23 August 2012

Twenty-Five Years After We Stopped A Bike Ban

Twenty-five years ago this summer, cyclists in New York City staged a rebellion.

In a way, that such a thing would take place in the august days of the Reagan Administration seems ironic.  Then again ACT UP held its first demonstrations that year, and the following year,a riot in Tompkins Square Park rocked the city.

The difference between those demonstrations and the ones cyclists staged during the summer of 1987 is that the latter seemed, on its face, even more improbable than the other two.  By the time ACT UP first met, large numbers of gay men had organized, politically and socially, in response to the AIDS epidemic, which would wipe out whole blocks of San Francisco and downtown Manhattan.  Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhood around the park agreed that the park had become a de facto homeless shelter and a haven for drug dealers, vagrants and loud musicians who had no other venue.  Those residents were deeply divided over what had to be done.  But after the city instuted a 1 am curfew, nearly everyone agreed that officers of the NYPD's Ninth Precinct routinely overstepped their boundaries and, in some cases, committed outright assault and battery.

In contrast, cyclists in New York were scarcely organized at all, save for whatever club affiliations they may have had. Least organized of all were the bike messengers, who were an even larger presence on the city's streets than they are now.  As great as their numbers were, they had absolutely no political clout because nearly all of them were poor (as I was, several years earlier, when I turned to that line of work) and some were homeless.  It wasn't a job for the hipster-equivalents of that time; rather, as one of my colleagues in that business said, we were "the rejects of society," whether or not through our own doing.

Why am I mentioning that?  Well, the impetus for that summer's demonstrations was an action then-Mayor Edward Koch (after whom the Queensborough Bridge is now named) aimed squarely at the messengers.   On 22 July of that year, Hizzoner stood on the steps of City Hall to announce a ban on bicycling in an area of Midtown bounded by 59th and 31st Streets, on the north and south, respectively, and by Park and Fifth Avenues on the east and west.  The ban would take effect six weeks later, in early September, after the signs had been posted and legal niceties dispensed with.

What is truly remarkable is that cyclists who weren't messengers--and people who weren't cyclists at all--actually expressed outrage at the proposed ban.  New York cyclists who weren't messengers weren't nearly as numerous or diverse in those days; to see as many of them unite with messengers--with whom they had almost nothing in common aside from the fact that they pedaled astride two wheels--caused even media outlets like the New York Post, which did much to foment anti-bike hysteria, to take notice,and even to portray messengers' routes as "the sweatshops of the street."

For the next few weeks, hundreds of cyclists--I was among them on a couple of occasions--gathered at around 5:30 pm (just after most messengers' workdays ended, spread across Sixth Avenue and paraded from Houston Street to Central Park, a distance of about three miles.  We pedaled at a snails' pace--about five mph (eight kph) so that passerby could look at us and walkers, joggers and runners could join us. We stopped at red lights and let pedestrians cross in front of us, which showed that we were "friendly" and prevented the police from using the pretext of "blocking traffic" to bust our permit-less rides.  

During that long, hot summer, there were other actions, such as the time when cyclists wended through the East 40s and 50s on foot to show how the ban could lead to pedestrian gridlock.  It had another effect: It mixed gritty messengers with, not only other kinds of cyclists, but with executives in bespoke suits on their way to lunch meetings in posh restaurants.  This increased understanding of, if not sympathy for, cyclists:  While tension between messengers and cabdrivers has never entirely abated, at least they started to see each other as fellow "working stiffs", which helped to create support for safer conditions for cyclists and better working conditions for messengers.

I can't help but to think that the contact between cyclists and non-cyclists led to public denunciations of the ban, which the New York State Supreme Court invalidated on a technicality (The city hadn't published official notice.) for an additional 45 days.  That meant the ban couldn't take effect until mid-October.  At that point, Mayor Koch, who prided himself on his taste for a good fight, threw in the towel.

It will be interesting to see what future historians and biographers say (if, indeed, they say anything at all) about this episode of the Koch regime--and cycling in New York City.  A bas l'interdiction!

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