Rack Rancor: new city bike rack reveals neighborhood tension in Crown Heights

Rack Rancor: new city bike rack reveals neighborhood tension in Crown Heights
Photo by Stefano Giovaninni

A bike rack occupying a parking spot on a bustling Crown Heights commercial strip has become a flashpoint for tensions over development in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

The Department of Transportation installed a bike corral — four bike racks that sit parallel in the street — in front of Little Zelda on Franklin Avenue in November after the new cafe’s owner worked with the city and the local community board to get bring one to the street, along with two planters, by agreeing to maintain it.

But the city didn’t consult longtime neighbors and local business owners about nixing the parking space, says a group that started a petition to remove the corral.

“What began as an offense has become more than just a bike corral,” said Constance Nugent-Miller, who has lived in the neighborhood since she immigrated from Jamaica in 1970.

The city installed the bike rack on a rapidly developing portion of Franklin Avenue where 52 new businesses have opened since 2008, and Nugent-Miller says it has become a symbol of one group of people moving in and disregarding another.

“It’s about communities not communicating with each other,” said Nugent-Miller, who gathered more than 200 signatures on a petition she started with neighbor Karen Granville. “One thing I noticed in this outreach was that the merchants who were African-American were clueless [about where the corral came from].”

Neighboring businesses confirmed that they weren’t approached by Little Zelda’s owners — or the city — about surrendering the parking space to cyclists.

“It’s good to have places to park your bike, but I have customers who come in cars too,” said Lily Johnson-Bibia, who owns the bakery Lily & Fig, across the street from the corral. “I support the effort to get it off the street; I would like bike racks on the sidewalk.”

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a public process to bring the bike corral to Franklin Avenue.

Kate Blumm, who opened Little Zelda in March 2012 with her husband, went through the community board process to request the bike corral, which was unanimously voted through Board 8’s transportation committee and approved by the entire board in October after presentations by Blumm and the transportation department.

“That process is there for a reason, which is to make the community aware of what is going on in the neighborhood,” Blumm said. “I feel badly people weren’t aware, but we participated exactly because we wanted to have this discussion.”

Board 8’s transportation committee just reaffirmed its support for the rack with another unanimous vote last Tuesday in response to Nugent-Miller’s petition. A board spokeswoman said that the matter could come up for a vote again in front of the whole board, depending on the decision of chairwoman Nizjoni Granville and district manager Michelle George.

Bike corrals are a recent initiative for the transportation department, which has installed at least four on commercial streets in Brooklyn since 2011, to the delight of bicycle advocates.

Little Zelda started a counter-petition of its own to support the racks, posting it both in the store and online, and has more than 230 signatures online so far. But while Nugent-Miller collected her signatures among local residents and businesses, the pro-corral online petition includes supporters from places like Romania, Turkey, Netherlands and the Czech Republic — none of which are in biking distance of Crown Heights.

“That’s an issue,” said Nugent-Miller.

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.

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