Holding onto the Bible and the land

Meeting attendees study handouts illustrating bike lane alternatives.

Meeting attendees study handouts illustrating bike lane alternatives.

Yesterday the District of Columbia Department of Transportation held a public meeting to share revised alternatives for proposed protected bicycle lanes in the city’s Shaw neighborhood. The meeting followed an earlier event in October 2015 where African American church congregations found themselves in an adversarial position against bicycle lane proponents.

It was the latest chapter in more than a century of gentrification in Washington.

More than 300 people packed the auditorium in a D.C. charter school. After presentations from D.C. transportation officials, nearly 50 D.C. residents shared their comments. According to the meeting moderator, District officials had already received more than 2,000 comments about the proposed bike lanes.

KIPP DC-Will Academy auditorium shortly before the meeting began.

KIPP DC-WILL Academy auditorium shortly before the meeting began.

Most of speakers supported constructing protected bike lanes. They represented Washington’s diverse population: young, old, African American, Asian, white, wealthy, and poor. They were longtime residents and newcomers.

The folks who opposed the proposed bike lanes represented the neighborhood’s historic African American churches. Only one public official, Alexander Padro (ANC 6-E-01), spoke in opposition of the bike lanes.

I’d like to present two sides of the complex issue policy makers are grappling with in this case. One side represents the African American churches and their congregations which have been battling displacement pressures for more than a century. The other side is represented by a native Washingtonian who relies on her bicycle for commuting and daily survival.

A bike lane passes across the street from Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, M Street NW in Washington, D.C. Cyclists battled the church in 2013 over building a bike lane in M Street.

A bike lane passes across the street from Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, M Street NW in Washington, D.C. Cyclists battled the church in 2013 over building a bike lane in M Street.

Rev. William H. Lamar IV is the pastor Metropolitan A.M.E. Church. Back in 2013, his church (in the 1500 block of M Street NW) opposed the construction of protected bike lanes in front of their building. District officials and the church compromised in that case.

Rev. William H. Lamar IV speaking at the bike lanes public meeting.

Rev. William H. Lamar IV speaking at the bike lanes public meeting.

Here is what Rev. Lamar told the crowd yesterday afternoon:

Look at this from a macro perspective as opposed to a micro perspective. The history of the United States and European conquest of these lands is one of land grabbing in the name of God and in the name of commerce. It’s a history of dislocation. It’s a history of exploitation.

This is not simply about bike lanes. This is about the suburbanization of poverty. This is about new neighbors coming into the city wanting to make the city over into their image. And we welcome all neighbors but we will not allow our histories to be disrespected.

The church where we sit is the longest continuously held piece of property by persons of African descent in the District of Columbia. And the city that you want to move into, the city that you are living in, was created by the blood and sacrifice of our ancestors who ended slavery in the District of Columbia. Who made sure that persons other than white males could work in the federal government and in constituent services around the District of Columbia.

And to make it inconvenient for us to come to these places that have made this city what it is is not tolerable for us. We cannot in the interest of your convenience eliminate our ability to come to worship and to do the work that sustains the community. And we’re not just here on Sundays. But we’re here every day during the week doing our work.

And so what we look forward to is being able to work with you in some type of way that does not impact houses of worship. The natives said that when they first encountered Europeans, they had the land. They had the land and the Europeans had the Bible. Some years later, they had the Bible and the Europeans had the land. We intend on keeping the Bible and the land.

The second example comes from a woman who has lived in Washington her entire life. She explained why she thinks the protected bike lanes are necessary:

I am a native Washingtonian [of] 55 years. I currently bike and have been biking for approximately eight years now. Cycling is not a pastime – I heard it referenced to that earlier today and it particularly hit me hard. It’s not a pastime for very many people.

Sherry Joiner

I cannot afford a car. Cycling is how I get around. It is how I do my grocery shopping. It’s how I get to work. Yes, it’s recreation when I want it to be recreation. I don’t have an interest to be riding next to a car that could smash me, cripple me, or kill me. It’s actually what I have to do. It’s what I have to do to get around.

I would like there to be the bicycle lane. I believe that safety is a priority. Safety is a priority above anything else, that is what I believe. I know that we can pull it together to help parishioners get to church, get to all of the events that they need to get to.

My parents – my family, I’m sorry – the Brooks family in Northeast D.C. had the same problem. Unfortunately, the church was sold. But I understand both sides but I will not bow down to safety not being looked at as a priority for all of us to get around.

And lastly, cyclists are not against you. They’re with you because we all want to be in Washington, D.C. living safely.

One of the clergy who attended neatly summed up the predicament as a “culture clash.” That is an apt description of the situation and of gentrification in general. It will be interesting to see how the D.C. government responds to the needs of the many people and perspectives presented.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein