Boasting two Ivy League degrees, Henry “Hank” Gutman recently retired as partner from the Simpson Thacher & Bartlett law firm, one of the top ten most profitable in the country. He also recently became NYC’s transportation commissioner.
Upon appointment, Gutman promised 10,000 new bicycle racks by 2022, triple the city’s current target. For this, he was hailed by Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets, both pro-bicycle, anti-car activist groups. Hank and his wife are longtime residents of the tony, affluent neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights — a place of much charm, where obsessions like bike lanes are as “virtuous” as they are First World.
Forty-five minutes away by subway, along 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, is Brooklyn’s Chinatown, created by immigrants scraping together a living in an area hollowed out by the 1980s crime epidemic. Through toil and enterprise, this Chinatown has grown larger than NYC’s original Manhattan Chinatown. The narrow 8th Avenue artery, with just two travel lanes, usually bustles with freight trucks, buses, cars and motorized delivery bikes serving local businesses and residents.
Now Hank of Brooklyn Heights has waltzed into the neighborhood, dictating change. In June, he hit the community with plans to take away one of the two traffic lanes on 8th and also 7th avenues. These changes will suffocate Chinatown’s traffic, and therefore, its ability to conduct business.
Before the pandemic, the sidewalks along 8th Avenue were crowded with folks of all ages, from boisterous kids to laborers with hand trucks to ambling grandmothers. The area was not built for wide, tree-lined avenues and spacious parks, but this was what the Chinese immigrants could find, and they made an economically viable community out of it.
Then lockdown hit. Businesses lost traffic, residents lost jobs, shops shuttered. On April 13, 2021, The New York Times headlined “A Disastrous Year for Brooklyn’s Chinatown: It’s Just So Hard.” Over three dozen shops closed for good. One restaurant laid off 100 workers, another all but four of its 60 workers. With the lockdown lifting only last month, the community now struggles to claw its way back. Viability is uncertain.
And despite all this, Hank wants to remove pathways vital for commercial deliveries to make bike lanes and serve a progressive push to go green. He probably doesn’t have a clue that Chinese immigrants are naturally green — reusing, repurposing, recycling and conserving energy from thrift and necessity, not elite fashion.
More importantly, these bike lanes are the last thing the people of the community need. The ages, incomes, livelihoods and recreational habits of the hard-up residents here are poles apart from those of Hank’s New York City bike aficionados. Perhaps Hank is blind to this fact. Or maybe Hank, in the legendary style of Marie Antoinette, is simply saying to us peasants: “Let them eat cake!”
His plans are just another instance of the city’s virtue-signaling elites dismissing working people. From the comfort of safe homes, they argue for defunding the police and let drug addicts loose on streets while less fortunate neighborhoods fend for themselves against mounting crime. As they efficiently work from home, they dictate capricious lockdown rules and issue fines with abandon against struggling goods-and-service providers. While sending their own kids to private or screened schools, they dumb down public schools and hide the evidence to close the racial “achievement gap.” They evangelize for the hyper-racism of Critical Race Theory while Asians are racially scapegoated in education, and blacks are trammeled by lowered expectations and learned helplessness.
Let them eat cake!
Hank’s traffic plans are scheduled for October. In the meantime, the Chinese community is up in arms, organizing multiple protests. Assembly Member Peter Abbate, a true, steadfast friend of the community, made a court challenge against the city, which as result must now redress the illegal, fraudulent process Hank used to ram these changes through.
Bottom line, Hank? Leave 8th and 7th avenues alone. And latte liberals: It’s time to treat working people with honesty and respect. One way or another, history shows that this “let them eat cake” attitude must come to an end.
Wai Wah Chin is the founding president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York.