The Great New York City Bicycle Wars

A delicious Brooklyn battle over a bicycle lane is pitting the borough’s Hasids against its hipsters. Tunku Varadarajan weighs the arguments of the “trustafarian” poseurs on bicycles and the arguably overdressed Hasidim.

12.14.09 12:19 AM ET

The New York Post, feisty Boswell of the Big Apple, chronicles a delicious battle in Brooklyn between Hasidic Jews and hipsters. The casus belli is the bicycle lane upon which “hipsters” barrel through Bedford Avenue, a street in the borough’s Williamsburg neighborhood that is to local Hasidic life what Wall Street is (or, perhaps, once was) to bankers.

Municipal authorities, responding to Hasidic plaints, had recently removed the bicycle lane—sandblasting the paint that marked the on-street bikers’ border. According to the Post’s report, the Hasidim had argued that the lane posed a “safety and religious hazard,” and the city, having looked into the grouse, acceded to the demand that the bike lane be ousted. In response to the loss of their lane, however, cyclist-hipster-vigilantes took the law into their own hands: They repainted the bike lane in the dark of night, an act that resulted in the arrest of two young men.

It’s remarkable that two vast, lustrous principles—Save Our Environment and Save Our Right to Worship in Purity—should become reflected in such a pedestrian (oops) issue as traffic regulation.

So, is this is a parable about the rule of law, and—at least as the Hasidim see it—the need for an old and rooted Brooklyn community to defend itself against colonizers and interlopers?

Let’s start with the Hasid complaint, the “safety” aspect of which should be apparent: While it may be a worthy goal to cut down on auto use in the city, the creation of bike lanes everywhere has been insane, and indiscriminate. The addition of a bike lane doesn’t magically widen an already-too-narrow Brooklyn or Manhattan street. And then there are the cyclists themselves, many of whom are eco-bombastic crusaders with an ungovernable contempt for non-cycling scum.

Who in New York City, whether a pedestrian or a dismounter from a car, taxi, or bus, has not been imperiled by a cyclist? Which runner or jogger has not been buzzed aggressively by cyclists who subscribe to the credo that all beings must yield passage to them just because they have a little bell to ring? Which parent in Central Park, young child in tow, has not been menaced out of his wits by speeding bicyclists? Which pedestrian, when crossing Brooklyn Bridge, has not been sworn at or even winged by cyclists who believe that not even an inch of unmounted life should trespass on their sacrosanct bike lane? Who but bikers themselves does not believe that the cyclists’ bellicosity—and their fanatical quest for Lebensraum—has gotten utterly out of hand? Who, therefore, can blame the Hasidim for seeking to protect Orthodox life and limb from the fundamentalists on two wheels?

But what of the “religious hazard” of which the Hasidim speak? Shedding light on this side of the story, New York magazine reports that the arguably overdressed Hasidim have been particularly disturbed by “hotties” who traverse their neighborhood on bikes, many in “shorts and skirts.” A local elder gave voice to community anguish: “I have to admit, it’s a major issue, women passing through here in that dress code.” (The elder in question is on to something: In a recent interview, Paul Auster, the John Updike of Brooklyn, testified to the allure of women on bicycles: “Young women on bicycles I find very erotic, I have to say. Even in New York, there are a lot of very attractive girls pedaling around. That just happens to be one of the nice sights in our city, seeing a young woman on a bike.”)

How to react to all of this? On the subject of women astride bicycles, I side more with Auster than with the Hasids, whose standards of primness can be rather exacting. Besides, can we let a particular community dictate a dress code for all passers-by in a space that is, no matter the Hasidic preponderance, still part of New York’s public commons? Would we let a Muslim neighborhood require women passing through to cover their heads? Can mere offense control the operation of public spaces?

That said, cyclists do pursue a form of zealotry of their own. They have quasi-religious garments (Day-Glo jackets), they follow austere codes of discipline (exercise and low fat), they think they know the one and true way (cycling), and they demand special treatment for the Church of Lycra (bike lanes). Also, they trail a frightful whiff of sweat in their wake. (But the same can be observed, sometimes, on a sweltering summer’s day, of those who dress as if for a winter in Vilna.) More broadly, is it entirely surprising that respect for a religious community is often a challenge to hipsters who have been raised outside any religious tradition?

I put the matter to my friend Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin professor of anthropology at Rutgers. His sage response was that this is a case of “dueling ur-sanctimonies.” Bikers, he said, claim to be “beyond any moral critique even when they drive the wrong way in their sequestered lanes, while the Williamsburg devotionists bring to mind the joke about the woman in a hotel who called the house detectives to report a naked man dancing in a room across the courtyard. When the dicks checked, and saw no such spectacle, the woman said, ‘But if you stand on the table…’”

It’s remarkable that two vast, lustrous principles—Save Our Environment and Save Our Right to Worship in Purity—should become reflected in such a pedestrian (oops) issue as traffic regulation. But there is a silver lining here, and a story of progress. The last time we read about Hasids besieged in Brooklyn was in 1991, during the Crown Heights riots, when mobs of black youth went on a rampage in which a Hasidic man was murdered. Today, the biggest problem for the Hasidim is a bunch of “trustafarian” poseurs on bicycles. Not exactly Cossacks.

More to the point, this story is, at bottom, a reflection of a city that has been radically remade and improved. And that, as even the Hasids will tell you, is G-d’s own truth.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. (Follow him on Twitter here.)