Ride the Cobblestones on Vinegar Hill

March 22, 2013

OPINION, By Jen Benepe

A recent post in the Brooklyn Paper has unfairly stigmatized neighborhood activists who have gathered a petition to prevent the building of a bike lane through their historic district.

The article points to two recent petitions being circulated by residents asking the city’s Department of Transportation to run the bike lane outside of their historic cobble-stoned area.

Vinegar Hill streets are built with historic Belgian blocks which have an irreplaceable character and history.

The new bike lane would remove a “lane” of stones, replacing them with flat, modern stones suitable for bike riders.

But the chastising tone of the article is misguided.

Writes Jaime Lutz, “One of the petitions hosted atchange.org, demands the Greenway be re-routed out of the small residential neighborhood in order to protect Water Street’s historic Belgian blocks — and prevent a steady stream of cyclists from disrupting the quaint atmosphere of their historic district.”

A careful read of the petitions show that residents are not against cyclists–they are up in arms because the historic nature of the stones would be destroyed, resulting in a miss-mash of different stones, and a permanent ruination of the aesthetic and historic nature of the street.

Residents’ concerns make sense. For one, cyclists in towns all over Belgium and other European countries regularly ride on old cobblestones. If they can’t ride them, they simply dismount.

Several years ago I rode the cobblestones in an old village outside of San Juan, PR during a drenching downpour, and I never fell. It takes some getting used to, but it’s not impossible.

You won’t find too many European cities dregging up their old streets to put in their place brand new flat bricks of a different color. It would be like adding a glen plaid insert to your favorite tweed coat–more than a fashion faux pas and more like a crazy person’s desperate patchwork.

Belgian blocks are not what we think, writes the blog the Historic European Cobblestone. Rather, “Belgian Block is a generic term used to describe huge blocks of stone, having little or no affiliation with Belgium itself,” they write.

“Back when European ships set sail from ports such as Antwerp, in search of goods to trade, large blocks of stone were used as ballast for ships that were too light. When a ships belly would be filled with goods purchased, the blocks of stone would be left behind. Some U.S. port cities have happily benefited, paving the roads of towns in Boston, New York, Charleston and others. ”

Residents’ objections voiced in the first petition are reasonable where the blocks are concerned, but not their  arguments that the neighborhood only has room for cars and parking and not a bike lane. The Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association writes,

The narrowness of Hudson Avenue cannot accommodate two lanes of cyclists, two lanes of cars, and also parking. This congestion hazard will increase when the demolition of the power plant begins.

Vinegar Hill is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that juts out into the water, and is known for its historic character.

It’s this kind of thinking that prevents progress in reducing congestion in the first place. The group’s third argument that  since “the Greenway and D.O.T.’s Implementation Plan would occupy with cyclists a full six city blocks of our small, ten-block neighborhood…[it] would introduce a volume of cycle traffic disproportionate to that absorbed more easily by larger neighborhoods,” is backwards thinking to the max.

Breaking the car ownership and parking dependency is one of the toughest steps in creating a high quality of life. Cars should be secondary when it comes to public space, and pedestrian and bicycle traffic should be run through the neighborhood in a contiguous flow of the bike path.

The second petition being sent to the city by the same group states that they are opposed to changing the character of the historic neighborhood through the replacement of stones due to water main construction and the bike lane, though they are not opposed to a bike lane on the existing stones. They write;

I oppose the use of machine-made or machine-altered cobblestones of any kind or for any purpose in Vinegar Hill because they are incompatible with the designated historic character of our landmarked neighborhood, of which our Belgian blocks are a vital and irreplaceable component.
I also oppose the addition of a bike lane on Water Street made from anything but our own historic Belgian Blocks.
This measns infrastructure changes to Water Street (sewer work, water work, etc.) should faithfully restore in kind, not replace or redesign in any way, our historic Belgian block street surfaces.

This makes total sense, and it’s a petition you should sign.  Cyclists can walk through the short distance on Vinegar Hill or learn to ride like the Belgians. But they must also have a protected bike lane, free from the fear of cars and other dangerous impediments.


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