Last week a critical mass of mostly black kids on BMX bikes swarmed the Cross-Bronx expressway in a glorious reclamation of space from the monopoly of the automobile.
Predictably the mass ride quickly caught the attention of media and the NYPD, who arrested 16 of the teenagers, prompting outcry of a disproportionate response by law enforcement given their ‘crime’.
Insanely, any group ride of more than 50 people is illegal in New York City. Imagine if such were the case for motorists.
Despite the success of critical mass-inspired rides the world over in promoting better cycling infrastructure, police are still mostly trained to see them as subversive, lawless, and chaotic.
But the true crime here is that a freeway lacerates the heart of one of the densest cities in the world, spewing toxic exhaust into the air, cutting neighbors off from each other, blaring noise pollution all day and night. These kids may or may not have known the depth of significance of their action. They may have only been doing it for fun.
Before resistance to urban freeways became organized by people like Jane Jacobs, freeway construction tore cities apart, displacing hundreds of thousands in cities like New Orleans, Detroit, and Chicago. Urban renewal gutted the poorest neighborhoods, the ghettos, black and immigrant-owned businesses, all in the name of progress. That progress was always linked to increasing the predominance of the automobile.
The Cross-Bronx Expressway where these riders reclaimed space was the creation of freeway planning dictator Robert Moses, who designed destructive highways all across North America that still damage quality of life to this day. His legacy remains that of a development czar who despised community-driven process.
Hundreds of [Black] Kids Biked on the Cross-Bronx Expressway — So NYPD Arrested Them https://t.co/jotBDCaNKY
— E HarlemPreservation (@EH_Preservation) September 21, 2017
“In the early 1950s, we read that our neighborhood: the South Bronx, and many other working-class immigrant neighborhoods very like it had been chosen for destruction. The papers said hundreds of buildings were going to be torn down, thousands of people were going to be pushed out to build a new highway. There was a big protest meeting at Taft High School, and my father took me. I said I couldn’t believe “our government” would do this. My father said governments had all sorts of people inside them. The one to watch out for was Robert Moses. Moses was known for being flamboyantly vicious. But his projects got built like this: draw lines from point A to point B, obliterate everything in between.
In our old neighborhood, the expressway project got underway. Eventually my life also got underway. We had moved. But I kept going back. One big assembly point for construction was an overpass at the Grand Concourse and 174th Street. There was what was once a vest-pocket park, now a storage dump, that offered a spectacular view. It attracted many of Robert Moses’s victims. They were older than me, often involuntarily retired; their homes and jobs no longer existed. “That bastard,” they said, “we’ll get him someday.” The Bronx’s ruin left thousands of people feeling depressed, sometimes enraged, but always more helpless than they had thought they were.”
What kind of asshole builds the Bronx expressway in the first place?
— RebelMetropolis (@RebelMetropolis) September 21, 2017
While I’d much rather take a train, I can concede that for long distance trips, freeways between cities can work. They do not work when rammed through the heart of a city. They don’t work for the people who have to live next to it, and they don’t work for the people driving on them either. A grid of city streets affords equity. Ramming a leviathan of high speed traffic through that grid is a reckless urban planning disaster.
Quite simply, freeways don’t belong in cities. The quicker we tear them down, the quicker we’ll reduce our urban carbon footprint while having a great deal more money for sustainable transit modes like bikes, buses, and commuter rail.
Many urban freeways have already been torn down, or were halted by people who saw their city as a place and saw their place in it. By asserting their right to the city, they asserted their ability to shape an urban landscape that’s cleaner, quieter, and built for the people who already live there.
Whether it was their intention or not, that’s the kind of city these BMX kids were helping create when they rode in civil disobedience. We owe them for reminding us the power we have in numbers, especially on bikes.
See you in the streets.