Atlantic Cities

A Very Different Reception for Bike Lanes in Brooklyn's Poorest Neighborhood

A Very Different Reception for Bike Lanes in Brooklyn's Poorest Neighborhood
Sarah Goodyear

A new stretch of bike lanes debuted in Brooklyn this week, but this time they're not being met with outrage or protests.

The physical distance between a famously contested Prospect Park West bike lane in Brooklyn's upscale Park Slope neighborhood and the city's newest lane, on Brownsville’s Mother Gaston Boulevard, is only about three and a half miles. But the economic gap is huge. Brownsville remains one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, with a stubbornly high crime rate.

All the more reason, says longtime Brownsville resident Bettie Kollock-Wallace, to provide better infrastructure for the many area residents who ride bicycles for transportation and exercise, and for the many more who want to but are scared to try.

At 75, Kollock-Wallace has the posture and muscle tone of a person half her age. She credits a lifetime of physical activity that began when she was a girl in South Carolina. “I have been an athletically inclined person from birth,” she says. “I think I came out kicking.”

After retiring as an educator, Kollock-Wallace threw herself into a variety of fitness pursuits – becoming a certified physical trainer, learning how to swim and teaching others to do the same as a volunteer at the local recreation center, and riding her trusty 20-year-old Royce Union bicycle.

But the attitude she got from drivers on the street bothered her. “People do not respect bikers,” she says. “They have a tendency to resent them.” Friends and neighbors who might have been interested in riding with her were put off by the hostile environment. “A lot of people have fear of the traffic,” she says.


Bettie Kollock-Wallace worked for two years to bring bike lanes to Brownsville. (Sarah Goodyear)

So she set out to do something about it. Kollock-Wallace serves as the chair of the local community board, a position that has allowed her to advocate for improvements in the neighborhood she's called home for 40 years. One of the improvements she wanted to see was bike lanes. So, back in 2011, she started pushing.

“You see, some of us bloom when we’re old,” she says with a mischievous smile, referring to her role as a community advocate. “You have to either have to have a lot of energy or be a little bit crazy, and I’m some of both.”

The new bike lanes are just one of many efforts by neighborhood partners to increase opportunities for healthier living in Brownsville, including walking groups for seniors and a program that brings fresh produce to the neighborhood.

The Brownsville Partnership worked together with the city’s departments of health and transportation to get community support for the bike lanes, an effort that took two years. A host of other partners, including the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives and the local business improvement district, were also part of the effort.

“It took two years of love, perseverance, and collaboration,” said Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, director of the Brownsville Partnership, as she stood outside the Brownsville Bike Shop on Mother Gaston Boulevard. “Now Brownsville is no longer disconnected.”

Several speakers at the ribbon-cutting emphasized that the lanes would provide a link between the long-isolated streets of Brownsville and the rest of Brooklyn.

In her speech to the modest crowd that assembled for the ribbon-cutting, Kollock-Wallace issued a challenge.

“It is a pleasure to be a model for all of you who are younger than I am,” she said to cheers. “And if you have not yet chosen to be a model, let’s do so today. Everybody’s watching you – everybody’s watching you. So let’s do something that will make people a better people.”

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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