During the launch of New York City’s shared bicycle program this week, shiny kiosks throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn have been surrounded by curious gawkers examining the bulky blue bikes that can be rented and returned at multiple locations with at least one notable exception — the Hasidic-dominated neighborhood of South Williamsburg.
As Brooklyn has been inundated by younger residents in recent decades, the borough has become a haven for bicycle riders. Yet in areas south of Broadway, which divides hipster Williamsburg and the traditional Hasidic neighborhood, anti-bicycle critics have campaigned hard to keep their streets cyclist-free.
But some Jewish residents in the area are upset that Citi Bike — Citibank is the sponsor of the bike share program — has ignored their neighborhood and wants the company to rethink their plan of skipping over South Williamsburg.
Hasidim For Bikes, a grassroots organization from Williamsburg created in late May, hopes to dispel the perception that Hasidim are anti-bicycle. “We were shocked to hear last Memorial Day that there will be a Black Hole in Hasidic Williamsburg; it created a black hole in our hearts,” a representative of Hasidim for Bikes wrote in an email to the Forward. “We decided to create the organization, Hasidim For Bikes. The organization will let our voice be heard, the silent majority of Hasidim.”
A representative from the department of transportation said, “The station siting reflects the input of neighborhoods in the service area, and communities can still propose locations where they would like to see additional stations.”
The representative for Hasidim For Bikes said they plan to create an online petition to send to Citi Bike and said it was a misconception that most Hasidim living in Williamsburg do not want to ride bikes. “A few extreme fringe activists are against bikes claiming it’s a non-Jewish thing, but they are also against a lot of things,” the representative said, listing examples such as smart phones, DVDs and exercise for women. “The media just quotes a few extreme leaders. If the community will be polled directly on those issues, you will hear a total different opinion.”
However, those community leaders are still influential. The representative for Hasidim For Bikes did not wish to be identified, for fear of “backlash and intimidation from the so called leaders of South Williamsburg.”
South Williamsburg’s Hasidic leaders have long been quick to publicly deride bicycle enthusiasts and the city’s efforts to accommodate riders. In 2009, they fought to get rid of bike lanes along Bedford Avenue in South Williamsburg claiming that the bike lanes would bring immodestly dressed women through the neighborhood. Isaac Abraham, a former member of Community Board 1, which covers South Williamsburg, said an increase in biking activity would adversely affect his neighborhood, particularly the thousands of young children who walk to school crossing major roads.
“It’s just another ploy,” Abraham said of the city’s bike share program. “This nanny, soup Nazi mayor [Michael Bloomberg], when he wants to implement something, there’s no law.”
The representative for Hasidim For Bikes said that bike sharing was also beneficial to the environment, particularly by using bicycles to go to synagogue instead of a driving an automobile. Baruch Herzfeld, a Jewish businessman who formerly owned a bike shop in Brooklyn that lent bicycles to Hasidic residents, said he thought the Hasidic community would embrace Citi Bike locations. “You have to understand, it’s a few hotheads [complaining],” Herzfeld said. “In the city, there’s always a battle over cars and bicycles. When you combine religion, it becomes a bigger stress point.
“For the most part, the community enjoys bicycles and physical activity. They used my bike program all the time and were very happy with it. The community would love to have this program. They should put it in as quickly as possible.”