Paul Steely White, cycling enthusiast and executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit that promotes safe, green ways of getting around the city, picked a pretty good place to live. For the past seven months, the 39 year old, his wife Zoë and daughter Anna have occupied the first floor of a brownstone rental in the highly green, highly bike-able Park Slope. One morning, the family treated me to coffee, bear-shaped pancakes, and the scoop on their pad.
How did you find the place?
Craigslist. We came over and took a look—well, we gave it three or four looks. We put it through a lot of scrutiny just because of Anna, we wanted to make sure we were really in the right place. And it just felt right. Even though it’s technically a one-bedroom, psychically it’s much bigger because of the layout, the garden and just being so close to the park. You sort of feel like Prospect Park is your front yard. It may be the most livable one-bedroom around.
What are the top five things in your apartment you cannot live without?
1. The chair you’re sitting in is probably my most prized possession—if you turn it upside down you can see my father and I made that chair together about 15 years ago. It’s a handmade Windsor chair, Shaker style. It’s completely made with tools my father made in his blacksmith shop—he’s quite the handyman. It’s a quality family heirloom that we love.
2. That wooden bicycle over there is in the top five because Anna loves rocking on it and I look forward to her riding it someday. It was given to me by my good friend Aaron Naparstek, who’s the founder of Streetsblog. In my work life they’re a big partner; Aaron’s terrific and also lives in Park Slope. The bike’s detachable from the rocker. The rocking device is a retrofit until she’s big enough to scoot around on the actual bike. It’s like a bicycle rocking horse.
3. My father’s guitar would have to be No. 3. It has a nice patina of wear on it. When I was a toddler in New Orleans, my father was at school there, and came home late and would sing me lullabies. Those are some of my first memories, so that’s a nostalgic one.
4. This bed over here is also handmade, by my cousin Joey down in Florida; it’s very sturdy. And you can see teeth marks on the headboard from when Anna was teething last year. We’re hoping those get preserved.
5. I really like these four woodcut prints. The prints themselves are from a first printing of woodcuts by Frans Masereel, who lived in Belgium. He was a Lefty, worked for a progressive paper and made these sort of inspirational woodcuts.
And my bicycle.
Which object has the best backstory?
I think my bicycle has the best backstory. I was in Amsterdam for a transportation policy conference two years ago, and this gentleman came up to me after my presentation and told me he loved my presentation. He said that there was one of his bikes in my slides of people biking in New York.
I asked him, ‘What do you mean one of your bikes?’ So he told me his story: He grew up in Brooklyn and started this bike company called Henry’s WorkCycles—his name is Henry Cutler—and he moved to Amsterdam about 10 years ago, and started what is now a very successful bike company that is exporting bikes back to New York. He told me to come by his shop the next day. I was in Amsterdam for a few days so I went by his shop. We were both talking about what we do and he said, ‘Would you like one of my bicycles?’
So he gave me this $1,500, beautiful Dutch bicycle. I didn’t know at the time that it would end up costing me $300 to fly back with it (it must weigh 50 lbs). There’s actually a photo of me on that bike in The New York Observer from a couple years back. It’s just my pride and joy. It’s not the fastest bike in the world, but it has a very upright riding position, you feel very dignified when you’re riding it.
To me it represents where biking is going in New York—from zipping around in a fast track bike to something that’s more like a toaster or a household appliance. It’s very comfortable and handy. Henry feels like he got his money’s worth because the bike has been around, people kind of know about it, so it’s probably paid for itself many times over from his point of view.
Which room do you spend the most time in?
We’ve been here four months [Editor's note: the interview was conducted in April] so we’re still kind of settling in, but I’d have to say this room, which is our dinning room. It’s also a living room in a way—the computer’s there, and Anna is on her bike or eating. It’s like at a good party: everyone always gravitates to the kitchen.
Your neighbors—kept close or at arm’s length?
I think we have a healthy arms-length relationship with them. They’re beautiful people, and we have great conversations with them in passing, but I think we’re all aware of a certain invisible boundary, that we want to keep a healthy distance. I’m sure as we spend more time here we’ll get to know them a little better.
One of the things about Park Slope is that it has a small-town feel. Zoë used to teach at PS 321, so she knows a lot of families and kids we run into when we’re shopping or riding our bikes. Tupper Thomas at the Prospect Park Alliance is wonderful; she’s a friend. So there’s this very Mayberry feel to Park Slope that’s very comforting in a big city. Also Zoë and I both grew up in the Midwest, so it’s kind of like a piece of home.
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