Shifting Gears: A Citi Bike Roll-In Rattles Longtime Residents

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Where newcomers see a great way to get around the city, old-timers see a symbol of a neighborhood they are losing

It had every indication that it would be just another quiet, sparsely attended community board meeting, except it wasn’t—all because of bikes.

Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 meeting on Sept. 14 started typically, but as 6:30 p.m.  approached, each chair in the room filled. And well after the meeting’s listed starting time, the walls of the room at the Cobble Hill Health Center were lined with residents from Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, Park Slope, Gowanus, and, of course, Cobble Hill.

Soon, longtime residents were throwing questions and gripes at the board members about the Citi Bike racks and stations installed in several areas of the board’s vicinity, just a couple of weeks before the meeting. Eventually, complaints thrown became complaints hurled.

“There is total chaos at the @BrooklynCB6 meeting,” Park Slope Neighbors, a local organization, tweeted during the meeting. “Anti @CitiBikeNYC crowd yelling, threatening board members. ‘Destroying the city!’”

The meeting reached a turning point after Joseph Igneri, an 80-year-old Cobble Hill resident, began angrily shouting at every member on the board in succession, mockingly asking them if they had a bike stand in front of their house, as Igneri apparently did after the Citi Bike installations. He then stopped at one of the board members who had criticized his outburst, leaned on his umbrella, and shouted, “What are you gonna do about it? You gonna hit me?” Craig Hammerman, the district manager for the community board, called the police. “It was public bullying,” Hammerman told The Gothamist, of Igneri’s behavior.

All of this unfolded before the actual agenda began.

What’s this all about? “I can’t speak for everyone at the meeting,” explained Josephine Perretta, a lifelong Cobble Hill resident. “But I was very disappointed”about the bikes. “It was a surprise to everyone,” she said.

The 78 Citi Bike locations planned for Community Board 6 neighborhoods, a project four years in the making, apparently struck an already tightly wound chord among the area’s residents when some of the stations were installed late August, taking some of them by surprise as they woke up to find as many as 25 bike racks on their street.

For the lifelong, often elderly locals, the steadily, rapidly changing face of areas like Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Gowanus over the years—complete with rising costs of living; changing demographics; and trendy, Zagat-rated restaurants that have pushed out family-owned shops, have engendered a sense of displacement, as the neighborhoods they call home seem to feel like anything but. Add yet another development, like Citi Bike, and you might have located the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A Citi Bike Station on 1 Place and Clinton St., a residential block in Carroll Gardens. (Nathaly Pesantez/The Brooklyn Ink)

Although the bikes did technically show up from one day to the next, they had gone through a much lengthier process to do so, contrary to the beliefs of many anti-Citi Bike residents.

Community Board 6 began talks with the Department of Transportation back in 2012, and held public meetings  in 2015 and one in 2016 for residents to give their input on proposed Citi Bike sites. Brad Lander, the New York City Council Member representing the community board’s neighborhoods, also said he had reached out to constituents about the proposed stations. “My office sought to supplement this outreach—with information in our newsletter (which goes to over 100,000 people), and several e-mails (to our list of over 20,000),” Lander said in a statement made in response to the backlash against Citi Bikes. “We received over 400 comments, and many of these informed station locations.” Still, he acknowledges that some people “felt blindsided.”

“It wasn’t out there, believe me,” said Francis Balzano, a 74-year-old Carroll Gardens native. “That’s what made me irritated.”

Along with feeling caught off guard by the cobalt blue bikes and silver docks lined up by the dozens, residents seem to voice one particular concern: loss of parking spaces. “They took five spaces every other block,” said Balzano. “I take an hour to find a spot sometimes.”

Near Clinton St. and Fourth Place, where a Citi Bike station was installed, Joseph Sciria, 62, rushed to his car several blocks away after a neighbor told him about an open spot closer to home. A couple of minutes later, Sciria pulled up into the available parking spot right in front of his home of 42 years.

“You have to be on guard duty just to look for a spot,” said Sciria. “This is a close-knit neighborhood. It’s overkill. Every two streets.”

Data shows an entirely different picture on Citi Bike’s effect on parking. Out of 25,000 to 30,000 parking spots within Community Board 6  neighborhoods, according to numbers on Lander’s statement, Citi Bike has taken away a maximum of 200 spots, or less than 1 percent of the spaces, demonstrating that although parking difficulties have  been a growing issue in these neighborhoods (Park Slope was found to be the worst place to park, according to a 2007 study by Transportation Alternatives), Citi Bike plays almost a nonexistent role in it.

Data also show that Citi Bike ridership is steadily rising. Just last month, Citi Bike broke daily ridership records twice in one week, and 2016 has seen 9 million rides taken so far, a number that should exceed the 10 million rides taken in 2015 around the same time.

Viktor Geller, a 32-year-old software engineer and Carroll Gardens resident of three years, organized Citi Bike’s publicly available ridership data into charts and graphs, his results reflecting the overall upward trend of the program’s ridership. “The report shows that usage is trending up in all six CB6 neighborhoods,” Geller wrote in an e-mail. “Red Hook so far has the lowest usage.

Geller said he likes big data problems and first started working on the report just for “my own curiosity.” He decided to make the report public once he realized that complaints against Citi Bike, by and large, rest on the antithesis of data—feelings.

“As the demographics of the area change, older residents may feel like they are losing their hold on the neighborhood,” said Geller. “Anger at Citi Bike is just one way of expressing that anxiety.”

Rows of Citi Bikes in their docks on Carroll St. and Smith St. in Carroll Gardens. (Nathaly Pesantez/The Brooklyn Ink)

During the community session portion of the September 14 meeting, upset residents took turns naming the nominal issues at play—parking, lack of notice, an ugly contrast to the neighborhood aesthetic, and an invitation for careless cyclists to continue being careless.

It was impossible, however, to ignore what was said by most of the resident speakers—how they were made to feel by the Citi Bike installments.

“The old time residents feel like they weren’t considered or thought of,” Balzano said, recounting the meeting. “It’s always us being pushed aside.”

“These people came here, this new generation, they ruined the whole neighborhood,” Sciria said, as he looked toward the empty Citi Bike racks up his block. “I’ve been here my whole life, there’s no more Italian stores to go shopping to.”

Katia Kelly, a resident of Carroll Gardens for 30 years and creator of the hyper local neighborhood blog “Pardon Me For Asking,” agrees that Italian grocers are fewer and farther between these days. “A lot of my Italian neighbors take their cars to Bensonhurst—they used to be able to get their food here ten years ago,” Kelly said.

Kelly, 55, has seen the fight between old and new play out on the comments under her Citi Bike posts. “I was little bit surprised by the sheer number and vehemence of the comments, but I’m not surprised about the fact that this was going to be an issue,” she said.

The older residents, Kelly said, feel like their way of life as they’ve always known it, has been assaulted. “It’s just everything taken together; a perfect storm. This is something that has gotten a little bit too close to their home,” Kelly said.

While a vocal group of residents stand staunchly opposed to the bikes, John Z. , a 70-year-old local at the September meeting who chose not to disclose his last name, took a different approach. On an early October afternoon, John stopped in the middle of a Carroll Gardens street to talk with a neighbor about parking and bicycles; the former appeared to be an upsetting reminder of the latter.

“I think that they are something whose time has come based on the demographics,” said John. “It’s not that you’re stealing, but you’ve taken something that I’ve always had, and now I’m restricted,” he said, explaining the outcry by the older generation over the bikes.

The sense of a neighborhood giving way to newcomers plagues long time Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill residents. “I definitely have sympathy for anybody that feels like the city is changing,” said Doug Gordon, a biking advocate and founder of the blog “Brooklyn Scope.” “I look at a lot of these people and think, ‘If I were in my 60s and 70s, how would I be feeling?’”

Balzano said that she, too, has created a petition of her own—one of several petitions to come out against the bikes from the area.  “Fine, they’re young and healthy, they can ride the bikes,” she said. “I’m not against them.”

Although she feels nothing will be done by the Department of Transportation or the Community Board about the bikes, she has a small bit of reassurance.

“At least I can say I tried,” she said.

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