also like us, and who share certain cultural markers and belief systems. It means that immigrants often have more resources, and more connections to the community. It means that you don’t have to leave all of your traditions behind if you come here from somewhere else.
But it is also very much a reality here that you get white landlords who will take pains to not rent to black or Latino residents, or landlords of varying ethnic and/or religious and/or cultural backgrounds who will take pains not to rent to anyone who doesn’t share certain characteristics. And once those neighborhoods are established, they sometimes become desireable places to live for outsiders, often leading landlords to solicit the wealthier incoming demographic at the expense of those who traditionally lived in the area. And when wealthier people come in, housing prices are driven up, local businesses are driven out and the community that was so carefully built is fractured. Young white people who move to Williamsburg are not typically at the bottom of this totem pole; they can generally find a place to live even if they’re refused by a landlord or two, and aren’t typically reliant on public housing programs. Also, as evidenced in the New York Magazine article, a lot of them run around acting like assholes, possibly on purpose. It’s hard for me to muster too much empathy for their plight, even though I look a lot more like them than anyone else in this story. It is much easier for me to muster empathy for the plight of a religious minority who have traditionally faced severe persecution.
Except that real life often does not fall so easily along these lines. The ongoing bike lane drama is illustrative. As more and more New York City residents take to bike riding, the city has responded by painting more bike lanes, and trying to make New York more bicycle-friendly — a good and very necessary thing, in my opinion. One such bike lane goes down Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s main thoroughfare, which means that it goes past Hasidic communities. And where there is a bike lane, there are girls on bikes.
The Satmars were incensed. Hasids are prohibited from looking at improperly dressed members of the opposite sex, and some complained that the women cycling through their neighborhood were an affront. “It’s a major issue, women passing through here in that dress code,” Simon Weiser, a Hasidic member of Community Board 1, told the Post. “Most Hasids have acclimated to living in New York,” says Sholom Deen, a semi-lapsed Hasid who, since 2003, has been publishing a blog called Hasidic Rebel. But each fresh bit of modernism—the Gretsch Building, the bus ads for Sex and the City—tends to touch off an uproar, he says, and the bikes were something new altogether: “It’s a direct intrusion.” The city, having spent $11,000 on the bike lane, appeared to encourage that intrusion, and the cyclists themselves seemed, if not improper, impudent. It felt like a seniority issue. “How long have you lived in the community that you now want to make the rules and totally ignore my opinion, when I’ve lived here for 50 years?” Abraham says. “You just got here. You either offer to help and do as the Romans do, or …”—and here Abraham goes into a spirited, if odd, impression of a spoiled young man—“ ‘I live here now. I lived here for ten years, and now I’m going to make rules for the entire community!’ ”
…and this is where I lose sympathy. I get it you’ve lived here longer. And you know what? I do believe that when a wealthier, more powerful group comes into a traditionally marginalized community, seniority does matter. But at some point, you don’t get to pull the seniority card when it comes to your religiously-based objections to female use of public space and transportation. And here, the hipsters weren’t making rules for the entire community. They were using a public street, paid for with everyone’s tax dollars, to ride their bikes. I run out of patience for objections to people using public streets because your religion objects to the female form. I run out of patience where people object to having to see people who are different from them in New York City. This isn’t about, “Damn, all these outsiders are coming in and driving up the rental market and now I can’t afford my place” or “I moved here to live in a neighborhood, not to have a bunch of loud bars built on my block.” This is, “I think that my religious belief regarding the appropriateness of women in public should trump the rights of women to move through public space.”
But the objections worked, because Bloomberg wanted the Satmar vote. So he axed the bike lane, and the city ripped it up. Bikers re-painted it (which the magazine frames as not nice, but which I personally think is kind of awesome). Hasidic police officers interceded, but there wasn’t really a crime being committed. Some bikers started acting like jerks — suggesting topless bike-rides, for example (a knee-jerk reaction that I can understand, to a point, but which seems kind of purposely antagonizing and not particularly productive in this particular circumstance). Bikers were eventually charged with criminal mischief for painting the streets. And on and on. Now the two groups are trying to work it out, without much success, even though I suspect that most members of both (all) groups would like to come to a compromise.
Making matters worse is the reporting on the issue. As I said above, there aren’t just two sides here — bikers are hardly universally white hipsters, a lot of community members from all kinds of backgrounds use the bike lanes, and there’s a long history of oppression and gentrification and a neighborhood that despite recent memory has been steadily changing for basically ever and animus towards outsiders at play, from a lot of different directions. Groups that saw their communities decimated and their fellow religious followers exterminated understandably want to maintain their sense of community and tradition; other groups that have also been marginalized continue to be squeezed out of their homes and refused new ones; the question of “who was here first” goes back a lot more than the past decade; and while the fixed-gear-riding hipsters are the easiest targets here, it’s not unfair of them to expect that they should be able to ride their bikes safely in public bike lanes. So this isn’t cut-and-dry stuff.
But as much as it pains me to say it, I have to come down on the side of the bikers here. “I don’t think women riding bikes in skirts is appropriate” is just not an argument I’m willing to accept.
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