I was waiting in line for Salvadorean food, standing next to a black fellow cyclist after the Transportation Alternatives Brooklyn-Queens Tour through
two most diverse boroughs, when the announcement came for a moment of silence. Because
we’d been riding our bikes, few of us knew what had happened. “Fifty people?” the rider next to me
asked, in a tone of shock. I started trying to work out how one person could
possibly have killed so many people.
By the end of June 12, however, I was not only learning far more about the day’s appalling massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, but on my way to a hotel near the scene to report on it. The job of covering the attack was all the more traumatic because I’d, unusually, remained ignorant for so long of its happening.
|Cyclists wait at Citi Field to start the Brooklyn-Queens
Tour. The same parking lot was the scene, later the same day,
of a horrific revelation for many riders
Yet the experience of having ridden my bike through Brooklyn and especially multicultural Queens before heading to
Orlando kept informing my thinking over the
following two days. The areas where I’d been riding are some of the most diverse
in any major western city, with people from countries all over the globe living
next to each other in a miracle of tolerant diversity. I couldn’t help but
wonder what made the difference between very different people’s ability to live
together in areas like Crown Heights – where observant Jews live next to black
people from the Caribbean – and the impulse that drove the hate-filled Orlando attacker.
My reactions were all the stronger because I’d undertaken the Brooklyn-Queens Tour as a farewell to
before I leave the city to return to London
on July 6. The looming deadline has made me think harder about why I love the
atmosphere of New York City
so deeply, despite the chaos – even the corruption - of much of the city’s
functioning. I’ve decided that the chaos and its loveability are closely tied
up in each other. It’s just unfortunate that the chaos overpowers the
loveability on the roads, while it’s mostly the other way round everywhere
From the very start of my day’s riding on June 12, I’d been reminded how a cyclist – riding at moderate speeds on surface streets - is uniquely placed to appreciate the intricacy of the stitching that holds together
ethnic patchwork. The morning of the Brooklyn-Queens Tour, I started at my home
to ride to Citi Field, the New York Mets’ stadium, 13 miles away, for the start
of the event. The trip took me through mainly African-American housing projects
near the Italian-American
Carroll Gardens Brooklyn Bridge, Hasidic Jewish South Williamsburg, heavily
Polish Greenpoint then over the Greenpoint
into areas of Queens that are variously East
Asian, South Asian and Hispanic.
At one point where a particularly large number of seams come together, in
Jackson Heights, I rode along a block recently rather tweely
renamed “ ”. A nearby block is
almost exclusively filled with Tibetan restaurants and grocery stores, while
other shops nearby sell saris to local Tamils and a Chinese supermarket
supplies the neighbourhood’s Chinese. The area hums to the tune of dozens of
different languages. Diversity
The boundaries between the different groups’ areas are porous and unclear. The Chinese supermarket in Jackson Heights, for example, stocks some Filipino and Vietnamese food because it recognises that the area’s far less uniform than, say, Manhattan’s Chinatown.
The arrangements are the exact opposite of what I remember seeing when I visited
in 1995 during its war of independence. As I rode with a bus full of refugees
from Tuzla to Split, we kept encountering checkpoints still
operating after the brief war between the Bosnian government and Bosnian
Croats. The papers of the people on the bus – mostly Bosniaks, as Bosnian
Muslims call themselves – all had to be carefully checked to prevent
unauthorised crossing of ethnic dividing lines. While the streets of, say,
Little Italy were once guarded by men who kept strangers out, there are no
barriers for a contemporary New Yorker to wandering around densely-packed areas
full of people who look different from him or her.
A bicycle saddle is also an excellent vantage point to see how little obvious planning has gone into forming the city’s ethnic jigsaw puzzle. Old groceries get converted into churches as new groups take over areas that once belonged to another. A grand former synagogue on
Pike St in Lower
Manhattan is now a mixture of a Buddhist temple, businesses and
apartments. The city’s history is that it’s largely when people are able to
choose their own patterns of settlement that the process goes most smoothly.
|A viaduct on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway:
Robert Moses' sensitive approach to city planning
on full display
It is certainly no coincidence that the neat mind of Robert Moses – the “master builder” who transformed
New York in the mid-20th century
– abhorred both diversity and the narrow local streets where it flourishes. In
the years after the second world war, he demolished multiple areas that he
regarded as slums, replacing them with whiter, duller institutions such as the or expressway roads. It was
obvious at many points along my ride how highways such as Moses’
Brooklyn-Queens Expressway severed once-thriving communities. The city is in
many ways only just recovering from his insensitive desire to destroy in the
course of building. Lincoln Center
Perhaps the truest expression I’ve encountered of
New York’s diversity is
a scene I encountered on my bicycle while apartment-hunting four years ago. In
a tyre shop on Coney Island Avenue
in Brooklyn one evening, white-robed men were
hunched over drums performing a Sufi Islamic ritual. The ceremony looked
imported unchanged from the back streets of the Maghreb.
It was being performed in a space intended for another purpose. Yet it was
going on not only in full view of the street but on an avenue a mere five
blocks from Ocean Parkway,
the heart of one of the western world’s most thriving Jewish neighbourhoods.
During the 40-mile Brooklyn-Queens Tour, the starkest reminder of
New York’s remarkable success in
building reasonably tolerant diversity was my ride through .
The area was the last to feature full-scale inter-racial rioting in Crown Heights New York – in 1991, when
a fatal crash involving a driver in a leading rabbi’s entourage and a Guyanan
man set off three days’ clashes between black people and observant Jews. Yet, riding
through the area on the Sunday morning of the tour, there were the same
ambiguities as in other areas about the boundaries separating different groups.
I noticed, with a sigh, that the congregation of a large, black Pentecostal
church had blocked a stretch of bike lane and sidewalk as they parked for Sunday
morning worship. The next moment, I was seeing boys wearing smart white shirts
and kippahs heading off to Sunday morning religious classes.
It is, of course, far easier to describe what a peaceful city looks like than to describe why someone like Omar Mateen, the Orlando killer, erupts into hate-filled violence. I got the call asking whether I could go down to
as I approached home at the end of a total of nearly 70 miles’ riding. Within a
few hours, I’d made my excuses for a dinner party I’d been looking forward to,
taken myself to LaGuardia Airport – near where I’d started my ride at Citi
Field – and checked into a suburban Orlando
|Reporters near the scene of the Orlando massacre:
feeding an unspeakable horror into the 24-hour news cycle
Starting reporting the next morning, I headed to a family reunion centre near the massacre site and spoke to César Flores, a Guatemalan immigrant whose 26-year-old daughter, Mercedez Marisol Flores, was among the 49 people Mateen killed before he was himself shot. Exactly 24 hours after I’d been riding round Brooklyn and
marvelling at their peaceful diversity, I watched Mr Flores hold his phone to
show reporters a Facebook picture of his daughter, surrounded with the Pride
flag colours. This, it was clear, was the price of intolerance of diversity.
“She was a very happy girl all the time, a good student, a hard worker,” he said, tearfully. “But she’s gone.”
I began to make the connections between my Sunday experience in
New York and my reporting in Orlando on Monday evening, as I attended a vigil for the dead in downtown Orlando.
Speaker after speaker pleaded, essentially, for the values that have rescued New York from the low
point of the Crown Height riots. They called for gun control – an area where New York is about as strict as the US constitution
allows – and for different social groups to safeguard each others’ interests.
Muslim speakers defended gay people’s rights, while speakers from gay advocacy
groups denounced any potential reprisals against Muslims.
It was the praise for the role of the Pulse club among
Orlando’s gays that
finally drove the point about diversity home.
Several speakers described gay clubs as “safe spaces,” vital to giving lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transgender people the self-confidence to deal with a
sometimes hostile wider world. The remark made me think of the multi-ethnic New
York I’d witnessed both during the Brooklyn-Queens Tour - and during all my
four years riding in the city - as a complex mix of safe places and meeting
points between communities. While it’s unknown precisely what mixture of mental
disturbance, islamist radicalism and homophobia drove Omar Mateen, it’s
striking that such attackers often seem to come from less cosmopolitan,
self-confident places. Greater tolerance should at least play a role in
averting future horrors.
Not, of course, that I should sentimentalise
New York. During nearly
all the sections of the tour that involved riding on roads with cars, I was
jostling with drivers for space. The principle that a “safe space” creates an
environment for healthy interaction with others extends, I think, to
well-designed protected bike lanes, of
which the city still has far too few. The city’s ethnic geography is not
entirely a result of happy happenstance. Black people were barred for decades
from large areas and economic injustice continues to keep some people in less
desirable areas. The New York Police Department continues to do a far less good job than it should do. The police shrug at road safety problems – and it is
becoming gradually clearer that police corruption drives many of their decisions
about how to manage the roads.
|The graduation ceremony at Brooklyn College: a case study
in the value of "defending the hyphen".
But an event on June 21 underlined for me the privileges of having lived and cycled four years amid this bracing, if untidy, experiment. I rode from my office in
Manhattan down to in Flatbush that evening to see
my daughter graduate from middle school. For me, a highpoint of the event was a
brief address from Eric Adams, Brooklyn College Brooklyn’s
borough president, in which he told us it was vital to “defend the hyphen”. It
was critical, he said, in an era of intolerance to celebrate both the diversity
in a Brooklyn full of African-Americans,
Puerto Rican-Americans, Russian-Americans and the factors that made them all
Americans too. It was a message that was easy to appreciate in a hall packed
full of families originally from Asia, the former Soviet Union and South Asia
all seeking similar success for their children. But it was all the easier to
believe because I’d so recently come face to face with the principle's appalling opposite.