Hard Times: Is Preciousness Over?

Last week on this blog, there was much discussion in the comments regarding the subject of h-e-l-m-e-t-s. (So as not to start another debate, please note I'm spelling out the "h" word as you might spell out the word "walk" when your dog's in the room.) This is ironic. While we cyclists bicker over h-e-l-m-e-t-s incessantly, most American non-cyclists think we're crazy to ride bicycles no matter how much safety equipment we use. In fact, even driving an economy car is still widely regarded as suicidal in this country. I was reading an article in the New York Times this past weekend about fuel efficiency standards, and one commenter had this to say:

While it might be technically feasible to do this how many extra deaths will we get as a result of the smaller lighter cars? I read that for every 5 mpg increase there will be 3,500 extra deaths each year. So that means something like 17,500 folks will die each year to avoid extracting a little more oil out of the ground. With our current death rate on the highways of 42,000 that is about a third increase. No thanks, I'll keep driving my big old mean SUV.

Right. Because it's impossible to get hurt in an SUV.

Nevertheless, the rolling bunker mentality is still a pervasive (and politically influential) one. For this reason, even though bicycle commuting is on the rise all over the country, as cyclists we remain vulnerable. We're like mammals in the waning days of the dinosaurs: far more adaptable and with much better long-term prospects, yet in the meantime still in imminent danger of being squashed.

You'd imagine that at some point Americans would wake up to the fact that they're being sold a very expensive illusion of safety that is in fact killing them and opt for practicality and efficiency over sheer size, but until that day there's nothing illusory about city streets filled with light-running SUVs driven by a gentry who are more or less free to maim with impunity. And when it comes to cycling for transportation, the fact that your safety--indeed your very life--is not a consideration is what you might call a "barrier to entry."

We all approach this barrier differently depending on our dispositions. Some of us hop it as adroitly as a cyclocross racer and ride undaunted. Others step over it with considerable trepidation, riding only occasionally or strictly for recreation. Still others simply go around it by opting for other modes of transport. And of course millions of people buy gigantic "safe" automobiles and just drive through the fucking thing while jockeying their smartphones, with two or three cyclists pinned to their bumpers.

But while a h-e-l-m-e-t may help some New Yorkers approach this barrier with a bit more confidence, guess what's not helping? Expensive pretty stuff:

It took a few years, but it would appear that people are finally coming to terms with the fact that New York is not in fact Copenhagen or Amsterdam, and that beneath the veneer of gentrification it's still an indifferent hellhole. You've got to hand it to them, though--they really tried to maintain the illusion for a few years. Remember those articles about "cycle biker chic?" Remember when we were all going to be riding Dutch Bikes?

That was cute.

Then it turned out that in New York City $1,000 commuter bikes still get stolen, cops still hate you, and drivers don't care how faaahbulous you look because they don't see you in the first place.

Of course, the "hook" of this article is that it's women who are finding all this discouraging, but to spin it that way is to ignore the fact that we all suffer regardless of genitalway. Who among us--male, female, or "other"--can't relate to at least part of this?

And if the experiences of Lisa Buonaiuto are any indication, the safety concerns are still legitimate. She started cycling three years ago, taking her bicycle from the Metro-North station on 125th Street in Harlem to her job at Barnard College. In that time, she has been nearly hit by a bus, ticketed for riding on an empty sidewalk on Amsterdam Avenue when she felt overwhelmed by the trucks and endured shouts from “daredevil” messengers. Now she travels along side streets, avoids Broadway and on a recent afternoon took the Hudson River Greenway to a hair appointment downtown.

For my part, I've actually solved the hair appointment problem by riding in curlers. Not only do I save time by styling while on the go, but the curlers themselves offer protection and make a fantastic helmet substitute:

(New York City Cycle Chic 2.0)

I'd like things to improve for all of us, but in the meantime the h-e-l-m-e-t remains a symbol that we're under attack, and the expensive pretty stuff a symbol of a somewhat rarefied ideal. Speaking of rarefied ideals, these are also the hallmarks of that other incendiary "h" word, by which I mean h-i-p-s-t-e-r-s. They too tend to live in denial when it comes to certain realities of urban living--and when they're inevitably forced to confront them it always seems to make the news:

In an age when some of New York City's roughest areas have been "tamed," it's only natural that the young and creative should feel as though they have something of a "Midas Touch" when it comes to neighborhoods. As it turns out, that's not the case, for when a "psychedelic punk-rap" band rented a cheap apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant recently they were immediately robbed:

“This is not the kind of neighborhood people like us move into,” said Zayd Brewer, known to friends as Spaceman, the 19-year-old lead singer of the band. “Call it naïveté or whatever. ‘We can defend ourselves.’ ”

The story of what happened in that apartment on a corner of Bedford-Stuyvesant on the morning of June 13 is a cautionary tale about too-good-to-be-true dwellings in unfamiliar neighborhoods, and a reminder that not all of Brooklyn is a red carpet for the young and aspiring.

Indeed, what follows is more than just a cautionary tale. In fact, it's perhaps the most harrowing h-i-p-s-t-e-r gentrification-gone-awry tale ever told, and the Medal of Valor goes to bandmate Andrew Downs, who presumably cowered under his car while the "shit went down:"

Mr. Downs was outside: he had gone to move his car before morning. He was returning when he saw “a whole bunch of dudes overrunning the house,” he said. He hid and feared the worst for his friends: “I thought they were all dead.”

Granted, barging in and trying to be a hero probably wouldn't have ended well. But, like, you don't even call 911? "Ah, they're probably all dead anyway," Downs apparently concluded. "Why waste my anytime minutes?"

None of this bodes well for the tide of gentrification, which is clearly ebbing:

They revisited the apartment on Tuesday to clean it up, as the landlord threatened to keep their security deposit, 300 bucks they badly needed. There was blood on the floor and fingerprint dust on every doorknob. They are looking for new digs, undeterred. Maybe Bushwick.

That is one ballsy landlord.

Anyway, the time-honored pattern is that artists move into a rough neighborhood for the cheap rents, put up with a huge amount of crap, and eventually shore it up so that rich douchebags can move in and displace everybody. Now though, even the first wave is simply saying "fuck it" after a few days, which is either good news or bad news, depending on how you view gentrification in the first place. This may also be something of a generational shift, especially when you consider that the band itself is actually bragging about it:

I remember when rappers used to brag about robbing people. Now they're bragging about getting robbed. What's next, Christian death metal?

Speaking of theft that's only newsworthy because it happened to h-i-p-s-t-e-r-s, a reader informs me that some guy got his bike stolen in London:

Yes, I'm sure he's the first person ever to have his bike stolen in London:

Though I'm pretty sure he's not the first person to lock his bike only by the seatpost:

By the way, the photo above shows the thieves actually stealing the bike. It was taken by a "bystander," who clearly attended the Andrew Downs School of Passive-Assertiveness Training.

At least it wasn't the even more expensive Kate Spade model.

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