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PODCAST: Breaking Down Barriers in NYC Cycling

By Emily Frost | August 19, 2015 5:46pm
 Liz Patek rides all over the city in clothes she would wear to dinner or a meeting, she said.
Liz Patek rides all over the city in clothes she would wear to dinner or a meeting, she said.
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Dmitry Gudkov

UPPER WEST SIDE — A longtime local who "was sick of not looking nice on a bicycle" is on a mission to combat the notion that cyclists have to wear special clothing to ride and that only certain types of people should be pedaling around the city.

Liz Patek's campaign began with her own approach to riding, which included using a bike featuring a step-through frame so she could easily wear dresses and skirts, saving her from having to change into "crappy clothes," she said. 

"If you start dressing more normally on a bike, people see you as a human being," said the former Rockette performer.

Patek also started photographing and talking with cyclists, spreading the word that there are all kinds of people hopping on two wheels and that cycling culture is changing in the Big Apple. 

(Her photos include a much-publicized shot of a cyclist wearing business attire who rode in Midtown traffic while balancing a cup of espresso in one hand.) 

DNAinfo reporter Emily Frost sat down with Patek this week to talk about neighborhood bike infrastructure, attitudes towards cyclists and whether New York City is still a place where artists and dancers can thrive.

Emily: First, when did you arrive in New York City and then when did you end up on the Upper West Side?

Liz: I moved to New York City in 1989. I moved to the Upper West Side in 2001. My awareness of the neighborhood and differences is a different perspective now then it was then because I was still actively performing and auditioning.

Emily: As a dancer.

Liz: As a dancer, yes. So I was very, very focused on landing my next job. Being on the Upper West Side was great because it was convenient to Steps on Broadway, which is a long time institution up here and it's a great community for dancers, and Broadway Dance Center, which is in Hell's Kitchen. It was easy access to most of the audition studios that line the west side all the way down to Chelsea.

The change of the Upper West Side, I think it reflects also the change of the whole city. We've seen a very diverse creative population sort of being squeezed out because it's becoming so incredibly expensive to live in the city and anywhere Manhattan and that loss is really, really sad to me. This has become a luxury neighborhood instead of the neighborhood of a diverse fabric of people.

I remember going to what were called rent parties in Williamsburg in the early 90's. When you went to Williamsburg to the rent party you got out of the truck, you went to the door of the loft that somebody was living in and you just didn't spend any time on the street because there was nothing there. You spent the night at the party and you left and you came back into Manhattan.

Emily: Why was it called a rent party?

Liz: Because they needed to raise rent money, so you would basically get some kegs of beer and ask people to bring beer with them and everybody contributed five dollars at the door. I wonder if there's a version of that that happens today since I don't have much of a night life anymore.

Emily: You'd have to have a lot of people at that party.

Liz: Yes, you would have to have a lot of people.

It just blows my mind with the Upper West Side and just Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens — how it's become. I look at the dancers, the creative people who are moving here now. Those minimum wage jobs, those survival jobs, the wages haven't increased since I moved here 25, 26 years ago, but the rents have increased exponentially. How do they go to auditions? Go to their survival job? Go to class to maintain their craft? I don't know. They have to be getting help from parents or maybe living 12 to an apartment?

Emily: Do you think there are a lot of dancers still living in this neighborhood or have they had to move further away?

Liz: It's a little bit of both. I do know that one of my neighbors dances in New York City ballet. She's a wonderful lovely, lovely person. There are other artists that live in the neighborhood, I run into a lot of Broadway people as I walk around — choreographers, dancers. I think a lot of the ballet dancers live closer to here because of the proximity of Lincoln Center, but for the ones that are up and coming, they're definitely living up in Washington Heights, they're living out in Queens. They're living far out in Brooklyn.

Emily: Did you ever expect to be here for 14 years on the Upper West Side?

Liz: This is my home and I love the Upper West Side. It's a very residential neighborhood. There's a lot of great stores. You had Pioneer which is not exactly my favorite supermarket, but I love stepping in there when I need to get certain items because it's like stepping back into the 1950's or the 1960's and a whole other era.

Emily: Why?

Liz: The wood paneling — it's not updated. People are just relaxed in there. You don't get the Upper West Side, the newer Upper West Side, 'get out of my way I've got more money then you' kind of thing. The other thing I love about the Upper West Side is the small shop owners at the shops that I frequent, people know who you are when you come back. It really is a community.

Emily: What are the places that if they were pushed out or closed that you would cry?

Liz: Even though Fairway has changed, I would definitely cry if we lost Fairway because it's just such a unique part of the Upper West Side.

Emily: What is it that people love about Fairway?

Liz: If you can't find it at Fairway  (again now that it's changed hands and it's not run by the family) if you're looking for an ingredient or something and you don't find it at Fairway you have to go to the ethnic neighborhood to find it. You could find everything at Fairway. It used to have the best produce with really great prices, great service and the whole first half of the store — none of it is your regular big box chain supermarket.

Everything was just really hand selected. The cheese monger, it's not the guy who would do the ordering but I remember the cheese monger who worked there for a long time. I would go back and if I was doing a dinner or having a party I'm like 'I want to try something different, I know you know the cheeses I like.' He'd always get me a little slice and I'm like 'oh that's awesome, let's give that a try.' I think they just really knew how to take care of you. The guys who still work behind the deli counter I always give a hello to them when I come in because they're really good. They work really hard.

Emily: One thing I was surprised and excited to learn is that you are a former Rockette.

Liz: Yeah.

Emily: Can you tell me about that?

Liz: Radio City, it's an amazing legacy to be a part of. I am so proud to be a part of that history. I will also say it's the hardest job I've ever done in my life. It taught me so much. Each show that you do, it's like running a marathon. The attention to detail that you have to have as a performer — you're choreographed down to your little pinky finger, the way your eye looks and the smile that you have. You have to blend in with every other woman on that stage and work as one unit. Even though you're supposed to be an individual, you cannot stand out. It's magical to be a part of that. I did not do the show in New York. I did the show what they used to call the Christmas Across America. I did the show in Branson and Milwaukee. We did what's called a jump city contract so after we finished our time in Branson which is where the first or the second shows happened we went to Milwaukee. We were in Milwaukee for three weeks.

Emily: Did you ever get to perform at Radio City or is that where you auditioned?

Liz: In general the auditions happened in a big rehearsal hall which is up on the ninth floor because it is a very intense process, the audition. I went through it many, many times.

Emily: How many times did you audition?

Liz: Oh god, I can't remember. We did it a lot of times. The first time I auditioned it was pretty funny because I had no idea what I was in for. I had the day free so I said, what have I got to lose? Let me just go to the audition. The worst thing that happens is I get cut. You wait in this long line, there's probably anywhere between 450 and 600 women will show up for the audition. That's just in New York. They also do auditions out around the country.

Emily: How old were you at this time?

Liz: We don't talk about that. We'll just say I was older then your traditional Rockette. As I was waiting in the line I had also called out from work that day. My boss would appreciate this story now, I didn't want him to know then. I didn't want to be seen on camera so I was hiding behind a newspaper when the cameras came by because there's always cameras at the Rockette audition. When I got to step forward I said my name, I live in New York for this amount of time, and I did my best attempt. It really wasn't good enough and I did get cut that day, but I just will never forget that experience.

I learned a lot. I grew a lot in auditioning for Radio City. I grew a lot as a dancer every audition that I went to. There's always something that you learn from but it's a fascinating thing. Ever year when I would pass by Radio City because for the last four years I've worked very near by and actually for ten years I've had a client where my travel patterns the morning I pass by Radio City and I see the girls lined up around the stage door. Every year I just stop and I say 'good luck guys, I'm glad I'm not on this line anymore.'

Emily: After let's say a handful of auditions, you finally got cast?

Liz: Yes.

Emily: What did it feel like when you learn that you were cast?

Liz: It was incredible. It was a dream come true. I'm one of those people that even though legally in the business once they give you a verbal offer they can't rescind it, I still was afraid to tell anyone until I actually had my printed paper contract in hand.

Emily: Turning to a different part of who you are, I see you a lot biking around. I see you're often in a nice dress or outfit. You could go out to dinner or go to a meeting.

Liz: It's pretty much what I'm doing.

Emily: Tell me about how you first started riding in New York City and how you pull it off that you're wearing such nice clothes and zipping around.

Liz: I've always ridden a bike for transportation in New York City since I moved here. When I first moved to the city I lived down in Alphabet City in the East Village, just as now but a little bit different. There are more people on bikes and getting around was just normal, a lot of my friends did it, didn't think twice about it.

At a point I also worked with a choreographer and our rehearsals were up in Spanish Harlem and I just found it was easier to just ride my bike up there and back. I got sick of saying 'oh I need to put on my crappy clothes' if I was going somewhere because I didn't want them to get ruined. I was sick of not looking nice on a bicycle. I remember at one point I had a bike get stolen because anybody who's ridden bikes in New York City has had tons of bikes stolen. For the new bike I'm thinking I don't want a bike with a top bar because I'm sick of not being able to wear a skirt or feeling like the skirts going to fly up while I'm riding. I really wanted more of a step through frame. That evolved into wanting even more of a step through frame, wanting a dutch style bicycle.

Then as I started getting involved in advocacy I also realized what kind of message was being put out there to people in the United States that you needed to have special clothes to ride a bike, that you couldn't ride bike doing this, you couldn't ride bike doing that. I'm like that's not true. All these things are actually normal and it's stuff that I had forgotten about from for a brief period when I did leave New York for a year and a half and I moved to Amsterdam on a whim.

If you start dressing more normally on a bike people see you as a human being. Point blank it's whether you're on a bike or you're walking or you're taking the subway (not so much driving a car or taking a cab) you dress for where you're going. You don't dress because of the mode of transportation so why should it be any different for a bicycle? I'm using my bicycle for transportation, not recreation. Yes, there are times in the past where I'm like 'you know what I'm just going to go for a long ride and I wanted to get a work out' and then I'm dressing for that. In general, I don't have to do that because if I just bike everywhere you don't need to go to the gym and sit on those machines.

On the other hand I also understand why there aren't as many people using bikes for transportation here in New York particularly on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side because there's been a lack of commitment to changing our city streets up here. Most people are kind of afraid to ride mixed in with cars and traffic. I really don't blame them. I'm used to it at this point. I will never feel completely comfortable with it because that would be a mistake on my part, because you can't. You just can't trust anything that the driver's going to do behind the wheel. I can control what I'm doing.

Emily: What does it feel like to be a woman on a bike? Do you see a lot of other women out there? Do you see yourself as helping other women see that this is something they can do?

Liz: I don't particularly do the whole thing of like 'I'm a woman on a bike.' I'm just me on a bike. I think it's just because I've always felt so very independent. I'm always happy when I see more women riding because the more I see women riding — I see them just normally or seeing mothers with kids — then I know things are becoming safer here. They feel okay to do that. I've seen more of a range of people riding.

It was wonderful as I was coming home the other night ended up striking up a conversation with a cyclist at the corner of 60th and Fifth avenue, the woman was this stunningly beautiful African American woman. I remember one of the first things I noticed about her when we were at the light was she just had these beautiful eyes. As we started talking I find out she's a makeup artist. I also found out she was 62 and I would have never, ever have guessed that. She had recently started biking since she had moved back to New York.

She said that she had put some weight on, she really wanted to take it off. She was asking me if I continue riding my bike will I lose weight? I'm like yeah, if you continue doing it you're going to find you're going to thin out. You're still going to be you but yes, you'll feel good about yourself. Then she was telling me, she says I love riding my bike but she said I don't feel safe mixing with traffic I wish there were more bike lanes. She was asking do I ride through the winter? I said yes. How do you do it?

That's the kind of neat stuff to connect with people in that way. I started to tell her about some of the other advocacy groups that she could connect to so she could start to meet other people and know the issues are going on. Maybe I'll see the woman again, maybe I won't. There's a lot of people that I start to see repeatedly over the years. I've also had people stop me ... Neighbors in my building say 'I'm thinking I want to start riding a bike to work, I wanted to ask you questions.' I'm like 'absolutely.' Seeing more people on bikes means our streets are healthier, that they're safer. We have a long way to go here in the Upper West Side.

We finally had some changes come through but we are so far behind the rest of the city. The changes that make it safer to ride a bicycle, they benefit everyone. As a pedestrian I'm sure you've seen the changes or the shift throughout the city if you're in a neighborhood that's more bicycle friendly, you probably feel safer as a pedestrian because the complete street treatments and other traffic calming measures that make all that possible.

Emily: I also noticed that you're a street photographer and you have taken pictures of women on bikes and in outfits. What is that about?

Liz: It's not just about women on bikes ...

Emily: There's also people ...

Liz: Yeah, generally it's people that when I started getting involved in advocacy I had been carrying a camera, a small pocket camera with me for some time so that if ... when drivers were aggressive with me it was a way I had to documenting their license plate and who they were if I ever needed to report anything. Then when I started going to community more being ... started connecting to the advocacy world and realizing this whole bigger I also realized again the message about what you can or cannot do on a bicycle or who can ride a bicycle.

Dmitry Gudkov, who is a Brooklyn resident, had started his Bike NYC project where he was photographing people with their bikes as portraits. Then people I connected to that did the street photography over in Europe that kind of inspired me to say I'm going to start doing my own little project here in New York. The whole point was finding people that look nice, people that looked interesting, interesting situations, different ages, different sizes, different ethnicities. They were all so unique and there should be no barriers to who can get on a bike and choose to ride.

There's so many pictures I have that I love. These people that I've seen, some that I've seen repeatedly. I think one of the first ones I grabbed: there was a woman I encountered in Riverside Park out near the garden that they have. She was an older woman and she had this really nice skirt on, very pressed and a sweater, summer weight and the way she was dressed it was just not extravagant, but just perfect. I started a conversation with her because I asked her if I could take her picture. Found out the woman was 90 and had been riding a bike in New York City for 50 years. She was originally from France.

She shared some details with me of her life with me and I promised that I wouldn't make too much stuff public. I just thought it was so amazing because first of all when she told me she was 90 I thought she was maybe in her 60's. She just had this incredible youth to her. She had such strength that she exuded and why shouldn't everybody who's 90 years old be able to feel safe using a bike for transportation in the city? She's used this to get to work long before either you or I were here. That's to me, what's really incredible.

Emily: Sounds like taking the photos was a way to really start looking at who's on bikes and start conversations with them.

Liz: It wasn't necessarily to start conversations, it was really more of a documentation process. To beat back the notion that you had to be a certain type of person or only certain types of people ride bikes. You sat in enough Community Board meetings to hear what's said about people who ride bikes in the city. Everybody seems to think it's one thing.

Emily: In terms of dialogue with people who are resistant to bike lanes or more bike infrastructure, how do you bridge that gap and get a dialogue going?

Liz: It depends. With some people sometimes you can start a dialogue it's not necessarily pleasant and eventually get them to start listening to you and having a conversation. A lot of times unfortunately from what I've seen at the Community Board meetings and even outside the community board meetings some people are just so set in their ways and they're thinking that they're just not going to change it. In terms of that I think it's interesting times right now because I think there's a huge paradigm shift going on. It's slower than the people who want the change to come about would like to see things happen, but at the same time it's probably happening more quickly then the people who don't want to see change happen because they just don't want change.

Emily: Your Twitter handle is @bikepeacenyc.

Liz: Correct.

Emily: What is that about? The peace part?

Liz: When I first joined Twitter a little over four years ago, I started using Twitter as a platform to change the dialogue from a negative to positive. I gave myself some guidelines about not cursing or swearing or saying things that were nasty online because I just don't think that's productive for anyone. If you do ever see me curse with some asterisks on Twitter, you know I'm really pissed.

Emily: Changing the dialogue, the peace part making dialogue about bikes and bike change more peaceful, upbeat, friendly, less negative — is that what you mean?

Liz: It's more like I want it to be about peace. Yes, it was more friendly, more positive and as you stop with all the hateful stuff that was flying back and forth and just to remain neutral so that you don't engage when you're getting bated by somebody. Actually, it's neat that I've seen since I got involved the growth of the message and the understanding that's been going on. I've seen a shift in things that are going on.

Emily: Do you think there's a strong [cyclist] community here?

Liz: Oh on the Upper West Side a community of activists? Absolutely, there's a very strong committee of activists that I have gotten to know that going through Community Board meetings from volunteering with Transportation Alternatives, from just talking to people on the street that I am so glad that I went to my first Community Board meeting. I won't say they're always pleasant, but I always learn something.

It's always interesting to hear what other people have to say. I've learned so much about my community and not just from a cyclist perspective because at any meeting most of the time I'm there for the Transportation Committee meetings. There's been other agendas like Parks and Recreation or the full board meeting that you hear about other issues that are going on. This is the most basic grassroots level of governance, but it's still pretty neat that you have this way of having a voice.

Emily: Do you feel like your voice is heard at those meetings? That your contributions have shaped policies?

Liz: Yes and no. I think that are in general the board listens. I think there's some people who close their ears to listening too often. I do know that I am given the chance and I think as a whole that the message is getting stronger as more and more people are learning to get involved. When people complain to me about something it's funny because they know I'm active in the community in some other matters, but in particular I'm 'the bicycle lady.' I'm a person, not a bicycle, but they'll come to me with questions or complaints ... I shouldn't say just the bicycle lady but they also know that's streets activism.

They'll tell me 'this is a problem here, this is a problem there' and I say 'I'm glad you're telling me this, but you really need to get involved too.' They hear my voice all the time. They need to hear that other people are having these issues and that you have concerns about this. The more people that add their voice into it the stronger the message becomes because we all know going back again to it's not just about the bicycle.

This is so much bigger than all of us. This is something I figured out really quickly when I started getting involved. It's about the holistic environment for people on New York City streets. It's public space and it should be safe for everyone. I shouldn't have to worry if I'm standing near the edge of a curb when I'm a pedestrian that I'm terrified that that driver might take the curb too quickly and take me out with it. When I see a pedestrian standing in the middle of the street texting while waiting for the light I just gently stop and say 'you really don't want to do that because I don't trust drivers and you're being really trusting.' I'm looking out for you, but a lot of them aren't.

When it comes down to it, education and enforcement only go so far. If you don't re-engineer the roads, then you're just defeating your purpose.

Emily: Speaking of re-engineering the roads I know there's a big push right now to make Amsterdam Avenue a northbound bike plan, what is the plan B if that doesn't ... if DOT, the Department of Transportation, says 'no, we're not putting a bike lane there'?

Liz: I don't think there should be a plan B. I think Amsterdam Avenue is a very wide road. It's almost as wide as a highway. If there is not traffic in front of them they just start speeding. They're treating it like a highway that's not ... It doesn't have the same residential community feel that some of our other streets do. Columbus Avenue — we have that beautiful complete street treatment, with a pedestrian island, people are really enjoying it. Safety has increased. Retail values have gone up.

Broadway could use a bike lane, but because we have the narrower lanes and they've separated the north and the south bound in terms of traffic design there's enough visual noise and things going on that Broadway is by no means as safe as it should be, but it feels a little bit more human scale then say Amsterdam Avenue. The notion that you can't put a bike lane on a wide arterial that ... where people are driving trucks, where there's buses, if you want an eight year old child to be able to cycle to school, you can't tell them you can only go to Columbus and you have no way to go home.

If somebody told you today that that road which doesn't have a sidewalk on it can't have a sidewalk, we don't have enough room I think we'd all think that's preposterous. That's the safe haven for pedestrians and you don't want cyclist on the sidewalk, it's too dense, too crowded here and it's not the safest option to have them in the street. It's a no brainer. Include the bicycles. A lot of people rail on delivery cyclists when they're making excuses to why this can't happen because the delivery cyclists go the wrong way, they run sidewalks, the cut corners.

First of all, when people bring that up to me the first thing I say is you need to stop because the first problem here with the issue with the delivery cyclist is their job structure and the way they're paid. They are out there, you know you live on the Upper West Side, it starts about 4:30 p.m., dinner rush hour goes till about 10:00 p.m. at night. The worse the weather and the more dangerous the conditions are, the more trips those guys are making. People don't tip them and they really treat them like crap. They don't look at them as human beings. I make a point of when I'm out on the street, this is my own little personal thing, is I say hello. I talk to them. I acknowledge them because these are people that have families.

A lot of them probably don't have legal documentation to be working so they're afraid to speak up for their safety. They can't come to Community Board meetings because they're working 10 or 12 hours. Frankly, they're doing their job. They're employed here. They're paying taxes. They're spending money. They're paying rent. They're doing all these things. The city should provide them a safe way to do their job. That's one way of solving it. There's other things you've got to get into too that have nothing to do with riding a bike. Give them a safe way to go to work.

If you give a complementary bike lane to Columbus, if there's a northbound road, a lot of that wrong way riding you see on Columbus, it's going to decrease. When you start to grow that network out the more the network grows the more you're going to see bad etiquette changing because there's going to be more people that are going to start riding bikes and through peer pressure things will start to regulate. They'll tell you go to Central Park, you see how many tourists are on a bunch of bikes at any given time. I see them now late at night tourists, families with kids after dark in Central Park riding.

That is a huge change. It says how safe the park is and it's also sad because all these businesses on the Upper West Side where they might come for dinner, they're missing out because without the safe routes to get there most of those families aren't going to do it.

Emily: You're not going to take no for an answer?

Liz: That's one way of putting it. You can't give up. You have to keep fighting.

Emily: Thank you for talking with me.

Liz: Thank you Emily!

Emily: Thank you.

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