Kate Blumm moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in June 2011, seven weeks before her daughter, Zelda, was born. After “falling in love with the merchant community,” Ms. Blumm, and her husband, Michael De Zayas, opened a cafe last March on Franklin Avenue called Little Zelda.
The couple began to notice that bicycle parking seemed to be scarce in an area where bike traffic seemed to be on the rise.
So they did what a handful of other small-business owners in New York had started to do: ask the city to install a bike corral, a new style of rack that accommodates multiple bicycles and is installed in the street, taking the place of a parked car. Ms. Blumm’s request, which followed the procedure required by the Department of Transportation, was approved by the local community board. The corral, for which Little Zelda is the designated volunteer maintenance partner, was installed in front of the cafe in November.
But Ms. Blumm and Mr. De Zayas didn’t anticipate what happened next — the bike corral set off backlash among many longtime residents and merchants in Crown Heights, who say that they were not consulted and that their parking needs were disregarded.
The Transportation Department says bike corrals alleviate sidewalk congestion and attract more business to a neighborhood, at the expense of only one car parking spot. “We did this thinking that we are contributing something to the neighborhood to make it more accessible to some people,” said Ms. Blumm, who is also the communications manager at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
But far from being a welcome addition, the corral has led to a petition seeking its removal, a counter-petition in support, heated community-board discussions and acrimonious debates on local blogs. How a 24-foot-by-7 foot rectangle of public outdoor space has provoked such controversy is a question that has many in the neighborhood puzzled.
At the heart of the conflict seems to be a tension between newcomers and longtime residents. “There is a degree of distrust in the neighborhood,” said Constance Nugent-Miller, a nurse who has lived in Crown Heights for 43 years and helped start the petition to remove the corral. “It has divided us.”
In a city where gentrification debates usually involve real estate, the bike corral has emerged as a curious symbol, one that conjures feelings of displacement in some and empowerment in others.
Chuck Platt, a graduate student and cyclist who has lived in the neighborhood for one year, says he supports the “subtle ways” the city is making it more difficult for cars. “When you put in more bike-friendly access, it increases traffic to an area for the better,” he said.
But Roger Malcolm, who has lived in Crown Heights for 12 years and is also a cyclist, scoffs at the idea of locking either of his two bicycles at the corral. Mr. Malcolm believes the bike corral, while it is public property, sends an implicit signal that it is only for patrons of Little Zelda. It is an example, he said, of how newcomers are “changing the neighborhood.”
Bike corrals are installed after a merchant or organization gathers signatures and applies to the Transportation Department. If the agency signs off, a corral has to be approved by the local community board. The Crown Heights bike corral was approved through this process.
But some residents believe the board’s vote was not indicative of how the neighborhood feels. At a recent meeting, a resident said that people attend community board meetings only when something has already affected them.
Diana Foster, a longtime resident who is also a member of the board, says she initially voted in favor of the corral not knowing all of the details, including the return of a public bus route that would eat up more parking spaces on the street.
“This is bigger than a bike corral,” Ms. Foster said. “We’re supposed to be a community. The board is supposed to serve the good of the whole community, and not a specific set of people. I’m feeling kind of offended.”
Part of what ignited the discord, many say, is flawed communication about the corral’s arrival. The first petition in support of the corral was largely kept inside Little Zelda, rather than taken to other stores, churches or apartments on the block. Marcus Roman, a Crown Heights resident and employee of Bella Greens, a nearby shop, says this had the effect of making Little Zelda look like “an in-house club.”
“If this is about improving the streetscape, shouldn’t merchants and residents be involved?” said Lily Johnson-Dibia, the owner of Lily & Fig, a bakery across the street from the cafe.
The transportation committee of the local community board rejected an initiative to remove the corral but has asked the city’s Transportation Department to assess its value.
And the bike corral is expected to be a discussion topic at a town-hall meeting in March being organized by the Crow Hill Community Association.
“The bike corral is in a lot of ways a trigger for a conversation that had to happen at some point,” Ms. Blumm said. “As naïve as it may sound, we never expected it to become a conversation about anything more than a piece of metal in the street.”