Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit
As you walk south on Bedford Ave. and leave hipsterville, the dive bar and chic coffee shop-lined streets become more serious. There are fewer distractions when you get to Division and Bedford, where you'll enter the heart of the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The men -- wearing beards reminiscent of the styles from the 19th century -- dress in mostly black and white, and their heads are covered by yarmukes and shtreimels. Besides bearing the same look, they walk with a certain determination.
Needless to say, when I arrived Monday morning, I felt like a wallflower in their landscape.
Mini vans lined every single spot along the busy street. As I stood there on the sidewalk, the silence was broken every few minutes as a Herbrew-bedecked school buses roared by. Gusts of wind carried that familiar chill and discomfort matched only by my feelings of outsiderness. As a half-Asian, half-English woman from Florida, I felt rare in these parts of town.
The streets are frequented by locals -- certainly not by tourists. Particularly on a day like today, there were no bikers in sight. One could blame the weather, as a winter storm dumped mounds of snow onto the streets over the weekend.
But that's not the only reason why bikers have vacated this route. Last month, New York City workers removed 14 blocks of bike lanes after the Hasidic community complained the bike lanes were a "safety and religious hazard." The New York Post reported that the issue is not just about safety. The issue runs much deeper -- the Hasidim don't want hipsters riding through their closed neighborhood. The bikers seem convinced that their provocative clothing has offended the Hasidic community.
Hasidic Jews are known for their anti-secular society. Boys may be shunned if they look at girls. And in general, they try to avoid exposure to secular entertainment and have limited access to TV. However, they can not avoid daily encounters with others, including hipsters who choose to dress "scantily chad."
In protest against the removal of the bike lanes, cyclist Heather Loop organized a naked protest this past Saturday. About 20 bikers met at a dive bar called The Wreck Room. Waiting patiently in a cruiser parker across the street, the NYPD had been anticipating their protest since noon. By 3pm, a van filled with officers and unmarked cars packed the sidewalk outside the bar where the bikers had begun to congregate. When the hour of the protest arrived at 4pm, the police were outnumbered only by notepad toting, camera-carrying members of the press. Some bikers basked in the attention -- some with colorful helmets for safety, others with plastic nipples attached for effect. The pack planned to ride "topless" along the 14 block stretch of road, where the bike lanes had been removed.
While the bikers had planned on a show, fear of frostbite kept each and every one of them from getting naked. They did ride along the vanished route in protest. But when they arrived at the final destination of Division and Bedford, they hardly caused a ruckus.
The removal of the bike lanes have put the Hasidic community on the spot, illuminating deeper political issues in the community. The timing of the bike lane removal coincided with Mayor Bloomberg's reelection. According to the New York Times, Hasidic leaders are highly influential in civic affairs and political elections in New York City. Therefore, sandblasting the bike lanes into oblivion may have been one way Bloomberg tried to appease the Hasidic leaders in order to win over the community votes.
The bike lane along that stretch was originally painted in 2007 at a cost of $11,000. But $15,000 was spent to remove it, bringing the total cost to $26,000. A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation told NBCNewYork.com that the changes in the route are part of a bigger plan to change the bike network in the neighborhood. The bikers are annoyed because they have to travel on the less direct though problematically renovated route along Kent. Some bikers eager to ride along Bedford again took it upon themselves to repaint the bike lane.
Clearly, the bikers don't buy that the bike lanes were removed for "safety" reasons. They want the main artery that connects them to the city resurrected again. The local DJ was struck and killed by a truck recently is a reminder that safety precautions are crucial in these highly trafficked areas.
However, the want-to-be-naked cyclists might be wasting their time trying to stir up tensions in the Hasidic community. As one member suggested to me on my Monday morning visit: Go to City Hall. Perhaps the bikers will make more progress that way. Planning offensive protests in the heart of the Hasidic community is one thing. Failing to carry them out is another. Both are hardly the most efficient way to address the issue.
This time, the blizzard kept the bikers tame and, hopefully, bought time for tensions to thaw.
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