Detente in the Billburg Bike Lane Wars

07/07/2010 3:30 AM |

Entering the Williamsburg outpost of bike activist organization Time’s Up—through a narrow alley of cracked plaster and rudely exposed brick—feels a bit like entering the inner sanctum of a Shanghai black marketeer. The imposing figure of Gaylen Hamilton—the man with the shaved head and six-inch Fu Manchu—doesn’t exactly help either.

Mr. Hamilton is the head mechanic at this improvised, half-outdoor bike workshop on South 6th Street, the man in charge of a rotating staff of volunteer bike-fixers whose sole purpose is to take old bikes and rehabilitate them for sale (or rental). As Mr. Hamilton (who’s not such a scary guy once you start talking to him) tells me with vehemence, “This is not a bike repair shop.” Indeed, it’s not—but it is many other things.

Time’s Up has been advocating for a full-scale bike revolution since 1987 (with some guerilla gardening along the way), and over the last decade has been at the forefront of bike activism in New York. Along with organizing high-profile events like Critical Mass, Time’s Up provides free workshops for New Yorkers interested in learning how to take care of their bikes, a personal investment in transportation autonomy that Mr. Hamilton sees as integral to real urban bicycle culture.

For all the chaos normally associated with volunteer projects, Mr. Hamilton—who worked in finance for ten years before losing his job last year—seems to run a tight ship, relying on beer and pizza bribery and a no-nonsense disposition to get the most from unpaid labor. “I can be an asshole,” he explains. “[Time’s Up founder] Bill [DiPaola] has the whole organization to worry about—I have the luxury of direct communication.” Aside from his managerial asperity, Mr. Hamilton brings a Zen-like pragmatism to the undertaking, a fierce calm that came in handy recently when Time’s Up received a shipping container from Japan containing over 500 bikes, piled together in a thick bramble of metal and rubber. “There’s a Zen art to untangling bicycles,” he explained, “It takes time, but once you start to see it, it happens…”

So how does a cash-strapped grassroots bike activist group set up shop on a high-rent Williamsburg block? An orthodox Jew named Baruch Hertzfeld. For those keeping track of the Hipsters vs. Chasids bike lane wars of the last year, the idea of a bike-loving religious Jew letting activists use his backyard seems absurd, but Hertzfeld might just be the man to bring peace to South Williamsburg. As Hamilton tells me, Hertzfeld has been encouraging Chasids to borrow bikes so they can at least have the experience themselves. “And I never have a problem with those loaners,” continues Hamilton. “The Chasids are the best about bringing them back. Though I think a lot of them drive elsewhere to use the bikes.”

While a doublewide bike lane through the heart of Chasidic Williamsburg isn’t exactly on the horizon, this latest olive branch—in the form of a pair of bicycle handles—is a start.