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Clash of the Bearded Ones


Baruch Herzfeld (baseball cap) and others inside the Traif Bike Gesheft.  

The distrust reached its apogee in 2004, after developer Martin Wydra bought the Gretsch Building—a former musical-instrument factory on the south side of Broadway—and turned it into the neighborhood’s first condo complex targeted to well-heeled hipsters. Pashkevil (pamphlets) demonizing the development blanketed the neighborhood. Wydra did all he could to tamp down the animosity: He scotched the plan to add balconies, tinted windows to protect the Satmars’ modest sensibilities from a glimpse of flesh, and canceled an indoor swimming pool lest a tenant walk outside in a swimsuit. Unappeased, the Hasids staged protests at Wydra’s own house in Flatbush. The developer was a religious Jew but not a Satmar, so he couldn’t be shunned. Instead, the community turned its anger to the local man who had sold the building to Wydra, who promptly found himself ostracized.

After the Gretsch affair, things quieted down for a time. The Artisten spread eastward into Bushwick and northward to Greenpoint, making them seem less like an immediate threat. Tempers would occasionally flare at things like a risqué billboard over the BQE. But the new and old Williamsburg had found, it seemed, a way to peacefully coexist.

Then, in 2007, came the bike lane, part of a citywide push to make streets more cycling-friendly. As bike lanes go, it wasn’t as plush as the ones springing up in Manhattan these days; it wasn’t even as nice as the one on neighboring Kent Avenue. But Bedford is Williamsburg’s main thoroughfare, and the pathway immediately found a thriving clientele. Morning to night, boys and girls whipped by Hasid minivans on their fixed-gears, hoods and hems flapping, thoughtful produce rattling in the baskets. It’s not that people didn’t bike down Bedford before, but the lane threw them into relief, marked them as a category.

The Satmars were incensed. Hasids are prohibited from looking at improperly dressed members of the opposite sex, and some complained that the women cycling through their neighborhood were an affront. “It’s a major issue, women passing through here in that dress code,” Simon Weiser, a Hasidic member of Community Board 1, told the Post. “Most Hasids have acclimated to living in New York,” says Sholom Deen, a semi-lapsed Hasid who, since 2003, has been publishing a blog called Hasidic Rebel. But each fresh bit of modernism—the Gretsch Building, the bus ads for Sex and the City—tends to touch off an uproar, he says, and the bikes were something new altogether: “It’s a direct intrusion.” The city, having spent $11,000 on the bike lane, appeared to encourage that intrusion, and the cyclists themselves seemed, if not improper, impudent. It felt like a seniority issue. “How long have you lived in the community that you now want to make the rules and totally ignore my opinion, when I’ve lived here for 50 years?” Abraham says. “You just got here. You either offer to help and do as the Romans do, or …”—and here Abraham goes into a spirited, if odd, impression of a spoiled young man—“ ‘I live here now. I lived here for ten years, and now I’m going to make rules for the entire community!’ ”

“It is the undercurrent of thwarted lust beneath the Satmars’ pious exterior that’s causing the tension with the ‘Artisten,’ ’’ says Baruch Herzfeld, owner of the Traif Bike Gesheft, a.k.a. Unclean Bike Business.

For a full year, the city seemed to ignore the hipster-Hasid war. Then, on December 1, 2009, came a sudden announcement. The Department of Transportation—under Janette Sadik-Khan, the bike-friendliest commissioner it’s ever had—was going to rip up “a small portion” of the lane between Flushing and Division Avenues, fourteen blocks in all. The deal to remove the lane is said to have been quietly brokered as far back as last April. Just about everyone’s assumption, including that of more than a few Hasids, is that Michael Bloomberg had needed the Satmars—who tend to vote enthusiastically and in a single block—in the upcoming election and that this was an easy bone to throw them.

On December 1, a crew of municipal workers descended on Bedford, sandblasting the lane and its stenciled biker figures off the asphalt. The next day, a group of three bike activists—Quinn Hechtropf, Katherine Piccochi, and a man we’ll call Ben—had an idea. That Friday night, around 3 a.m., they hit the street with aerosol cans and handmade stencils. According to Ben, more than a few Satmars saw them paint. “As they walked by, I made sure I said hello, explained to them that we’re not vandalizing the street, and asked if they wanted to help,” he says. “At first, they were a little standoffish, but a couple of guys had a sense of humor about it.” But by Saturday, fresh snow covered the group’s efforts, and the painters, encouraged by the adventure’s relative ease and cheered on by myriad bike blogs, decided to finish the job Sunday night.

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