In A Seaside Town

To many, especially those steeped in the miserabilist aesthetic of Morrissey, the notion of a “seaside town” is unmistakably English, and refers to tatty, half-deserted resorts where holiday-making proletarians gamely ignore leaden skies and frigid winds to experience something distantly resembling a “day at the beach.”  Bear in mind that many English “beaches” are devoid of the usual amenities such as, for example, sand.  A “shingle beach” may sound vaguely exotic to Americans, but doesn’t disguise the reality that sunbathing (as if!) on one entails stretching out on a bed of stones.

Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to forget that New York City is also a seaside town, with long stretches of both Brooklyn and Queens facing directly on the same Atlantic Ocean that none too gently laps round England. The differences (we have sand, and at least three months or so of steaming hot weather) overwhelm most similarities, except perhaps on the last Sunday of March, when, buoyed by a hint of spring in the air, my friend John and I decided to take our bikes on a cross-Brooklyn ride to the fabled shores of Coney Island.

The previous day’s sunshine and beguilingly mild temperatures had vanished, but, we kept assuring ourselves, maybe the sky would clear up a bit later on. At any rate, the low 40s (say 5 or 6 degrees for our European cousins) would ensure that we didn’t get overheated on our longish (13+ miles each way, Google maps estimated) ride. Which was true; there was to be no overheating. Unfortunately, John thought it might be a good idea to wear shorts – which it had been during our previous Sunday’s ride – whereas I opted for the sort of clothing I used to wear for a day of hiking in the English countryside: long trousers, a wool-like (okay, polyester) hat, and a lined waterproof. My choice was to prove the more prescient.

The first part of our ride – through Bedford-Stuyvestant, the northern bit of Crown Heights, and into Prospect Park – went well. So did the next part, except that by the time we had exited the park and were trying to find our way to the dedicated bike path that led to Brighton Beach, it had started raining. Not a lot, just that fitful, nagging, more-than-a-drizzle-not-quite-a-downpour sort of rain to which years of living in England had made me almost oblivious. Unlike England, where rain of that sort can disappear (and of course return) as quickly as it came, this Brooklyn rain slowly but surely increased in intensity. Never to the point of being unbearable (John, who as I’ve noted was not dressed for it, might beg to differ), but enough to take some of the sheen off our otherwise exhilarating bike ride.

In a city that in recent years has dedicated itself (thanks, Mayor Bloomberg!) to creating hundreds of miles of bike lanes and paths, the Ocean Parkway path deserves special mention. With the briefest of interruptions (one block under construction), it carried us more than five miles, delivering us into the heart of Little Russia By The Sea (soon, according to the New Yorker, to be the setting of a Jersey Shore-style reality show).  If it weren’t for having to cross numerous streets (hey, Mayor Bloomberg, could you find a way to make all those annoying cars drive in tunnels underground?), it would be like a bicycle expressway!

By the time we got to Brighton, John was so wet and cold that we detoured off our planned route to search the shops for something warme for him to wear.  He wound up buying a jacket, gloves and hat from the very cheap and reasonably cheerful “Jackie’s Department Store” (John, a confirmed Manhattanite whose exposure to the quotidian realities of outer borough life, shall we say, limited, exited Jackie’s saying bemusedly, “So, apparently people actually buy clothes from places like this?”).  Then we were off down the boardwalk to Coney Island, another place John had never seen before (“This is it?” was about all he had to say).

The most inveterate Coney Island fancier would have had to admit it was a grim spectacle.  It was opening day for the tattered remnants of the once-proud amusement park, and apparently long queues had braved the elements earlier in the day for free rides on the venerable Cyclone (I rode it a couple times myself in May of 1964; I have no overwhelming desire to repeat the experience), but now only tiny knots of people remained, clustered around the handful of arcades that were open.  One exception: just off the boardwalk, 25 or 30 Mexicans appeared to be celebrating some sort of family occasion, blithely indifferent to the weather.

The language may have been different, but otherwise it could have been Cleethorpes, Skegness, or Scarborough, with the wind whipping in from the North Sea, spitting shards of ice at our faces.  We pedaled directly into it for the mile-long journey back to the Brighton Beach Bicycle Expressway, John giving voice to what I was only thinking: “It seemed an awful lot closer coming the other way.”

Once we turned toward home, the wind was at our backs, and though the rain hadn’t grown any gentler, it hadn’t gotten harder, either.  With his new layers of clothing, John was relatively dry and content, and I was almost ecstatic, to the point where I wondered if I might be going crazy.  Despite my years in England, I never fully embraced the concept of deliberately walking or riding around in the rain, but deliberately or not, I’d done quite a bit of it, and learned that after a certain point, being cold, wet and miserable can produce a sort of giddy hysteria.  I suspect it comes from the simultaneous realization that a) no matter how unpleasant the weather is, you’re probably not going to die from it; and b) although you’re not going to die from it, you’ll spend a lot longer wishing you were before things are likely to improve.

In order to show John the way to the Williamsburg Bridge, I took a slightly different route, heading up Bedford Avenue through the heart of South Williamsburg’s Hasidic district, which has been the scene of a rather heated three-sided conflict involving the local Hasidim, bicyclists, and the City of New York.  As near as I can piece things together, the city marked off a bike lane on Bedford, the Hasidim protested because it encouraged indecently dressed (in their view) cyclists to pedal through their neighborhood, and, possibly as a pre-election sop to potential voters, Mayor Bloomberg ordered the cycle markings removed.

Indignant cyclists then took it upon themselves to repaint (without permission) the cycle lane markings, at which point they were detained by anti-bicycle Hasidim, who turned them over to the police and blacked out the pavement markings again.  Or at least that’s as accurate a version as I’ve been able to uncover.  The media persist in casting it as a “Hasidim vs. Hipsters” struggle, and while I don’t begrudge them their facile use of alliteration, it’s not accurate: plenty of non-hipsters, John and yours truly among them, also ride bicycles and would like the protection that bicycle lanes confer.

In the past I’ve generally been a fan of the Hasidim, even though they sometimes give me the stink eye (if they deign to take notice of me at all) when I pass through their area, but this latest contretemps has sorely worked my nerves.  Look, I don’t appreciate having to look at people in spandex shorts either (nor, for that matter, do I appreciate having to cross paths with hipsters in grotty beards and ill-fitting retreads from the 1970s, but this is Williamsburg, and it kind of goes with the territory.

So my advice to Hasids who don’t appreciate the sight of bicyclists on Bedford Avenue, scantily clad or otherwise, is akin to that offered by Divine in the immortal Pink Flamingos: “Don’t look if it makes you sick.”  You have a right to believe whatever you want in terms of your religion, but you don’t have a right to impose it on the rest of us.

If it were just a case of erasing pavement markings, it would be an amusing nuisance, but what makes the Hasidim a more serious menace to cyclists is that they (okay, not all, but a significant number of them) simply refuse to acknowledge that cyclists even exist, let alone have a right to pedal through their community.   South Williamsburg Hasids routinely double park their vans and cars in what still function,  officially or not, as a bike lane, and will drive in front of, at, or into bicyclists as though they were invisible.  I can’t even count how many times one of them walked out in front of me before stopping to look at his watch, open his car door, or talk on his cell phone, forcing me to slam on my brakes and/or veer out into traffic.

Even the women get in on the act, ushering their broods into the bike lane as though Moses himself had parted the tide of onrushing cyclists.  At times I’ve wanted to shout at them, “Hey, you know a small child could be seriously injured or even killed by a bicycle,” but what’s the point?  As far as they’re concerned, I’m not even there.

If you think I’m making an unnecessarily big deal out of this, consider that the two times in recent years that I’ve come closest to being injured or killed by a vehicle have both come in the past two weeks, both on Bedford Avenue, and both involving vans driven by Hasidic gentlemen.  This recent Sunday, a black van pulled alongside and then turned left in front of me (no signal, no horn honk, nothing), and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting it.  But because the pavement was wet, I skidded, and nearly went under his wheels.

Thankfully, this gentleman at least made an effort to stop (well, slow down, anyway) when he saw me about to fall, providing a margin of safety that allowed me to recover my footing.  The previous week, a man driving a similar black van didn’t even make a pretense of slowing down or taking evasive action: if I wanted to avoid being knocked to kingdom come, that was up to me and none of his concern.  That time, fortunately, the pavement was dry, allowing me to stop in time, if only barely.

This latest Sunday, my feelings about South Williamsburg weren’t helped any by the fact that my rear tire went flat just as we left the area, which meant I had to walk my bike the rest of the way home, and which capped my mileage at 26.2 instead of 27.4.  At the bike shop, the repairman told me I’d run over a handful of wire staples.  “They’re always throwing them out in the street these days,” he said, without explaining who “they” were or why such an odd behavior would have suddenly become fashionable (I can’t remember the last time I had a bunch of wire staples in my hand, let alone felt impelled to throw them into the street).

I was immediately inclined to believe that this was yet another tactic of the Hasidim aimed at eliminating bike traffic, but it didn’t make sense: wouldn’t handfuls of staples have a similarly deleterious effect on their car tires?  At any rate, it was the first flat tire I’ve had in almost five years, and I wasn’t pleased.  On the other hand, it could have happened when I was stuck out there on the chilly Coney Island boardwalk instead of when I was within walking distance of home, so no serious complaints.

This weekend John called and invited me to ride with him to Nyack, up in Rockland County.  35 miles.  Each way.  I wasn’t free on the day he had in mind, but I have a feeling this will be happening soon.  Can spandex shorts be far behind?

9 thoughts on “In A Seaside Town

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    • April 7, 2010 at 11:15 pm

      The Hasidim have been there “since time immemorable”? You mean like a hundred years or so? In a city that’s nearly 400 years old? Cities are living organisms that grow and change, as do the neighborhoods within them.

      But nobody is suggesting that the Hasidim shouldn’t go on living there and prospering for as far into the future as they choose to. I’m only saying that whether or not South Williamsburg is considered “their” community, they don’t have any more right to impose their religious or aesthetic views on fellow citizens who wish to pass through on public thoroughfares than, for instance, North Williamsburg hipsters would to require all pedestrians on Bedford Avenue or in McCarren Park to sport appropriate facial hair.

      Also, I know you’re consumed with a deep, burning hatred for any white people, particularly youngish white people, who moved here more recently than your great-grandfather and/or have more money than you, but you’re still wrong about them being parasites who contribute nothing to the community. Yes, some of them are annoying, no doubt, but then some lifelong residents of African-American/Puerto Rican/Italian/Polish/etc. heritage are also annoying. The fact remains that the newcomers have opened all sorts of businesses and revitalized neighborhoods that not so long ago were little more than slums. If some of them did it with the help of their parents’ money, that doesn’t make it any less true.

  • April 7, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    You said: “I don’t appreciate having to look at people in spandex shorts either (nor, for that matter, do I appreciate having to cross paths with hipsters in grotty beards and ill-fitting retreads from the 1970s, but this is Williamsburg, and it kind of goes with the territory.”

    Umm.. the Hasids have been there from time immemorable. The hipster-yuppie lemming transplants have been there for.. less than a decade, max? So see, I would argue that it’s the yupsters who should’ve known what they were getting themselves into and what ‘comes with the territory,’ rather than the other way around. But hey now, since when have the entitled, privileged, leisure-class Brooklyn yupster transplants ever taken anyone into consideration but themselves?

    A more persuasive argument would be that the Hasids should have expected this when they started kicking all of the Puerto Ricans out of the tenements the Hasids own in order to make way for more pasty parentally-funded Peter Pan albino inbreds from Pennsyltucky to come and be ‘creative’ with Mommy and Daddy Suburban-bucks’ blank checkbook in hand.

    At the end of the day though, what it comes down to (in my opinion) is that the Hasids at least somewhat contribute to this city in that they earn their keep and (in traditional New York fashion) don’t seek to disturb other communities outside of their own. In other words, they are the polar opposite of the nuevo-Williamsburg and Park Slope hipster-yuppie Children of the Corn, who descend upon a neighborhood in homogeneous herds, drive out any residents who aren’t like them, shun any businesses who don’t cater to their pretentious overpriced taste, and leave nothing but a pseudo-‘creative’ cultural slug-slime-path in their pasty wake.

    Finally, when the mayor bows to Hasidic pressure, he isn’t merely engaging in a “pre-election sop to potential voters.” He’s doing what any local politician needs to do if he or she intends to remain in office. The Hasids ALL vote, and they all vote in unison, and donate just the same. As the mayor, piss them off and you’re done, a la David Dinkins. On the other hand, how many hipster-yuppie transplanted inbreds, in toto, do you think vote in the mayoral election? Try a fraction. They’re too busy playing Peter Pan, rushing to their jug band practices and looking for new ways to piss away their suburban parents’ 401k’s.

    No one in any political office of any significance in this city gives a shit because the whiny entitled Brooklyn yupster transplants are upset that their subsidized full-time-vacation lifestyles have been rained upon by the erasure of a few of their bike lanes. The real working people of this city, who vote and earn their keep, have got other priorities, and Bloomberg and his cronies are fully aware of that fact. So the yupsters can whine all they like in their nasally voices; it’s all falling on deaf ears. The bike lanes will stay erased, and the crybaby yupsters will have to find a more productive way to while away their infinite leisure time.

  • April 8, 2010 at 1:19 am

    I never said that neighborhoods don’t change. I simply challenged your statement that the Hasids were the ones who should accept what “comes along” with the hipster-yuppie inbreds’ new found “territory,” because that’s how hipster-yuppies are.

    And no one is saying that the yupsters shouldn’t be able to look however they want to look and wear whatever they want to wear (barring indecency). I was merely pointing out that the real people in this city, especially those in political office, are far more likely to be sympathetic to the group that has a legitimate reason for doing what they do (the Hasidim) than the group that is merely here on one big leisurely parentally-sponsored transient Brooklyn playdate.

    I have no beef with anyone, of any color, who moves to Brooklyn for a legitimate reason. We Brooklynites welcome newcomers from all over the world and country with open arms. The only group that we have a problem with is a certain inbred contingent who inexplicably chose Brooklyn, New York, as their stage to prove to the captain of their high school’s football team and homecoming queen back in Pennsyltucky, who made fun of them for all those years, that they really are the cool ones after all. And somehow Brooklyn wound up designated as the social reject mecca of the USA. Unfortunately, however, no matter how ‘urban’ the yups swear they’ve become by sipping on $7 cups of organic tea and sneering at the ‘townies,’ they’re not fooling anyone as to their whitebread suburban roots.

    Glad to see you’re perpetuating the myth of these Williamburg and Park Slope yupster transplants being “young,” but when I’m in those neighborhoods I’m always surprised to find that the majority of these so-called “young” prancing Peter Pans appear to be the same age as me (early 30’s) if not even older, flitting around on skateboards and scooters like disaffected 14 year olds.

    As for money, I worked my way up from dirt nothing beginnings and now work at a top firm in midtown (a yupster transplant’s worst nightmare). I probably make more in a day than your average yupster inbred beardo makes in a month at his place of ‘funemployment’ (e.g., coffee shop or internship). On the contrary, our beef is with fake, arrogant, pretentious people, period. And no one fits that description better than the melanin-deficient herds of bearded and knock-kneed hayseeds flocking into North and South Brooklyn by the tens of thousand. Add to that the derision and lack of respect these psuedo-creative albino inbreds exude toward the hardworking people who were here before them, and whose communities they shit upon with their immature suburban-derived garbage, and the sentiment shifts from distaste to downright hatred.

    Finally, how many of these hipster-yuppie so-called ‘artists’ or ‘musicians’ have actually made an impact on society as a whole, outside of their own hipster-yuppie bubble echo chamber? Try zero. I have never, in all my scrutiny of the yup culture and lifestyle, heard of even ONE SINGLE yup artist, musician or personality who’s amounted to more than a stream of piss outside of their own inbred communities of Park Slope, Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill. And these are supposed to be some of the most ‘creative’ places in the country??

    Of course, the yupsters’ standard retort to that would simply be the high school level response–i.e., that they’re ‘indie’ and they really don’t want to be discovered by ‘the mainstream.’ Yet what these yups don’t realize is that no matter how ‘DIY’ something is, if there’s truly something to it, the outside world is going to start catching on to it no matter what–look at punk, for example. On the contrary, despite the yups’ endless nasal shrieks of how ‘innovative’ and attention-worthy their goofball yupster culture is, and the endless amounts of Mommy and Daddy Suburban-Bucks money that they pour into their clownish endeavors, with every passing day the whole concept of Brooklyn-transplanted hipster-yuppie culture falls deeper and deeper into obscurity. In a few decades, all of gentrified Brooklyn combined won’t have amounted to even a blip on this country’s cultural radar.

    Contrast that with the INSANE amount of incredible Irish, Italian, Jew, Puerto Rican and black musicians, artists, comedians, writers, filmmakers, etc., that came out of Brooklyn in the pre-yupster years and became world-famous. And the yups are over here claiming that they somehow ’saved’ and ‘improved’ Brooklyn? That’s the best joke I’ve ever heard from a yup. They’re all fucking dreaming. And I look forward to sitting back into my old age and watching the yups and their rancid culture implode–one beardo at a time.

  • April 8, 2010 at 7:47 am

    I’m from Pennsyltucky and still go to university there and this really great band called Bomb the Music Industry hailing from Brooklyn, the area of Park Slope I’d guess, played in my brother’s house. Just illustrating that there does exist a good sample of young people that do indeed catch whiff of and hold onto what’s happening in New York with no delusions of grandeur in sight.

  • April 18, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Ya know, I used to think Aaron Cometbus was so cool and intriguing because he would temporarily settle in these sort of random, relatively low-profile towns and cities and just write about the beauty of the day-to-day authenticity that went on there–the unpretentious lives being lived by the everyday people that lived there. I always felt as though everywhere he went, he held a profound respect for the people he met there and their way of life. And he succeeded in bringing that through in his writing.

    Fast-forward a decade or so later, imagine my dismay to learn that after all this time he came to settle down in, of all places, basically the most pretentious, unoriginal, follow-the-leader place in the country (if not world)–a neighborhood teeming with the most lame and uninspired excuses for art, music and literature I have ever come across in my lifetime. A neighborhood where inspiration and originality go to die. Needless to say, it is still a bit difficult for me to understand how someone like Aaron Cometbus decided to go from marching to his own drummer to following the hipster-yuppie Pied Piper here to gentrified Brooklyn. Very disappointing.

    • October 7, 2013 at 11:29 am

      @ Brooklyn Love – Somehow,I completely agree with you and share your views on the pretentious, “non-mainstream” like (on the outside, but deeply entrenched in the capitalist, money, image-driven and conformist world)yuppies. Having moved recently from London, where I lived in a predominantly Jamaican neighbourhood of Brixton, I must admit that the gentrification and the phenomenon of expelling traditional communities out of their areas where they have lived for many generations by catering to more affluent newcomers, can be seen worldwide. The big cities all over the world are being turned into enclaves of the privileged, wealthy individuals whilst the working-class and the middle-class groups are being relocated to more distant satellite zones on the city outskirts, as it was and still is the case in the apartheidesque urban landscape of South African cities. Though, on the contrary to their Williamsburg/Brooklyn counterparts, the yupsters of Brixton seek inspiration in the Caribbean and African art. However, this is also somewhat superficial, as it is hip to be multicultural these days. Nevertheless, they still share common space at Brixton Village, where you can see traditional food stalls next to hipster-like restaurants, cafes and boutiques. But due to the hipster invasion, the local shop owners live in constant fear that the rents will go up and thus they will run out of business. Perhaps the suburban kids’ ignorance towards the local culture, be it Hassidic, Puerto-Rican, Mexican, Polish, Italian, African-American, reflects their suburban American upbringing – rejection of everything outside the “All American” cultural boundaries, and as a result, imposition of the segregationist-like and anti-miscegenation-like beliefs of their “forefathers”? Just an observation.

  • April 26, 2010 at 12:54 am

    Aaaand it seems as though Aaron Cometbus is just one of what appears to be a trend of once-respectable “punk” icons following the nasal wail of the hipster-yuppie Pied Piper all the way to the homogeneous and soulless streets of gentrified Brooklyn, no different from the tens of thousands of parentally-subsidized bearded and granny-dress-clad suburban lemmings who are already here:

  • April 27, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Larry, was my comment TMI? Just between us, I do think your pieces are insignificantly lovely.


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