Monday 4 July 2016

A tour of tolerant diversity, the horrors of its opposite - and why I'm sorry to say goodbye

I was waiting in line for Salvadorean food, standing next to a black fellow cyclist after the Transportation Alternatives Brooklyn-Queens Tour through New York’s 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 New York 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 else.

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 New York’s ethnic patchwork. The morning of the Brooklyn-Queens Tour, I started at my home in traditionally Italian-American Carroll Gardens 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 Brooklyn Bridge, Hasidic Jewish South Williamsburg, heavily Polish Greenpoint then over the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge into areas of Queens that are variously East Asian, South Asian and Hispanic.
Diversity Plaza: a twee name for a high ideal
At one point where a particularly large number of seams come together, in Jackson Heights, I rode along a block recently rather tweely renamed “Diversity Plaza”. 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.

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 Bosnia 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 Lincoln Center 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.

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.
A Jewish couple wait to cross Ocean Parkway - an ethnic
stronghold, yet close to diversity.
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 Crown Heights. The area was the last to feature full-scale inter-racial rioting in 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 Orlando 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 hotel.
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 C├ęsar 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 Queens 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.
The Orlando vigil: a critical reminder of the importance
of "safe spaces"
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 Brooklyn College 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’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.


  1. Darn, sorry that you'll be leaving. We need every voice we can get to make things better here, and yours is a good one.

    Good luck with London, I hear it's recently become a much more interesting place, in both good and bad ways.

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  3. Thanks, Robert, for chronicling your living and riding in New York City these past several years. You've added greatly to the discourse about safe streets here and elsewhere. I look forward to reading your accounts of cycling London's streets, once again.

  4. We will miss you on the streets of New York City. Wishing you safe travels in London. Keep posting.


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