Bicycle parking — it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In front of Little Zelda, a coffee shop with a distinctly Parisian feel, is a new bike corral, championed by the proprietor of the shop. It’s comprised of three metal rings spaced along one former parking space. Other proprietors and residents have been clamoring, however, for the corral’s removal. It’s not unlike a tiny thing — say, the chicken being dry or the door left unlocked — sparking some momentous domestic spat. There’s much more to it than a bike corral. This fight in Crown Heights (which is, in fact, my neighborhood) is over a much larger issue: what does and does not belong…or rather, who.
The bike corral is seen by some residents as a sign of gentrification. For Crown Heights, that means that the racial and socioeconomic makeup is changing. This isn’t the first sign of change; before now, there’s been a proliferation of expensive bars, shops, and coffee joints, but something about this bike corral has visibly pitted Crown Height’s different demographics against one another. The bike corral seems to be a win for the newcomers (hipsters, some might say, and their vintage retail overlords), the first of what might be many things that are out of older residents’ hands.
I’ve lived on Franklin Ave. since August. I’m sure you’re already piecing it together based on my bougie prose: I am, in fact, at least an approximation of the quintessentially offending hipster involved in this recent bicycle parking debacle. I’m not even metaphorically involved…I actually signed the petition for TransAlt in front Little Zelda a couple of months ago.
Like most people signing a petition, I really only had time to make a positive association with TransAlt (like them) and bicycles (great stuff) which led to my rapidly and almost incoherently signing the petition as I breezed down the street. Anyway, more bike parking seems like no-brainer, right? It lessens sidewalk congestion and pollution, and is a safe and convenient spot for cyclists to lock up. Note also that the corral in question takes up only one parking spot. There is side-street parking usually available nearby, so to me, one less parking space seemed like a small price to pay for better biking accommodations.
But many of my neighbors disagree, on a couple of different levels. For one, there are practical considerations. Lily of Lily and Fig bakery (directly across from the new corral) won’t have as many options for her customers, who need to park their cars closeby to pick up wedding cakes. But what really seems at stake are deeper issues: exclusion, power dynamics, unwanted change. The community board voted to uphold the installation of the bike corral, but even there, members were clearly divided. “This is bigger than a bike corral,” said Diana Foster, a board member opposed to the recent vote to keep the corrals, “We’re supposed to be a community. The board is supposed to serve the good of the whole community, and not a specific set of people. I’m feeling kind of offended.”
Gentrification can bring with it all kinds of benefits in an area (the bike corral won out in the board, according to Robert Witherwax, on the “merits of the idea”) less crime, less pollution, cleaner streets, increased property values, and higher local fiscal revenues. However, the eventuality is often displacement and eviction. That means that if gentrification takes its normal course in Crown Heights, many residents ultimately won’t be around to enjoy those improvements like better quality air and lowered crime rates. It’s a little easier to understand the acrimonious reaction to the bike corral when you consider that potential consequence.
Still, it’s a force of nature: property values are rising, chic retail shops are poking out like sidewalk flowers, and construction is underway for condos at the end of the street. I think most residents have mixed feelings, though; even as I write this article, I feel like I’m intruding. Should people really get to take over an area because they have more money? Still, who are the long-standing residents to be exclusive, either, especially when change like a bike corral is objectively beneficial?
Walking down Franklin one night, I overheard two people standing under a tall tree, looking up together, and pointing. “That’s Bag Tree,” one of them said, by way of introduction. I felt suddenly sentimental. You see, I’d been calling it Bag Tree in my head for months. But I suppose it’s no real coincidence. After all, the eponymous greenery is a tall and majestic; it that stands on the side of busy Franklin Ave., and it is covered in bags — grocery bags, Ziploc bags, candy wrappers, cellophane — to the point that seems almost like it was decorated for the now-passed holidays. Somehow, it’s both vibrant and dingy.
Really, this one sight sums up a lot of how I feel about Franklin Ave. And based on what I overheard, I’m not alone. I appreciate what the street is now, its diversity and wabi-sabi allure. The fact is, however, that no matter what we talk about on our streets or on our community board, Bag Tree will go and the bike corral will stay. Franklin will be cleaner, safer, and more efficient as time goes on. This is why the bike corral is causing such a mix of reactions: it’s both an ominous and hopeful symbol. Great things are happening for the neighborhood, but not every resident may be able to stay around and enjoy it.