A former bike shop owner turns against his tribe
The Village Voice
by Chris Thompson
June 5, 2007
When police decided to confiscate bicycles locked to poles on a block of East 6th Street two weeks ago, the scene played out according to formula. A bike activist filmed the plainclothes officers working the reciprocating saws cutting through locks. A cop grabbed the activist and gave him 22 hours of down time to think about the pros and cons of asking how to spell the cop’s name. The activist, now considerably irate, held a press conference with a lawyer by his side. Recriminations ensued.
Pretty standard stuff. But in this case, there was an intriguing twist. As in: the person who had ratted out the bicyclists in the first place turned out to be . . . an anti-car activist and former bike-store owner.
Jack Brown ran the Hi-Ho Cyclery on Avenue A for several years in the 1980s, and is the founder of the Committee to Restore Safe Sidewalks. He’s even a member of the Citywide Coalition for Traffic Relief, a new lobbying group set up to pressure the city to reduce congestion and install better bike lanes. But don’t get him started on bikers who break the law. “It’s a little like homegrown terrorism,” he says. “What’s going on out there is like two-wheeled anarchy.”
Brown has hardly been a big fan of cars over the years. While riding his bike around town, he’s been hit by cars on two occasions including a memorable encounter with an armored truck at the corner of 20th Street and Sixth Avenue. But these days, he says, he gets it from his own kind. “A couple of years ago, I walked from 6th Street to 4th Street and Third Avenue, and I nearly got clipped five times in a space of less than four blocks,” Brown recalls. “It was raining, they were careening aroundI felt like I was in a bar fight . . . . They were on the sidewalks, they were all over. And I soon discovered that there were a lot of people who were equally concerned, and had numerous occasions where they were in jeopardy or had been hit.”
Brown started collecting horror stories. The blind mother hammered while walking down the sidewalk. The old women who got tagged by bikes and broke their hips. The ones who never left the hospital again. And one we’d never heard before: the guy whose bike-related medical adventure ate up his savings and forced him to apply for a job as a bouncer. Brown claims to have collected page after page of signatures to a petition calling on the city to act.
A few weeks ago, Brown took his latest complaint to the Ninth Precinct. All along East 6th Street, people had left abandoned bikes locked to poles, and others had stripped the usable parts and left the forks and frames stabbing up like tank barriers. “I know of instances where people have fallen and impaled themselves on bike parts,” he says. At a meeting of his local community board, he demanded that something be done.
That something happened on May 30, when the cops rolled up and went to work. As neighborhood bicyclists complained, Brown watched with grim satisfaction. “They came and Sawzalled what needed to be Sawzalled,” he says.
Bill DiPaola, the executive director of the environmental and bike advocacy group Time’s Up, attended the press conference and denounced the actions of police as “domestic spying.” So it’s just a little awkward to discover that his group is part of the same Citywide Coalition for Traffic Relief as the man who instigated this bit of espionage in the first place. “I never heard of [Brown],” DiPaola says, adding that with cars dominating so much public space, it’s no wonder everyone else is squabbling over what’s left. “There’s more bicycles, more Pedicabs. . . . Right now, the city is caught up in some growing pains, and Time’s Up is asking for more infrastructure for nonpolluting transportation.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Matthew Roth, the coordinator for the Citywide Coalition. “Each of those groups looks to the other and says, ‘Part of the problem is bikes are riding on the sidewalks,’ or ‘Pedestrians are jaywalking,’” he concludes. “You hear that constantly. We’ve spent so many years prioritizing cars that there’s been very little regard for pedestrian safety. So it’s people fighting over crumbs.”
Down at the Time’s Up clubhouse on Houston Street, activists have plastered their refrigerator with Polaroid snapshots of men they claim are undercover cops spying on Manhattan’s Critical Mass ride. Looks like they can add one more spook to their collection.