The New Yorker | 2006-11-13
by BEN MCGRATH
In the fall of 1971, two years after the Stonewall Rebellion, sixteen months after Kent State, and a couple of weeks after the prison riots at Attica, a few hundred bicyclists rode down Fifth Avenue and on to City Hall, demonstrating for the institution of dedicated bike lanes and bike racks. They called themselves Bike for a Better City. One rider held a sign that read, “The internal combustion engine is antiquated, obscene, and responsible for more deaths thru pollution and mayhem than even that great curse war.” A few taxi-drivers razzed the protesters, and at one point an infiltrator, concerned that there were greater causes in need of pursuing, joined the cyclists’ ranks, shouting, “People are being murdered and you protest bicycle lanes!”
Since 2000, according to a certain moral calculus, more than a hundred and twenty New York City bicyclists have been murdered—struck dead by automobiles—and another twenty thousand have been injured, by enemy car doors and steel-fortified taxicab fenders. Three were killed in the course of three weeks in June of this year, including one, Dr. Carl Nacht, who was felled by a police tow truck while riding with his wife along the Hudson River Greenway—an officially sanctioned bike path. Since 2004, about six hundred cyclists have been arrested while participating in monthly political-protest rides known as Critical Mass, most notably during the Republican National Convention, when scores were ensnared in nets, and later imprisoned, and their bikes were confiscated as “evidence.”
New York is by no means a bicycle haven, like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, or even San Francisco or Madison, Wisconsin, where cycling, despite hilly terrain, is three times as common as it is here. But a smaller proportion of New York residents own automobiles compared with any large city in the Western world, and the local bicycling movement now includes more than twenty groups, with names like Right of Way, FreeWheels, and Revolution Rickshaws, drawing inspiration from sources as varied as the French Situationist philosopher Guy Debord, the civil-rights leaders John Lewis and Hosea Williams, and the urban sociologist Jane Jacobs. Their aims are at once specific (mandating bike storage at office buildings) and all-encompassing: Revolution Rickshaws, for instance, seeks in effect to create an entire pedal-based economy, offering “eco-responsible execution in people-moving services,” “rapid urban cargo transport,” and “outdoor marketing promotions,” through the use of pedicabs, tricycle rigs capable of carrying a thousand pounds of freight, and towable billboards.
Their nominal constituency, the hundred and twenty thousand New Yorkers who ride bicycles every day, comprises three distinct types—commuters (book editors, say, wearing cargo pants), exercisers (lawyers in spandex), and messengers (streetwise minorities without health care)—whose agendas overlap only loosely. And, as with any growing movement, success has brought about factionalization. Roughly speaking, the bikers range, in their political leanings, from Hugo Chávez to Ned Lamont, and in methodology from anarchist street theatre to wonkish position papers. “I think a lot of people realize that this issue is really central to a lot of the dilemmas facing, you know, humanity right now,” Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said recently. “How are we going to deal with less oil? How are we going to make cities more sustainable, more livable?”
Transportation Alternatives, or T.A., represents the movement’s big tent, with more than five thousand members, a staff of Ivy League graduates, and numerous allies in city government, whom the staff lobbies to enact bike-friendly legislation and other traffic-reducing measures, like express bus service and congestion pricing. White, who is thirty-six, and boyishly affable, was born into a Mormon family, and didn’t discover the pleasures of the bike—“mankind’s greatest invention”—until college, in Madison. When he left for graduate school, in Montana, his parents, who were by then living in Illinois, shipped his belongings via UPS, and he rode his Cannondale touring bike fifteen hundred miles. He now owns four bikes, including a beater that he leaves on the street, attached to a lamppost or a parking meter. He has let his driver’s license expire.
“There’s this perception that we’re impeding the natural order of things,” White told me, over a beer at the bar beneath the T.A. office, on West Twenty-sixth Street. (His employees are forbidden from storing more than one bike at a time.) “It’s, like, ‘Get a car. Grow up. Men drive cars.’ You’re somehow a clown or a kid if you’re riding a bicycle.” The week before, the N.Y.P.D., in a move widely understood to target Critical Mass, had announced new “parade rules” requiring all groups of twenty or more bicyclists, or thirty-five or more pedestrians, to seek a permit before assembling. On cycling blogs, riders were trading stories of being stopped by plainclothes officers while crossing the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges, and charged with improbable offenses (in one case, for riding thirty-three m.p.h.—a pace faster than Lance Armstrong’s). Steve Dunleavy, the longtime Post columnist, had just weighed in, siding with the cops and referring to cyclists as a cult of “pedal punks” and “kamikaze bike bullies.” (In return, the blog commenters referred to Post readers as “large-vehicle driving meatheads,” and asked people to consider “the auto-centric character of their Pocono real-estate section.”)
In June, cycling advocates had lent their support to officials from the Department of Transportation who delivered a PowerPoint presentation to the largely black community board representing the neighborhoods of downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill, on the merits of adding five miles of bike lanes through the area. The presentation met with resistance—one man called bikers “thugs on two wheels”—and the board voted not to endorse the proposal. “They see cyclists as part of the gentrification wave,” White said, almost apologetically. He lives in Park Slope.
“It’s the next big fight,” a biker who has been agitating to get cars permanently banned from the Central Park loop said recently. “I really think I’m doing God’s work.” He equated the current political moment with the nascent state of civil rights in the late nineteen-thirties. “Bicyclists are the niggers of New York,” he said.
Critical Mass, according to its participants, is not a group but a recurring event. “An organized coincidence,” one regular rider told me. “No, a disorganized coincidence—a ‘happening,’ a temporary reorganization of public space.” (The coincidence is international: more than three hundred cities on six continents experience similar events.) Locally, there is no acknowledged leadership, and therefore no specified route, much to the chagrin of the police, who, from an operational standpoint, at least, would prefer chaperoning to chasing. Only the date (the last Friday of every month), the time (7 P.M.), and the starting point (Union Square) are known, and although these minimal guidelines must have originated with a person, they have become ingrained in the collective cycling consciousness, like natural law. Sometimes someone brings a trumpet and plays a fanfare, and the assembled riders, if inspired, will set off in one direction or another, spreading from the park and into the city grid, rendering each street they enter momentarily impervious to through traffic. But no one wants to go first, and the scene in the square can begin to seem like the main event, with people handing out flyers and pamphlets for associated causes (“The Essential Truth About 9-11,” “New York’s First and Only Solar-Powered Film Festival”).
In the months just before the Republican Convention, the number of participants in Critical Mass swelled into the thousands, but fear of being arrested and a kind of weariness—Paul White now views the event as “a puerile cat-and-mouse game with the cops”—have since shrunk the bike brigades. On the last Friday in July, shortly after the new parade rules had been announced, a few hundred people converged at the north end of Union Square, riding all manner of bikes: recumbent, collapsible, tall, small. Police vans and squad cars ringed the perimeter. Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was on hand, likening Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s new restrictions to the Administration’s restrictions on the rights of detainees at Gitmo—dual emblems, he felt, of extralegal executive power. “The bikers have basically thumbed their noses at the P.D.,” Siegel said. “They’re generally representative of New Yorkers—zany, a little rebellious, irreverent.” A woman wearing an American flag, and not much else, rode her bike slowly toward a cluster of officers, and then doubled back. Others passed out buttons that read, “Please Don’t Arrest Me—This is my permit.” On closer examination, they were recycled pins made by the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice, with customized paper labels glued over “No Blood for Oil.”
Bill DiPaola, the founder of Time’s Up, an environmental organization that anchors the activist, theatrical wing of the cycling community, glanced around warily, sizing up the anti-insurgency forces. “We’re definitely seeing more cars with blacked-out windows,” he said. “We expect the usual hard-line unfriendliness.” He added, “When I say ‘we,’ I mean Time’s Up.” (DiPaola is one of four people named in a suit filed by the city to stop Time’s Up from promoting Critical Mass rides—arguing that they represent an official Critical Mass governing body.) Many protesters had armed themselves with recording equipment. “On this particular ride, there’s a lot of helmet cams,” DiPaola said. “I’d say there’s at least thirty-five video cameras here, probably close to sixty-five digital cameras, at least thirty legal observers, and ten lawyers.” He shrugged. “You know, there’s very few people riding their bikes here. Most of the people are here to document this time in history.”
The only guy in the crowd wearing a necktie turned out to be a lawyer, named Gideon Oliver, who said that he’d defended more than a hundred bikers who had been arrested in the past year and a half. He doesn’t own a bike himself. “I’m terrified to ride in the city,” he said.
A mustachioed police inspector named John Codiglia walked toward us. “Do you know if Jack Black is riding in this event?” he asked. “You see the gentleman with the gold mask over there?” He pointed to a short guy wearing a red-and-black cape, right out of “Nacho Libre.” “That’s Jack Black! I know it’s him.”
After Codiglia walked away, Oliver said, “He’s the good cop.” He pointed at a dozen or so helmeted officers perched on mopeds, forming a straight line along the eastern edge of the park, facing in. “The guys on scooters are the bad cops. I know so many of them from court. That one over there, he accused somebody of riding his bike with a hundred other people, ‘perpendicular in the roadway,’ blocking traffic. And I asked him on the stand, ‘What’s “perpendicular” mean?’ He was, like, ‘You got me.’ ”
I introduced myself to the masked man and asked his name. “NYMAAN,” he said, pointing to his cape, which was adorned with the words “New York Metro Anarchist Alliance.” He added, “I am an idea, not a person.” (His outfit advertised a Web site that features the heading “Notes from the global intifada.”) He rang the bell on his handlebar a couple of times, and began rolling his front tire back and forth. “You know what this means, right? I’m starting to get itchy.”
A tall, middle-aged man with a striking blond mane approached on foot. “Hallelujah, the Devil!” he said, pointing at the caped biker. “I knew I’d meet the Devil eventually.”
“No, I’m NYMAAN,” the biker said.
The blond man was Bill Talen, a performance artist who goes by the name Reverend Billy and calls his congregation the Church of Stop Shopping. “One time, I was arrested at a Buy Nothing Day Parade,” he said, recalling a distant Friday evening. “We went in and exorcised a Starbucks cash register, and, sure enough, I got thrown in the holding tank at Fifty-fourth Street. And the cops that arrested me were really upset that they were missing this.” He opened his arms and turned, as though surveying his parish. “And I felt their erotic love of harassing the bicyclists. It was like they couldn’t date their favorite girl.”
An associate of the Reverend’s, Michael O’Neill, the manager of the Church of Stop Shopping, soon joined the conversation. He, too, was on foot. “Community isn’t recognized unless it’s mediated through monetary transactions,” he said. “And the idea of a leaderless community, my God, they don’t even speak that language. I think this is all a pretext for pork-barrel N.Y.P.D. expenditures.”
The sporadic jingling of bike bells gave way to a steady chime, which prompted the officers to start their engines, and the bicyclists began drifting out of the northwest corner of the park, along Seventeenth Street, followed by police scooters riding two by two. The deliberateness of the procession resembled a funeral cortege. “What this does, every month, every ride, every set of wheels on the road—we’re trying to change the values of the city,” O’Neill said.
The first bust occurred a block away, at the corner of Seventeenth and Fifth Avenue, where a young bearded man from Red Hook ignored a red light. As one of the detaining officers wrote a ticket, a blond woman who appeared to be in her forties observed that the cop’s scooter was parked in the bike lane. (Video footage later provided incontrovertible evidence that the cops had ridden their scooters across the sidewalk.) The woman was riding a child’s bike, with a yellow license plate attached to the rear that read, “Bicycling: A Quiet Statement Against Oil Wars.”
“You can go around it,” the cop said, sounding beleaguered. “You’ll fit.”
A block and a half south, the woman noticed another bike-lane obstruction, this time a taxi. Policing cops was becoming her thing, and she accosted another officer: “You’re supposed to give him a ticket.”
“What’s wrong? He’s just dropping off passengers.”
“It’s illegal to be in the bike lane,” she said.
“It’s illegal ?” he asked.
Matthew Roth, another of the Time’s Up defendants, arrived at the scene, walking his bike along the curb. “Did you cite it?” he asked the woman. “It’s 4-08, subsection E. Tell him to get out his R.C.N.Y.”—Rules of the City of New York. “There’s very little enforcement of traffic laws, because people don’t know what they are,” Roth said as he continued south on foot, using his palm to steady the seat of his bike. His knuckles bore the telltale scars of a New York City cycling career.
Tom Bernardin knows the traffic laws as well as anyone. In fact, he has often dreamed, while looking out his apartment window at midday, of sketching the intersection of Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue to document all the traffic violations he observes. “You know, like those line drawings from when you were a kid—‘Circle everything that’s wrong with this picture,’ ” he says. He has never encountered a Critical Mass rally (“I actually time my activities to avoid people as much as possible”), but he occasionally engages in his own kind of protest theatre, marching into a nearby noodle shop on Sixth Avenue to deliver what he calls “performance pieces,” in which he complains loudly about civic transgressions.
Several years ago, Bernardin, who works as a freelance tour guide, started an anti-noise group called FANNY (Friends Against Noisy New York), but lately he has concluded that the problem is intractable. “Noise is the bastard child of the environmental movement,” he says. His latest cause, which he announced in the winter, 2006, edition of the Greenwich Village Block Association News, is pedestrian safety, and by his reckoning the enemy is not S.U.V.s but Schwinns. “No doubt the most egregious assault on the lives of all New Yorkers in recent times is the relatively new phenomenon of sidewalk bicycling,” he wrote. “Remember the sidewalks before the Pooper Scooper law? . . . Without the mayor, police commissioner, and media stepping up to the plate for this problem, perhaps, we all had better be prepared to continue to dodge these louts.”
Bernardin’s rant prompted a follow-up in the spring edition, entitled “Back to Bikes,” with many more Village residents weighing in. Ostensibly, the piece was about the “problem” of bicycles, like Paul White’s beater, that remain locked (or “leashed”) to public street furniture for extended periods, cluttering the neighborhood. “Every time I round the corner on to Morton Street, the first thing I see is the bikes everywhere, rather than the tulips and daffodils,” one man complained.
But others evidently perceived Manhattan bikes as akin to hybrid cars in Hollywood: conspicuous presumption. “They don’t care how what they do affects others and you’re not going to change their attitude,” one resident said of bikers. “They’re morally superior because they are not polluting the atmosphere.”
The hierarchy of urban piety is ever delicate. Still another Villager, a biking enthusiast, railed against the unctuousness of the anti-bike pedestrians. “I’m tired of joggers using the bike path, getting in the way,” he said. “They tell us to get off our bikes and jog because it’s more environmentally sensitive. To them bikes are manufactured things. The metals that go into them are mined. And there’s the plastic, too . . . made from oil.”
“The changes in the neighborhood are really disheartening,” Bernardin said late one recent Friday morning, when I met him in front of his building for a tour of local cycling offenses. I had come prepared for a long walk, but Bernardin, who has a white beard and was wearing an untucked polo shirt, jeans, sneakers, and shades, seemed to think that stepping the twenty or so yards to the corner of Fourteenth Street would more than suffice. “I’m really aware of my environment when I’m in public,” he said. “Between the front of the building and the curb”—he was suddenly distracted by the grating jangle of a passing motorcycle (“That’s illegal: straight pipes”)—“is a sacred space.”
As Bernardin sees it, the Village has become an extended college campus for text-messaging, iPod-impaired young professionals who can’t be bothered to cook or say hello in the elevator and the “hellions” who deliver them their takeout. Both groups share a habit of defiant, reckless bicycling that invades the sidewalk, threatening the elderly and the infirm. “They’re very self-righteous, and they’re angry,” he said of bicyclists. “But you know what?” He jabbed his index finger toward the sidewalk three times in succession, and said, “This ain’t broken.” Then he thrust his arm out toward the street: “Fix that. ” He stomped and pointed once more at the sidewalk. “But don’t break this.”
Bernardin used to ride a bike, while cataloguing bishop’s-crook lampposts (for the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture) and freestanding clock faces. (He is the founder of Save America’s Clocks, an organization whose motto is “Non-working clocks betray the public trust and send out a message that nobody’s home.”) Then, about ten years ago, he was riding north on Sixth Avenue, “doing everything legal,” he says, when another biker came tearing around the corner, “illegally,” at Twenty-second Street and clipped him; he spilled, and barely missed having his head crushed by a passing car. The incident could be a Rorschach for civic activists. To a cycling advocate, what’s salient is the fact that Bernardin was nearly killed by an automobile. Bernardin, however, saw two agents obeying the traffic laws—himself and the car driver—and a third who, by flouting them, introduced the element of danger.
“It sounds like a rattlesnake coming up behind you,” he said, as he scanned the intersection for bikes. “The chain: clickety-clack, clickety-clack. I find it so selfish. If you hook up a blood-pressure machine to me, you’ll see that it just spikes every time I hear that noise.” So far, however, he’d seen only potential victims: “See this person with a cane, that woman with a stroller?” At last, a violator of the college-grad variety buzzed past us, disrupting the sacred space. “Bang! This guy right here,” Bernardin said. “And here’s another—the chicken guy.” An Asian man on a rickety five-speed with a big basket in front had emerged from Dirty Bird, a restaurant on Fourteenth Street, and begun riding east along the sidewalk, swerving to avoid a few pedestrians who, judging from the upward, indecisive tilt of their heads, seemed to be tourists. The light turned red as the chicken guy reached the corner; he hadn’t worked up enough speed to hazard a Frogger-like crossing, so he stopped short, his front tire nearly brushing up against a pair of teen-age girls. Bernardin stepped forward. “Do you know this is illegal?” he asked.
The man looked bewildered. The light changed, and he continued east in the crosswalk (which is also illegal), twice looking back over his shoulder at Bernardin, who had already moved on and begun reminiscing about his activist past. “I just have to be involved, doing stuff,” he said. “It makes me a happier person if I’m concerned and doing things.”
But the noise was getting to him. A bike swerved, causing a truck to brake (screech), and Bernardin’s shoulders pinched, just as an accordion bus stopped to disgorge passengers (hiss—beep! beep! beep!), amid the usual chorus of horns and sirens. “And don’t even get me started on cell phones,” he said. “For me”—he turned his palms up and mimicked the scales of justice—“it’s bubonic plague, cell phones, bubonic plague, cell phones.” At that moment, a cyclist, heading south on Seventh Avenue, passed by with his right hand held to his ear. “Course, then you see the real jerks—bicycling and talking on cell phones,” Bernardin said. “Who’s getting satisfaction out of that conversation?”
Pedestrians are sinners, too. On occasions when Bernardin has had to rent a car, he has noticed that the street “turns into a funnel,” owing not only to the jostling of the bikes, buses, and trucks but to all the impatient pedestrians “testing the waters,” as he put it. “Look at these jerks here,” he said, gesturing at the crosswalk, where pedestrians were edging out into street, waiting for the light to change. “I used to do that when I was a kid. I’m over that. I’ve learned to be a good pedestrian.”
Across the street, the deliveryman from Dirty Bird was returning. He rode west, in the crosswalk, and then up onto the curb once more. Bernardin lit a cigarette as he contemplated confronting the restaurant’s management, but, after inhaling deeply, thought better of it. “I don’t need another enemy in the neighborhood,” he said. He tossed his cigarette butt in the street and said that he planned to take a nap—with earplugs in, and the air-conditioning turned up. It was noon, and he’d been awake since five, when the garbage trucks began their daily rounds.
After a Critical Mass ride dissipates, the most committed riders often reassemble at 49 East Houston Street, where Time’s Up has its headquarters, to compile on-the-spot video replays and add to the dossier of police brutality. (In May, a cyclist suffered a broken collarbone after a collision with the door of a police car.) Peter Meitzler, who is the treasurer of the New York City Pedicab Owners’ Association, was among the twenty-seven people who received summonses during the July ride. “This is kind of like the empire’s last couple of gasps, coming after the bikers,” he said, while standing outside Time’s Up, waiting for Bill DiPaola to unlock the door. “A couple of more power failures and I think the complete paradigm’s going to change.”
Inside, where tires hung overhead, as in a mechanic’s garage, DiPaola led me to the refrigerator, which was covered with Polaroids of suspected undercover cops who’d been known to hang around biking events, as well as yellowing Times clips from a multipart series on domestic spying. (The most recent, from December 22, 2005, cited video evidence of covert N.Y.P.D. infiltration at a street vigil for a deceased cyclist.) A young man interrupted: “Where’s the beer hidden?”
DiPaola eyed him and hesitated. “Uh, in the bathroom,” he said. When the young man left, DiPaola turned to a Time’s Up volunteer, Liane Nikitovich (nom de guerre: Nikita), who had surrounded herself with cameras and was attending to all the arriving documentary footage. “Who is that guy?” he asked.
“I invited him,” Nikita said. “He’s a videographer.”
A large television was placed on the end of a long table, and video footage was fed through in a continuous loop. There was the woman wearing the American flag—it flew up behind her like a cape as she picked up speed, exposing her naked back. In the East Village, riders were chanting in cadence, “More bikes, less cars!” Back again at a busy midtown intersection: one group stopped at a red light, dismounted, and lifted their bikes above their heads like trophies.
DiPaola was smiling, and seemed fully at ease for the first time all night. “You see the look on the cops’ faces when people on the sidewalks cheer us?” he said. “They hate it.”
Studies have shown that the surest way to make biking safer is to make it more popular—to increase visibility and awareness among motorists. (“You’re like the Invisible Man out there,” a biker told me.) To make it popular, it must be seen as fun. But riding in heavy traffic, while obeying all lights and signs, is not fun.
Paul White has been working on a cyclists’ code of ethics for the members of Transportation Alternatives to sign, and, although he’s sensitive to complaints about scofflaw cyclists, he’s been very careful about the wording. “It doesn’t say, ‘Stop at all red lights,’ ” he said. “Really, the heart of it is yielding to pedestrians. That’s a low-hanging fruit for us. They’re getting around under their own power, just like you.” He took a sip of beer. “Sure, they jaywalk. Sure, they’re oblivious sometimes. But, you know, give them a break.”
Of course, some people’s fun is another person’s nightmare. The completion of the thirteen-mile greenway along the Hudson has inspired a great many people—five thousand, on a good day—to ride their bikes. According to Michael Smith, a veteran city cyclist, the new riders tend to wear spandex and helmets and go very fast, with a great sense of purpose, on expensive machines. Smith is a member of Right of Way, an organization “dedicated to the overthrow of car tyranny.” On its Web site, he wrote, “Back when we were all fighting the cars on the street, I felt a certain sense of solidarity. But now that we’ve got this dedicated—or sorta dedicated—space, I’m finding out that a lot of us are, well, assholes . . . just like that Guido in the S.U.V. who nearly killed you on Sixth Avenue last week.” Smith longed for a return of that “good, mutinous urban attitude” about cycling, where “we’d just laugh at the stoplights, and give the finger to the indignant, honking drivers. And we’d all feel like comrades or co-conspirators or something.” The “drivers on bikes,” as he called them, are really suburbanites in disguise. “Will they—please God!—move to fucking Scarsdale as soon as their kids are born?”
A few weeks ago, local bike-shop proprietors began noticing an uptick in flat tires, and it emerged that vandals, evidently sharing Smith’s feelings about the would-be suburban speedsters, had been placing carpet tacks, like I.E.D.s, along the greenway between 137th Street and the George Washington Bridge.
Meanwhile, the Police Department, after withdrawing its initial parade restrictions in the face of public opposition, has announced a revised proposal that is not substantially different. (Transportation Alternatives sent out an e-mail bulletin to its members, contending that the department is “just playing with numbers.”) A hearing has been set for November 27th, and cyclists, under the auspices of the Assemble for Rights Coalition, are planning a group ride from Union Square to One Police Plaza.
Not long ago, Tom Bernardin went to see his old friend Margot Gayle, to whom he paid tribute in “The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook,” which he self-published in 1991, and in whose honor he defends the sidewalk. Gayle, at ninety-eight, is the last of the original preservationists; she helped bail Jane Jacobs out of jail, and led the fight to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse from demolition, putting together a committee that included E. E. Cummings and Lewis Mumford. For many years, she lived on West Ninth Street. She would walk a mile a day, dodging bikers and skateboarders and rollerbladers. (“She’d shake her cane at them,” Bernardin told me.) Now mostly deaf and confined to a wheelchair, Gayle has made a few concessions to the gentrified, Bloombergian city: she lives in a high-rise apartment building on the Upper East Side and visits Starbucks every day.
Bernardin arrived carrying a bouquet of flowers. The walls of the apartment were covered with plaques and tributes: “Intractable Foe of Vandals and Rapacious Developers,” “In Recognition of Successful Advocacy for Preservation,” a framed letter from Bill Clinton.
“Do you still ride your bicycle?” she asked him.
“No, I was hit,” he said. “I was on my bicycle, and another bicycle hit me and it knocked me down.”
She reflected on her younger days, when she, too, was a rider. “They were very useful, and people enjoyed their bicycles very much,” she said. “But too many automobiles—it’s dangerous now.”
Bernardin said that he thought the ramped indentations in the curb at corners were to blame. Gayle couldn’t make out what he was saying, so he wrote it on an index card: “I think curb cuts are the problem.”
She looked alarmed. “You do? Why?”
He made a wavy gesture with his hand, and said, “They go right up on the sidewalk.”
“But of course I like them, being in a wheelchair.”
“Well, that’s why they’re there,” he conceded. “That’s the good part of them.” (Sidewalk bicycling—the bane of the elderly and disabled—did not become epidemic until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in 1990.)
Gayle complained some more about automobile traffic: “It spoils the air and endangers pedestrians and people with baby carriages.” They talked about Washington Square Park (“It’s all N.Y.U.—they just want it for themselves,” Bernardin said), and about the Yorkville clock, nearby, which Gayle had helped Bernardin restore. “I’m worried about that clock now,” she said. “They’re building a big building a block away—excavating.”
Bernardin promised to check on it. As he was leaving, she handed him two postcards to mail on his way out. One read, “Save the Graving Dock,” and featured a picture of a dormant shipyard in Red Hook. The other called for preservation of the former Domino sugar refinery in Williamsburg.
“She is the role model of all time,” Bernardin said in the elevator. “She never took a cab.”