The Conspicuous Charm of the Bourgeoisie

© Chuck Alaimo, The Buffalo News

© Chuck Alaimo, The Buffalo News

Slow Roll is a fun idea. A bunch of people get together and ride bikes through the city, both showcasing our city’s physical and cultural treasures and building community around bicycling, an unfairly-maligned, low-carbon hobby and mode of transportation.

In practice, unfortunately, Slow Roll is an exercise in profound entitlement where people who have the free time in the hours immediately after work on Mondays turn other people’s neighborhoods into their own personal playground during the time that many are trying to get home from work, go to the bank, and pick up their kids from daycare. When confronted with criticism, Slow Roll’s defenders adopt a victimized posture, painting detractors as bitter spoilsports who refuse to share.

Slow Roll is an act of colonialism. A large percentage of of Slow Roll’s riders drive their bikes into the city from the suburbs (this is by the group’s own admission, though they maintain that participation among city residents and non-whites is growing). They proceed to block all traffic, regardless of modality, in the neighborhoods they’re riding through for amounts of time ranging from 15 minutes to close to an hour. Due to the layout of one-way streets in several of the city’s neighborhoods, including the Fruit Belt and the West Side, this can have the effect of blocking all outlets for the people that live there.

Anecdotally, a person who works at Gates Vascular Institute and Buffalo General Hospital, posted an open letter to Slow Roll on Facebook criticizing the group for blocking access to the emergency room during the most recent ride. Personally, when I tried to leave my house I was told by a Slow Roll #SQUAD member to drive the wrong way down my narrow street, where children routinely play, in order to avoid the ride. When I pointed out that this was a one-way street, the flip response offered was “They don’t mind.” The subtext was clear: “This is the West Side, rules don’t apply here.”

By its nature, the ride is confrontational. Slow Roll intentionally obscures their exact route (though they’ve begun posting signs in advance of their ride at certain intersections) and groups its riders into a single pack, ostensibly in the name of safety. They flout traffic laws, cruising through red lights and stop signs, and cause anyone wanting to leave or enter their community to do so as well. It’s a brazen flexing of bourgeois privilege. Slow Rollers behave as if they are entitled not only to everyone else’s space, cruising through the places where people live as if they are a zoo, but to people’s time as well, tying up traffic for anyone who has anything else to do on a Monday evening.

Adding to the aggravation, Slow Roll’s organizers and defenders are utterly nonplussed by criticism of the event. People who express frustration with Slow Roll are shamed as backwards Neanderthals seeking to oppress the marginalized bike community from being able to travel anywhere. This characterization is not only classist in its castigation of critics as insufficiently liberal and unwilling to share, it’s intellectually dishonest on a couple of levels.

Presenting Slow Roll as a direct action about sharing public roadways is a canard. Slow Roll is only about sharing in a perverted sense of the word, born from a feeling of entitlement. Its participants expect the people whose homes they are cruising around to share their neighborhoods with them, by which they mean granting Slow Roll unfettered access not only to the streets they’re riding on, but to all of the streets that intersect the streets they ride on. This is not sharing, this is taking. Slow Rollers do not ask permission from the people they inconvenience, they tell them they will be inconveniencing them by posting (to a limited extent) signs and flyers a couple of days in advance. Then, when people complain, they are chastised. As with the #SQUAD member’s claim that “they don’t care” about drivers going the wrong way down residential streets to make room for the ride, when Slow Rollers say “streets were built for people, not cars,” they are saying “your streets are for us, who have correct attitudes about transportation modalities.”

Further, setting up the question of Slow Roll as a conflict between two camps, the enlightened bicycle community and the benighted motorheads, creates a false dichotomy that unfairly imagines out of existence cycling advocates that disagree with the way Slow Roll operates and vilifies people for whom cycling is a physical or practical impossibility.

By being so sanctimonious in the face of legitimate criticism, Slow Roll actually damages the credibility of the bicycle movement. By helping themselves to people’s space and time and then playing the role of aggrieved activists standing up to motorist aggression when their actions are critiqued, Slow Rollers perpetuate the stereotype of cycling as an activity only for the privileged and arrogant.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By engaging with the communities whose cultural and physical riches they are enjoying, say, by working together to establish predictable routes and ensure people are not trapped inside and outside their blocks, by breaking up the pack of riders to allow traffic of all types to continue moving, and by dropping the pretense that anyone that dares criticize it is an illiberal crank, Slow Roll can mitigate some of its negative impacts and possibly turn itself into a net positive.

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20 thoughts on “The Conspicuous Charm of the Bourgeoisie

  1. I concur wholeheartedly. If the organizers of slow roll actually wanted to play nice in the sand box they would do three things. 1) post route and advance notice
    2) follow the rules of the road
    3) have it on a Sunday night
    The organizer of tbis enterprise has openly admitted that his ‘bougie’ parade is NOT about obeying traffic laws or considering motorists. He deserves a proverbial stick in his spikes. His ilk go to ‘dotting’ anyone who vocally criticizes his creation.

  2. Rob, you are very articulate, and some of your concerns have already been addressed by Slow Roll.

    As someone who has been on Slow Roll Buffalo since Day 1 (August, 2014), I am very familiar with the dynamics surrounding the ride. I would like to respond here to your suggestion that we begin “engaging with the communities whose cultural and physical riches (we) are enjoying, say, by working together to establish predictable routes and ensure people are not trapped inside and outside their blocks.”

    Just last night I did a “practice ride,” as I have for every Slow Roll since the start of 2015 save three. On the practice ride, five of us rode the route at 6:30 p.m., stopping whenever we saw people on their porch or sidewalk or in their driveway. I personally spoke to 24 different people or groups of people, on the East Side and the Bailey-Kensington area. (Though the other four riders left earlier, I continued until finally reaching the end of the ride at 9:30 p.m., covering every street on Monday’s route.) We spoke with youth and senior citizens, kids on bikes, people in wheelchairs, people walking their dogs, people coming out of churches, and people just getting out of their cars. We asked if they knew that Slow Roll was coming down their street Monday (some already knew), and depending on their response, simply started chatting with them. We also encouraged them to tell their neighbors. Not a single person voiced an objection. Just the opposite. They were extremely welcoming, even excited that we will be coming down their street. About 1/4 of them said they would be joining the Slow Roll.

    This activity takes place every week before the following Monday’s ride. Perhaps you were unaware of it, due to its grass-roots nature. While people in cars have gotten upset about the Slow Roll, that seems to be the case less often with people in their homes.

    Another dynamic at work, which is fairly unique for the City of Buffalo, is that the practice ride gives me an opportunity to engage with a wide diversity of people in a different neighborhood every week. I am a white male. All but two of the people I spoke with last night were people of color. I am a baby boomer. Many of the people I spoke with were kids or teens. Nobody made me feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, including a group of six teenagers hanging out on a corner. Perhaps being on a bike, and wearing a funny-looking helmet, made me just a curiosity in their neighborhoods. But I truly believe I was building bridges in a city that has a reputation for being one of the most segregated in the country. Unlike other events where people of different backgrounds attend (sporting events, festivals, etc.), Slow Roll emphasizes engagement at a person-to-person level. It has been, for me, a beautiful experience.

    Please be assured that Slow Roll leaders are aware of your concerns, and are addressing them. I do hope that this reply, to just one of your points, gives you some additional perspective on the Slow Roll phenomenon.

    • Thanks for your considered response. Judging from Slow Roll’s public statements in the wake of the most recent ride, it seems that people’s criticisms have at least been heard. I still STRONGLY encourage Slow Roll to make its routes public well in advance of each ride and to keep them consistent and predictable. I’d also encourage you to move the ride to a day and time when you’re less likely to interfere with people trying to commute. I think this would go a long way toward both making the ride more available to people and minimizing its negative impact. Like I said in my post, I think Slow Roll is a good idea. I look forward to seeing this feedback acted upon.

  3. They’re super inconvenient and annoying. I wish they gave REAL advance notice of their routes so we could prepare. You ride around the neighborhood and inform people on their porches? Great, but what about the people who are sick or elderly and can’t get outside? Not only did you make me late to pick up my aunt for dinner you cut the amount of time we had to eat dinner together by almost half! And you’ve delayed her before in the past getting home from doctors appointments which not only costs time that she should be resting at home but also actual money in the form of cab fare. Slow Roll needs to find a nice bike path or park and stick to it!

  4. To me, the class/race critiques of Slow Roll are off the mark. I participated in one ride in year 1 and two in year 2. The neighborhoods the ride passed through were, broadly, Riverside, Lower West Side, and Broadway/Fillmore/Fruit Belt. In every case there was clearly a positive rapport between the riders and the residents, with smiles, waves, etc. exchanged regularly. (There were also more concrete interactions as when a resident near the Central Terminal very kindly lent me his pump when I had a flat.)

    As Weiknar observes, these interactions, however small and inconsequential in and of themselves help us to overcome the existing barriers that separate us along both socio-economic and racial lines. Very few Buffalonians (and suburbanites) have the opportunity to have random encounters with people who aren’t in the same class and/or race with any sort of regularity – Slow Roll allows for that and, I believe, in a net positive way.

    There is also significantly more racial and socio-economic diversity among the participants in Slow Roll than in almost any other civic event you are likely to participate in in Buffalo. Those who criticize the white/bourgeois nature of the ride are often members of the white bourgeoisie themselves, and the notion that the non-white/poor-working class neighborhoods need to be protected seems a little patronizing.

    • Like I said, Slow Roll is a good idea. But the fact that this blog post and other recent objections have had such resonance are evidence, however, that you can do better. If you actually are setting out to achieve these noble ends that you claim, then you all should be willing to accept reasonable criticism and try to do improve your relations with the many people who aren’t happy with Slow Roll as it is currently constituted instead of insisting that any class- and race-based critique is simply incorrect.

  5. My, what big words you use! Bet your mom will be proud of you!
    With all that’s wrong in the world THIS is your windmill, Don Quixote?! Go pee in someone else’s Cherrio’s, putz!

  6. There will never be a time for 1500 people to ride in mass in city streets that won’t affect anyone. I will say I have ridden Slow Roll about 3 out of every 4 this year, and I will say that I agree riding past a hospital’s ER entrance should’ve been considered beforehand, and I will say my wife and I are from a first ring ‘burb.

    My wife and her parents have joined us on a few, and they’re from north of Lockport. The three of them are rural folk, and my families were from Buffalo. My wife’s family wasn’t against the city, but rather they knew nothing about it. For years we’ve been taking them around (moreso in an automobile) showing them things.

    We’re here to build bridges, not burn them. I’m seeing neighborhoods I haven’t been around for many years because they changed, they’re seeing many things they only hear about on tv. Buffalo is said to be “the city of good neighbors”, then all this sneering comes about of “I walked to the store for a sixer and I had to wait 20 minutes to get back to drink it” or “I was late to dinner.” You know what? If you weren’t held up by traffic, something else would’ve gotten in the way. That’s how it works.

    -Buffalo Slow Roll isn’t the only inconvenience in your life.

    And I don’t want to hate on people losing out on time with loved ones, but those are the few reasons. The more plenty reasons are probably petit ones.

    And all this “john and jane doe from cheektavegas come to ride their bikes and they leave their stank here and go home right after and don’t care about us.”

    Yeah, maybe so. John and Jane Doe are plead to at Xmas time to “shop local and come to our stores on Hertel and Elmwood” too. Do they spend a whole day or a half hour in the city? SFW!

    We’re not running through your flowers (or lawns with 3 foot weeds), or camping out on your porch.

    Oh yeah, I went to the Elmwood Art Fest on the weekend and holy crap you couldn’t drive a car around there for two whole days!

    • Thanks for your thoughts. It occurs to me that if you were really “here to build bridges,” then when you were exposed to sincerely-voiced criticism, your reaction wouldn’t be “No. You’re wrong.” The fact that this blog post has spread so widely in our small community shows that people living in the neighborhoods you’re riding through ARE in fact impacted in a negative way and that, despite your intent, you may not actually be building bridges the way you think you are. Is Slow Roll the worst hardship people in Buffalo have faced? No. In fact, if you only read the first and last paragraphs of my post, you’d find that I claim Slow Roll is a good idea and offer several ways it can be improved.

      The defensive posture many Slow Roll proponents have adopted and the refusal to entertain any feedback that isn’t a fawning commendation shows to me that you’re far more concerned with your own good time than ways that you can be a better guest to the people people whose communities you are visiting.

  7. Before I begin, I’d like to state I am NOT part of Slow Roll, so my opinions do NOT reflect the people in it. I am a recent Buffalo expat, but I have observed this little pushcart war unfold on my social media. I don’t know all the details to what Slow Roll is doing or how they are interacting with people, but I can tell there’s a lot of bullshit to this post.

    The saying is ‘When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression’. That’s exactly what this is.

    There’s nothing more symbolic of “bourgeois privilege” than someone in car whining about a 15 minute wait.

    There’s nothing more sanctimonious than someone who’s clearly part of Buffalo’s gentrification complaining about more recent gentrification.

    There’s nothing more nonplussed than ignoring the “criticism” included public threats of violence from an Elmwood Village (the epicenter of Buffalo’s yuppie gentrification boom) business owner on his social media page.

    At least half the people I’ve seen bitch about how Slow Rollers are “entitled and privileged” are themselves people who I’ve personally witnessed driving drunk in their $40,000 SUVs, even making snapchat videos of themselves while driving with kids in the car (a class B felony).

    I guarantee by the language that the person who wrote this is an overeducated 1st or 2nd wave gentrifier complaining about more recent gentrification blowing up their spot. “Hey how dare you exploit this poverty. I was totally exploiting it before you got here.” Hipsters hating on hipsters hating on hipsters.

    This is all you really needed to say:
    “working together to establish predictable routes and ensure people are not trapped inside and outside their blocks, by breaking up the pack of riders to allow traffic of all types to continue moving”

    If only Buffalo was as pissed about this interruption to their convenience as they were about the hordes of drunken drivers and smartphone using drivers on the roads. Then maybe their would be room for all, the roads would be a lot safer, and there would be a lot less emergency room visits.

    • While I don’t own an SUV (or any car) and I have nothing to do with Pasteurized Tees or the owner of that business’s choice in expressing his frustration with the ride, I will respond to your criticism that, as an agent of gentrification myself, I have no right to complain about Slow Roll.

      I do have privilege as a white middle class man, but I don’t agree that that privilege negates the legitimacy of my argument. I’m a committed leftist and I have made it my job to advance fights for social and economic justice. I do currently live on the West Side and I operate a farm on the East Side. That does mean that, to some degree, I perpetuate gentrification. However, I try to mitigate those effects by actively supporting efforts to combat gentrification and to ensure that people living in gentrifying areas attain and maintain the power to stay in their homes and to have a say in the character of their neighborhoods. I could write thousands of words on this subject, and maybe I will someday.

      My main thought on it right now is that in the fight against gentrification, I don’t think a goal should be to perpetuate the decades of segregation of Buffalo’s neighborhoods by class and race. I think the goals should be 1) to achieve neighborhoods that are racially and economically integrated; 2) with equal access to the public goods that attend increased public and private investment for all the people who live there, no matter how long they’ve been there; and 3) to combat the displacement of longtime residents and businesses.

      I am aware of the “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” quote, though you invoked it without describing how it applies here. You haven’t said whose equality I’m alleged to feel oppressed by.

      Anyway, while I think it’s important that people of privilege acknowledge that and include it in their social and political analysis, I am resistant to attempts to shut down any particular discussion by simply pointing out the fact of a participant’s privilege. While I do mention privilege in my post, I believe my discussion went deeper than that. I even went so far as to include recommendations for how Slow Roll (which I acknowledged as a good idea in the first sentence of the piece) can mitigate its negative impacts. The fact that the piece has struck a chord with so many people in Buffalo (and beyond, evinced by the fact that though I only shared it on my private Facebook and Twitter accounts, it made its way down to you in Florida), both with my relative privilege and without, shows to me that the issues I raised are not a solely bourgeois concern.

      As far as your argument that, because I wrote a piece complaining about Slow Roll, I must not care about drunk or distracted driving, well that’s stupid. Those things are so obviously bad that the audience for my personal blog does not need it pointed out to them. Similarly, you won’t find me writing any posts about why Donald Trump is bad here either.

    • This is a bizarre request, and frankly it seems to me like you’re trying to hold up black people as some kind of mascots to rebut my essay. I’m not going to edit my post to include your photo, but I’ll approve this comment so people reading the post can access it.

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