Our Hero: Bill Di Paola of Time's Up!

photo & graphics courtesy of Time's Up

If you ride a bicycle in New York City, you're probably familiar with Time’s Up!, an environmental organization that promotes NYC bicycling through education, outreach and creative direct-action campaigns.  But you might not know the organization’s founder and director, Bill Di Paola, who works tirelessly behind the scenes.  See, Bill’s one of these old-school activists – the kind who’s involved not for the media attention, the prestige, or the opportunity to tag himself in edgy critical mass photos on facebook – but because he truly believes in the capacity (and responsibility) of concerned individuals to effect positive change.

Bill’s been doing this work for more than two decades (i.e., long before urban cycling became fashionable and every hipster and his mom started riding track bikes around Williamsburg) – and like everyone else involved in Time’s Up!, he’s a volunteer.

In this week’s Our Heroes podcast, Bill discusses bicycle lanes, bicycle crackdowns and the city’s contradictory responses to environmental initiatives.  He also explains that Time’s Up! isn’t just about bikes (think community garden activism)!

*Full disclosure: I've long supported Time’s Up! as a volunteer, a member of its advisory board and as an all-around, ardent proponent.  You should support Time’s Up!, too.  And check out the video above; the group needs a new space.

You can listen to the episode by clicking on the audio player above, download a podcast of the full conversation or read a PDF transcript.  Here’s a snippet of the interview:

To start off, tell me a little bit about Time’s Up!

Time’s Up! is a 23-year-old environmental organization located in New York City, right in the middle of the downtown area, right in the heart of New York City. We started off as an environmental organization and we still are. We have several different campaigns that we work on throughout the years. The interesting thing about our group is it’s 100 percent run by volunteers. So the volunteers kind of structure the campaigns, the events, the workshops, the day-to-day operation, how they want to deal with the press, how they want to dress, how they want the group to work, what times we should work. So it’s a very unusual group because so much volunteer involvement kind of structures the group itself and kind of dictates how we can do things and how we can’t do things, and what our strong points are and what are our weak points.

Time’s Up! is known for it’s bicycle advocacy efforts – tell me about this work.

We were doing some of our traditional environmental campaigns about 20 years ago, and we realized we were all riding our bikes to the campaigns. The way it was kind of structured, I guess, 20 years ago, was that people would protest what they didn’t like to see: they didn’t want to see people in fur coats, they didn’t want to see McDonalds using Styrofoam packaging. So there was a lot of protesting.

So Time’s Up! kind of switched it around… we figured, we don’t want to protest – we want to celebrate, and we want to highlight positive things instead of highlighting negative things. Just naturally, whenever we'd go to these depressing demonstrations, on our way there, on our way back, we'd all be riding our bikes together and then it just kind of dawned on us, “Wow, we're doing something positive on our way to the action and on our way back.” And then we realized, “Wow, this is fun; we like it; it’s mobile.” So we actually thought, “We need to incorporate the bicycle more.”  So we've been able to integrate bicycles as a pretty strong part of our message. Over the years, as I said, since we're structured by volunteers, there have been many programs to support more bicycling, because a lot of people feel, once you get on a bicycle, you see the world differently.

As a cyclist, what do you love about riding in this city?

I still think when I get on my bicycle, the word “freedom” just comes right in. I mean, you're free. There’s no paperwork, there’s no insurance... you feel the air on your face, you can talk to people on the sidewalk, you're not inside a car. So it’s this feeling of overwhelming freedom and the air and the sun hitting you, and you're directly connected to the road. Also, as you pedal, you're creating your own energy – so then you realize as soon as you hit the brakes, “Wow, I just wasted all that energy.” So it really makes you understand how energy works; you're not just turning on a light switch; you're creating your own energy. So it’s so educational, and so uplifting; it really makes you realize a lot – and that’s only the first five blocks.  Then the second 20 blocks you start realizing, “Wow, why are these people in cars interfering with me? I'm trying to do the right thing.” And so it opens you up to both the positive and the negative as well.

I wanted to change gears a little bit and talk about one of Time’s Up’s! other campaigns, which is promoting, growing and defending gardens in New York City. How did Times Up! get involved with this?

That’s an interesting thing. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I have to say, I live in the Lower East Side, and the Lower East Side is a place where people really stand up for their community and always have and they're not going to run away when the police come. So the Lower East Side has always been a place where there've been a lot of community gardens… Times Up! has always been based in that area. We have a lot of volunteers in that area.

Basically there were a lot of abandoned buildings in the city at one time; the buildings kind of fell down, they had fires. So the communities got together and cleaned them up. When they cleaned them up, they had to make a decision about what to with them. So then they put in some trees, they put in some flowers and they made community gardens out of them. And each community made it a different type of garden; some of them were open space, some of them were plots. Then later on, the city tried to destroy these gardens after the communities had brought them back. So there’s been a continuous fight to save these community gardens, and Time’s Up! has several different campaigns around that. One of them is, "We'll help clean up the garden with the community and then the community will take it over." Another campaign is, "We'll go there and lock down and defend it, and make a big public scene, so the city won’t destroy it." Another one is, "We'll go there and just have tours of the community gardens." Also last year, we were very involved in the legislation to protect the community gardens. So we have a lot of different campaigns around community gardens.

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