The cars came by twos and twos, ones and threes, swimming into the parking lot of the Red Hook Fairway like salmon returning to their childhood stream.
It was shortly after four on a summer Wednesday—not even rush hour—but the six lanes of asphalt lot were already two-thirds full. They were jammed with cars of every shape and origin—with boxy Acuras and slope-backed Subarus, snub-nosed Jeeps and bug-shaped Jettas, braggy Mercedes, rah-rah Fords, and a strange BMW-minivan chimera the color of a fresh picket fence. In the distance, the Manhattan skyline reared up flat and two-dimensional, signifying City. But here, as car alarms twittered and shopping carts squeaked, as shoppers kowtowed to the shrine of their trunks, the vibe was pure car-country nirvana.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed the car until I had it here,” said Lauren Robinson, a 25-year-old dietician with pixie-cut brown hair, a fetching dimple, and a bearded beau who was dutifully loading groceries into her Honda CR-V. The Honda was a relic of her youth in upstate New York, but she had recently brought it to the city after moving from car-hostile Manhattan to auto-friendly Brooklyn. She didn’t really need the vehicle, and, theoretically, she could have grabbed a bus to Fairway. But, as she explained, “It’s just so easy to jump in and drive somewhere.”
“I don’t think you need a car,” she said, “but I think it’s definitely a plus. And it definitely makes me feel more”—she paused to search for the word—“well, not like such a city person.”
Ms. Robinson is hardly alone in her secret suburban car lust these days. In fact, for all the talk of the evils of automobiles, she is in decidedly turbo-charged company. From Greenpoint to Red Hook, Inwood to Astoria—across all of the city’s young, lifestyle neighborhoods, really—New Yorkers of a certain breed and background have taken to toting their four-wheeled friends down to the city, dragging them through the streets like well-worn baby blankets. Lured by the musk of vinyl and gasoline, they have lined the lanes of Fairway with out-of-state license plates. They have given their cars names like Ruby, Monty and … Digger. (“I call it my baby,” said Digger’s driver, Michelle Barlak.) And though few would dare admit it, they have made sections of the city seem so, well, L.A.
“Oh, I hope New York’s not becoming L.A.-ified, because I moved to New York to get away from L.A.,” gasped Laura Allen, 24, a giggly SoCal native, right before she hopped into her boyfriend’s white Jeep Cherokee and turned its muscular tires onto the smoothness of Williamsburg’s North First Street.
New York, of course, has always been more of a car town than romantics like to admit. From the earliest days—or at least from as far back as anyone reading this paper can probably remember—Gothamites have used cars, improbably and impractically, as everything from performance pieces and getaway vehicles to status symbols, primal therapy props, bumper cars, mafia-mobiles, and avatars in the giant video game that is New York.
But there is something strange—or particularly strange—about the car culture that has taken root in certain swaths of the city in recent years, sprouting up alongside the former kids of suburbia as they have continued their march across Boerum Hill, the South Slope, Williamsburg, Astoria. As many of these drivers will admit, they wouldn’t keep a car if they lived in the parking-space tundra of Manhattan. But with their move to the boroughs—to the land of “far-flung” specialty stores, parking-space-lined streets, and the accelerated domesticity of brownstone life—they have realized that they can resurrect the customs of their pre-urban past.
Never mind the weird, globally warmed weather patterns or the congestion-clogged streets. And forget the fact that many of these drivers probably came here to escape the cul-de-sac culture of their youth. For reasons both deep and ineffable, these young transplants just can’t help bringing suburbia with them.
The Pro-choice argument
“The day we leased the car and got the keys was like my 16th birthday all over again,” Melissa Walker, a 30-year-old writer, Park Sloper and leaser of a silver Saab 9-3 sport wagon told The Observer in an e-mail message. “I felt a great sense of freedom, like I could go to a beach other than the A-train Rockaways, like I could hit a Rhinebeck B&B at a moment’s notice, like I could go to Fairway and load my groceries into a trunk just like a suburban girl!”
Ms. Walker is a classic example of the post-suburban, proto-urban car chick. Born and raised in North Carolina, she began saving for her first set of wheels when she was 10 years old. When she was 15, she went ahead and purchased those wheels—a 1988 Ford Festiva which she dubbed Ferdinand—despite the fact that she was still too young to drive. At 16, she finally realized her dream when she got her license and, with it, the right to range free and wild across the Circle K-spotted hills of the Carolinas.
“It was definitely the biggest deal in the world,” she said later on the phone.
Ms. Walker might have continued indefinitely in this state of automotive bliss, but sometime after college she moved to New York, where owning an auto simply seemed too expensive and too complicated. For half a decade, she lived her life in the carless lane. But then she met a boy, and the boy also loved cars, and so, when they finally moved in with each other, they decided the time had come—no, not to get married. Or have a baby. The time had come for that other, newer rite of pseudo-urban adulthood: to lease a car.
“We went ahead and did it, and we’re really happy,” Ms. Walker said. “It’s able to give me more choices, in terms of the grocery shopping, or being able to pick up a piece of furniture that I see on Craigslist that I love. I haven’t done that yet, but I always think, I could.
“It kind of softens the inconveniences of the city,” she concluded.
“Convenience” is one of the main mantras of the nouveau automobile set. Convenience—not necessity—since most drivers will acknowledge that they don’t really need a car (few of them live in, say, Canarsie) and they don’t generally drive long distances, unless they’re heading out for the occasional jaunt to New Jersey, Long Island or their parents’ house in Vermont. (According to a spokesperson at Transportation Alternatives, roughly one-quarter of all automobile trips in New York clock in at one mile or less; approximately three-quarters of all trips are five miles or less.)
And yet, while most of them don’t need, they want, because cars, they say, make life feel a little easier, make the city seem a bit more manageable—as if New York, with its 656 miles of subway track, was just another boonies-locked, consumer wasteland.
“I drive out of my way to go to a gym where I can park,” confessed Ms. Allen, the bubbly L.A. girl, who splits her time between writing and bartending at the Lock Inn. “I just think it’s more convenient.”
Ms. Allen delivered this statement as she stood on the corner of North First Street in Williamsburg, clutching the keys to her boyfriend’s Jeep. She had just taken her dog, Roxy, to get spayed at the vet, and the poor beast was stretched across the back seat of the car. Ms. Allen insisted that she wasn’t actually much of a fan of auto culture, that she could easily do without a vehicle and would never have purchased one herself. But as she posed next to her honey’s SUV, flashing a bright smile, all that seemed to be missing from the scene was Seann William Scott and a Continuum Transfunctioner.
This tableau of the cute girl and the big car—with or without the neutered cur—is uncannily common in Williamsburg these days, despite its oddly Teflon reputation as the home of the hipster. While it’s still possible to stumble on the odd, tricked-out hearse or pass a small Tour de France’s worth of bicyclists (biking is big there), gently distressed Volvos—thanks, Ma and Pa!—are equally ubiquitous, as one recent visit revealed.
In the short distance between North Fourth and North Ninth Streets on Driggs Avenue, The Observer counted nine of these family-friendly vehicles glinting in the sun. Most of the them were classic four-door types, but there were also two-doors and wagons, old Volvos and new—a whole menagerie of in-state and out-of-state vehicles littered with everything from tennis racquets to Pottery Barn catalogues to an Atlas of the five boroughs. The total afternoon Volvo-count came to 23.
But perhaps the real sign of the car culture apocalypse—the hint that, when it comes to wheels at least, Williamsburg and Winnetka might not be so different after all—is the sobriety check that cops have set up on Meeker Avenue, near one of the on-ramps to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. No one can say exactly when the checks began or whether they are a direct response to the influx of postcollegiate boozers. (The New York Police Department did not respond to a request for a comment.) But several sources agreed that they first noticed them sometime within the past year—a floating barricade of police, batons and breath-a-lizers, just like back home!
“I’ve been caught in it twice in a year,” said Ms. Allen. “They’ll stop you before getting onto the freeway and be like, ‘Hi, we’re doing a sobriety check, have you had anything to drink tonight?’
“Of course you say no,” she added sagely.
The Alternate Side of Paradise
For all the comforts that car life allegedly provides, few can deny that it also demands a heavy fee from its adherents. These fees range from the annoying to the enraging—from the cold, hard cash demanded by meter maids, busted windows, and your car’s shocks after you make a single sortie down the BQE; to the less tangible but no less Gordian hell of traffic snarls and parking.w
And yet, ask any sad sop waiting out the alternate-side morning ritual, and most of them will say they wouldn’t give up their cars for all the MetroCards in America: the convenience, the familiarity, the freedom—thank you, George W. Bush!—make the sacrifice worthwhile.
“Yeah, it’s a pain,” said a 29-year-old school teacher named Barbara as she sat in the driver’s seat of her keg-colored Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo one morning, waiting out a 90-minute alternate-side-of-the-street-parking sentence on West 71st Street. To help pass the time, she had brought along a copy of Inside magazine, a cellphone, and a pack of Marlboro Lights—one of which was dangling between her fingers. “But it’s worth it, basically, to have it. Otherwise, you have to take a train or go to that God-forsaken Port Authority to get out of the city.”
Remarkably, Michelle Barlak, another young auto-fiend and owner of the aforementioned Digger, also finds it worth it, despite enduring some serious vehicular nuttiness during her brief time in the city.
Ms. Barlak, 23, purchased Digger last fall, just a year or so after she moved to New York from her home in the upper reaches of the state. The car, a 1993 Buick Century, was used, but it was, in Ms. Barlak’s own words, “in great condition.” Then came its urban baptism—the bangs, bashes, scrapes and dings that relieved it of one of its tail lights and turned it into the kind of creature that “definitely wouldn’t be entered into the car show,” she said.
Ms. Barlak herself was almost banged up and bashed because of her car. It happened late one autumn evening after she arrived home from a dog-training class—she has three dogs, all champions—only to find that there were no parking spaces in her Queens neighborhood. For two hours she drove around looking for a spot. She finally found one, but as she was parallel-parking—another dread reality of New York car life—a guy in a flashy sports car sped past and bumped her Buick. Ms. Barlak maintains it was his fault, but before she knew it, the man had gotten out of his car, begun screaming, and tried to punch her through her window. (Fortunately, he missed most of her face, but he did manage to mangle her glasses.)
Ms. Barlak is the first to admit this was an unpleasant incident, the kind of New York moment that most transplants fear. But, she said, the mere fact that a man tried to punch her and then muscle his way into her car never made her question her commitment to Digger—just as the fact that she spends 10 to 30 minutes parking the vehicle several times a week never made her want to ditch the machine in the middle of the street.
The Al Gore Effect
For all this, there is a limit to all the crazy auto-love—or at least a potential limit, known to some people as guilt and to others as Al Gore’s disappointed face jowling down at them from the screen of the local multiplex.
All over the city, from Park Slope to Washington Heights, car junkies acknowledged a small tingle of shame over their gas-gulping ways. Some of them announced that their next car would be a hybrid (because there would be a next car). Others insisted they were trying to limit their car time—like the earthy lass who declared that, despite driving her giant Jimmy GMC from Fort Greene to the Park Slope Food Coop that morning, she hated having a car, had been forced to get it by her husband, and was boycotting most long-distance driving.
And then there is Jessica Peterson, a perky-eyed Michigan native, who announced that she was getting rid of her car altogether.
Ms. Peterson, 30, came to New York some five years ago with her clunky Subaru station wagon in tow. At the time, the car was already 10 years old, and somewhat the worse for wear, but she lugged it to Queens because—well, she’s not all that sure why. “I guess because I came from sort of a suburban place, I kind of felt like I needed a car,” she said with a shrug that erupted into a laugh. “I didn’t really question it.”
But now, what with all the enviro-consciousness going around—to say nothing of the endless parking-space wars—she is starting to rethink things.
“I’m a science teacher, and there’s people in the office where I teach who, they don’t even have air-conditioners, and they’re teasing me about the car,” she said. “So it’s time to get rid of the car.”
Still, Ms. Peterson remains more of an oddity at this point than a sign of the times. Even in this age of organo-insanity—of new-mom hysterics, eco-opportunistic marketers and annoyingly self-righteous reporters—most people find it hard to say no to the sweet purr of the automobile.
“It just seems to me, if I stop driving my car, I don’t think that’s doing anything about the real issue,” said Hans, a 31-year-old Williamsburg media guy (and musician, of course) with a receding, Jack Nicholson hairline and Chattanooga drawl, as he eyed his silver Elantra. “I know I’m contributing to it, but the end of the day, I obviously don’t feel bad enough about it to not drive my car.”