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The Great Divide

February 1, 2012

Photo: Fort Greene Patch

The DOT recently installed what some say is a very draconian fence on a pedestrian bridge linking the Ingersoll and Whitman housing projects in the wake of serious attacks against two cyclists and some tireless lobbying on the part of one of the victims, Stephen Arthur.  (Additional fencing is yet to be installed.)  Reaction to the new fence, according to the local media, has been intense.  The Brooklyn Paper quoted residents who said it “feels like a punishment, like we’re in jail.”  Just a few days ago the Times called the fence, “a fresh flash point in a swiftly changing neighborhood where luxury apartment towers have risen in the last few years.”

But nestled within the Times story is this almost throwaway line:

The new fence is curved but open at the top, hanging 18 inches over the walkway, similar to pedestrian passages on the Manhattan and Roosevelt Island Bridges.

The Brooklyn Paper similarly buries the idea that a fence on a pedestrian bridge is nothing new: “Two foot paths over the Prospect Expressway, connecting South Park Slope and Windsor Terrace with Greenwood Heights, are fully enclosed in fencing.”  But by the time the reader gets to the final line of the story–if they get to it at all–the damage is done.  There are irate neighbors, a “bigger divide,” and photos showing a white cyclist in a funny looking helmet or posing with his bike near the projects.  Mix one part race with one part class, add a heaping spoonful of bike lanes and now you’ve got a story.

The real truth is that the fence on the Navy Street pedestrian bridge is similar to dozens upon dozens of pedestrian overpasses all over the city, and as such may not be as much of a cultural touchstone in Brooklyn’s ongoing struggles with gentrification as the media would like them to be.

Photo: Jason Young/Flickr

The pedestrian bridge above crosses the Prospect Expressway at 8th Avenue.  It’s even more severe than what was installed at Navy Street and looks like something out of The Shawshank Redemption.

Photo: NYCTAXIPHOTO

Above is a pedestrian bridge leading to East River Park, one of the many walkways over FDR Drive.  While not completely enclosed like the one over the Prospect Expressway, it still doesn’t invite feelings of freedom or openness.

Photo: Unicycle Bridge Tour

The above image is a pedestrian overpass at the BQE on-ramp at Calvary Cemetery.  As you can see, there aren’t even any railings on this bridge — it’s all fence.  It’s a piece of infrastructure more appropriate for herding cattle to the slaughterhouse than for inviting pedestrians on a pleasant stroll.

That’s just a small sampling of the very severe-looking pedestrian bridges that dot the five boroughs.  Even one of the newest and nicest looking pedestrian bridges in the city, the Intrepid Museum Pedestrian Bridge across the West Side Highway, includes high fencing that prevents people from throwing things into the traffic below.

Now, a pedestrian overpass that connects a neighborhood to, say, a park or tourist attraction by allowing residents to avoid an urban highway is very different from one that crosses a road like Navy Street, an arterial road that literally cuts the community in half.  But it’s not the bridge that’s a “flash point in a swiftly changing neighborhood,” especially since the projects are likely to remain untouched by the hands of gentrification.  It’s the road itself.

As Cap’n Transit notes:

If I lived in those projects, I would probably detest Navy Street for cutting my home off from other parts of the city and bringing noise to my building, just so that outsiders could get through the area faster. If I were an alienated teenager who’d spent his whole life as the target of abuse and discrimination from white people who were mostly well protected behind glass and steel, I’d want to throw something at those cars. And if I saw a less-protected, slower-moving, well-fed-looking white guy going by, I might just throw something at him. It’s not right, but I understand where the impulse comes from. In some sense, you could say, they’re angry at Bob Moses for designing the projects and the road this way, and at all the people who supported him, and at all the people who maintain this degrading Corbusian environment. They can’t throw bricks at them, so they throw them at Stephen Arthur.

Just as high crime neighborhoods discourage walking and cycling, surely neighborhoods where walking and cycling are discouraged see an effect on crime.  Few people would find a stroll near Navy Street pleasant, resulting in fewer eyes on the street to prevent kids from thinking they can get away with hurling bricks at people.

But back to my original point.  Why are reporters essentially ignoring the huge number of enclosed pedestrian overpasses in this city, ones that routinely “fence in” pedestrians engaged in the simple act of getting from point A to point B?

My guess is that it’s because most of the existing fences, though not all, are designed to protect automobiles.  Had a group of teenagers from the Ingersoll projects thrown bricks at a car’s windshield and injured a driver in the process, motorists would not have needed an advocate like Stephen Arthur to lobby the city for more protection.  A fence would have been erected as soon as supplies could be ordered, extra foot patrols would have been deployed within twenty-four hours, and few reporters would have put pen to paper on the subject, at least not to claim that such a fence symbolized a “great divide.”

And that’s the effect throwing the idea of bike lanes into a story has on journalists: a cyclist on a $300 bike riding in a narrow bike lane through the projects is a symbol of the encroachment of elite white gentrifiers, but a motorist in a $30,000 automobile racing down a too-wide stretch of road that slices through the heart of a community is just a real New Yorker trying to get to work.

This story is undoubtedly important to the people who were injured, to the aggrieved residents of the Ingersoll houses, and to anyone who relies on Navy Street; I’m by no way implying that we should all just move on to other, more important issues.  People have been attacked violently and such incidents can not be allowed to happen again.  But the telling of this story reveals a lot about the media’s cynical manipulation of cultural “flash points” such as gentrification and bike lanes in order to avoid the larger and far more important story of poor housing conditions, isolating living environments, and safe streets for low-income New Yorkers.

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One Comment
  1. Chris M permalink
    February 1, 2012 9:30 pm

    You nailed that one: “. Had a group of teenagers from the Ingersoll projects thrown bricks at a car’s windshield and injured a driver in the process, motorists would not have needed an advocate like Stephen Arthur to lobby the city for more protection. A fence would have been erected as soon as supplies could be ordered, extra foot patrols would have been deployed within twenty-four hours, and few reporters would have put pen to paper on the subject, at least not to claim that such a fence symbolized a “great divide.”

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