There’s a strange, wonderful short story by Donald Barthelme about a balloon that appears one day on Fourteenth Street and grows, like a low-hanging blimp, until it covers a good deal of Manhattan. It becomes an object of widespread puzzlement and fascination. Children leap across its surface. Art critics analyze its colors. City officers conduct secret nighttime tests to better understand it.
For the past couple of weeks, Fort Greene has been living out its own strange version of “The Balloon.” On a handful of corners, seemingly overnight, bike racks have appeared. And not just any bike racks, but city bike racks. Or is it citibike racks? These, in any event, are the bike racks that we’ve been hearing about for months, the harbingers of New York’s new bike-sharing system—apparently called Citi Bike℠— that will, depending on your perspective, transform the city into either an Elysium of convenience and health or a corporate-sponsored hell-scape.
The bikes themselves, though, won’t arrive until late May. Which means that for a while here, we’re living with a kind of accidental urban art installation. There the racks sit—sometimes on sidewalks, sometimes in what were, just hours before, parking spaces—like rows of water fountains designed by Donald Judd. They have no present function except to irritate, to excite, to bewilder.
My neighbors and I stand peering at them, arms defensively crossed, asking each other, “Who’s going to ride all these things?” “How much will it cost?” “What about helmets?” “What about parking?” I have, in the weeks since the racks appeared, heard more public conversation about gentrification and urbanism than in all the years that I’ve lived in New York. Barthelme’s city-dwellers decorate their balloon with paper lanterns and obscene fliers; we adorn ours with anxiety and indignation.