When I moved to New York, I left behind my small central Pennsylvania hometown for Astoria, which is as close to bucolic as it gets in Gotham. Since moving, I’ve taken up running: I go to new neighborhoods, size up nearby Greek restaurants, and find forgotten pockets of northwest Queens. I usually end my runs in Astoria Park, which sometimes reminds me of home—trading the Susquehanna for the East River, the Blue Mountain Ridge for the Manhattan skyline. It’s one of the things that made the transition tolerable.
Still, everywhere has its annoyances, and Astoria is one of many New York neighborhoods beset since the pandemic by noise from drag racers and dirt bikes, which can sometimes make one long for leaf blowers—that scourge of suburbia. (See “The Gotham Cacophony,” Autumn 2021.) Organizing their meet-ups online, the racers constitute a discrete subculture. A former participant in New York’s drag-racing scene told me in an online message that a meet-up some years ago was “one of the best days of my life.” But of all hobbies, it’s one of the more antisocial.
This isn’t some isolated complaint from a hayseed. Vehicle noise is a common theme of community meetings for the NYPD’s 114th Precinct, and commenters on a neighborhood forum that tends to deride precious newcomers have coined the term “fart cars” for the problem. In October 2020, the New York Times published a long report on the city’s “insanely loud car culture.” Local politicians have sought to combat it: State Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat representing South Brooklyn, sponsored the Stop Loud and Excessive Exhaust Pollution Act, which raises fines for modifications that make vehicles louder and requires police to carry decibel meters that can measure vehicle noise. The law takes effect this spring.
But officers can do only so much, as I discovered on a balmy March afternoon, when I took advantage of the now-seasonably warm weather and set out running down Shore Boulevard, a two-mile stretch of road bordering the water that’s been closed to traffic since spring 2020. My noise-canceling earbuds were blaring either the new Animal Collective album or the latest episode of Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo’s interminable NBA talk show, but neither can block out the unmistakable noise of bikes. Sure enough, when I looked over my shoulder, I saw a convoy of motorcyclists racing down the street.
Admittedly, I antagonized them: I yelled something like, “Get in the bike lane!” as they passed and gestured helpfully to show them the way. I maintain that the motorized five-man weave that they were carrying out was the original antagonism, but the bikers objected to my admonishment. They turned around and started circling me, and an unfriendly colloquy ensued. I didn’t want to compromise my pace, and they didn’t want to dismount, so the six of us continued yelling at each other as we made our way down the road. But when I informed one of my interlocutors that, actually, this street was only for pedestrians, they took that as a challenge. One invited me to “call the cops! I love the cops!” When I said that I might, they circled one more time before taking off, but not before the last biker reached out and pounded me on the back of the head.
It didn’t hurt much, but I wanted to prove a point (plus, onlookers seemed sympathetic to my situation). So I took the gentleman’s invitation and called the police, even though the bikers were long gone by now. After the cops arrived and scolded a group of kids for playing on the rocks by the river, they thanked me, told me that they would send more patrols to the area, and conceded that there wasn’t much that they could do. To the responding officers’ chagrin, New York cops have been barred from giving chase to otherwise-law-abiding dirt bikers since 2012—because someone could get hurt. The motorcyclist’s assertion that he loves the police may well have been true, I was told. Bikers know that cops can’t do anything to them, and they relish reminding the authorities of this fact.
Nothing about the incident shook me, but someone who isn’t a man in his twenties might have felt menaced. And while I’m under no illusions about what living in New York actually entails, you can see why these kinds of incidents can make some people want to stay away. Bikers roaming the streets with impunity—ruining a quiet weekend for a family outing at the park, or subjecting everyone else to ear-splitting engine noise at 2 AM—is one of those “grinding, day-to-day incivilities and minor street offenses that erode the quality of urban life, make people afraid, and create the milieu within which serious crime flourishes,” as the great criminologist George Kelling described such incursions. I don’t plan on changing my routine, though. You can’t let them win.
Photo by: Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images