Urbane Biking Through The Streets of New York

The best way to see New York is not through the window of a yellow cab, but riding next to one, hanging on for dear life to a bicycle...
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The best way to see New York is not through the window of a yellow cab, but riding next to one, hanging on for dear life to a bicycle...

TomOlesnevich2-700x465

I’d been to New York before on a stag do and in between falling asleep in lap dancing joints and missing a Lennox Lewis fight at Madison Square Garden because I was too pissed, I managed to get the ‘must-do’ tourist attractions in over the long weekend. So when work informed me that I was off to New York for a week seeing customers I was determined to get out and see the city closer than I had through cab windows and a hangover.

On the drive in from the airports to Manhattan I’ve always marvelled at the scale of the engineering that’s gone into building New York. The Holland Tunnel, the bridges, the Long Island Expressway, they’re all massive human achievements, excellent examples of American ingenuity and drive. But what I wanted to see were the neighbourhoods between the concrete arteries. All the places that have soaked into my brain over the last 40 years in films, books and all those Lou Reed songs. That’s the New York that I was aiming for. And I was going to get it….on a bike.

The Waterfront Bicycle Shop were really helpful and allowed me to book in advance through email. I love the service in the US, it’s brilliant, people are programmed to give you what you want and to be helpful…. even New Yorkers. The thing I notice in the UK is that if you ask for something different it pisses people off, the “not our policy” brigade.

The shop is positioned on the Waterfront facing the Hudson in the West Village. My hotel was up on Lexington and 48th Street which is quite a trek, but armed with a Metro card and my newly downloaded Sea Wolf album to listen to in transit, I set off on my journey of discovery. The music perfectly fitted that journey to the bike shop. I pressed play as I was waiting for the downtown 6 train. The first tune (Leaves in the river) has a guitar intro that sounds like a US train bell out of the films….perfect…..I knew it was going to be a top day.

I managed to hire a hybrid bike complete with a basket to carry my lock in. I was about to tackle the mean streets of the big apple armed with a bike with a chuffing basket on. The clockers in Brooklyn won’t be fucking with this white boy.

I kind of had it in my head that I wanted to do as many boroughs as I could in the time available. This would mean a journey to Staten Island and as the ferry was free and, being a professional Yorkshire man, it would have been rude not to. So once out of the shop, I set off down the Hudson River Greenway. The sun was shining but with a cooling breeze coming of the Hudson the conditions were perfect for cycling. The Greenway was quiet, mostly joggers and a few cyclists. The city was still pretty quiet. This was the downtown working area and the streets were mysteriously empty as none of the offices open.
Hudson River Greenway

On the Staten Island Ferry I sit down and check out my guide book and cycling map. At this point I realise I can’t actually cycle from Staten Island to Brooklyn. The Verrazano Straits Bridge was built with no walk way so its motors only, suspect that’s a common thing in a country where the car is adored almost as much as the dollars they use to buy them. So it’s straight back on the bike after a 15 minute break which is no shame as you get the best view of Manhattan approaching from Staten Island, gratis, unusual in this country.

Back on Manhattan it’s a short run up to the Brooklyn bridge which has dedicated cycle lanes usually but not today as some thoughtless gits have organised a sponsored walk in aid of Diabetes. Now I’m no expert here but aren’t Americans getting diabetes because they are fat? Surely a sponsored run might have been better? Anyway on this day there were thousands of people waddling over the bridge and, with me not realising, I tried in vain to cycle through them all, much to my annoyance and to that of most of the waddlers.

Once on the Brooklyn side, I kind of meander around Downtown Brooklyn, past Fulton Mall and then back up Jay Street towards Dumbo. I look and feel pretty out of place. It seemed that everyone around me was African American, but it wasn’t that. There were no bikes. The shops were largely $5 Shoe stores, Afro hair extension shops and pharmacies. Seemed to be loads of pharmacies, the Americans truly love medication. The medical ‘industry’ is all-consuming, nearly every advert on TV is about medical insurance or the drugs themselves. Thank fuck for the National Health. I fear the privatisation of the health service here if only for the shite adverts we’ll be getting in between the fat opera singer and the Russian meerkats…

On to Dumbo, the cool art district of Brooklyn. Massive galleries in old warehouses flank the cobbled streets. The same streets that witnessed the stabbing of Bugsy by Noodles in Once upon a Time in America. Dumbo is sandwiched in between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges which adds massively to the feel of the place, not just in terms of the awe-inspiring engineering and architectural beauty, but the sound as well. There’s the constant thunder of the sections of road being battered endlessly by the traffic overhead. The irregular thumping certainly added to the ambient sound and light. Like an old warehouse or a cathedral.

My next stop was Williamsburg, I was on my way to sample the cool kids, the young people with ill fitting clothes, Deirdre Barlow gigs and funny haircuts. I cycle away from Dumbo through deserted streets and I have to admit to feeling slightly nervous here on these industrial streets with no people around. But just as my apprehension is starting to get the better of me, a cobbled smart residential street pops up. Hudson Avenue is a little oasis of style crammed between new industrial units and the Navy Yard.

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Trying to find my way around the Navy Yard I bump into a guy on a bike who is also trying to get to the same place. A friendly bloke he offered to show me the way. An artist, he was thinking of moving to Williamsburg from his home in Harlem, so he was checking out the areas. My inner Leeds waller radar told me I could probably chin him he if tried to mug and or bum me so he was safe enough. In all honesty he was a really sound bloke and we talked about how the neighbourhoods are all mainly occupied by people of similar national identities. Particularly in Williamsburg. He tells me that on this side of the Williamsburg bridge it’s massively Jewish. Like a Jewish Ghetto. We cycle down Flushing Avenue and then turn left on Kent Avenue. Down Kent there are housing projects which look like something out of the Wire, every window on these two-rise apartments had grills on. But rather strangely they had these box structures built on the balconies. I was really surprised that this housing was nearly all occupied by Hasidic Jews. Maybe that says more about me and my ignorance, but the Jewish community in Leeds mainly lives in the North of the city in prosperous areas. It wasn’t until the next week that I found out about the balcony structures. One of my customers is a Hasidic Jew and he explained that they were to do with the Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). During this religious festival all food has to be prepared and eaten outside in keeping with how the Israelites lived during the Exodus from Egypt.

As predicted, that side of the Williamsburg bridge was like stepping back in time, it’s definitely worth making the trip out to experience what a strange and interesting place it is. It was Sabbath day when I was there during a religious holiday so the streets were full with folk making their way, I can only assume, to the Synagogue. The Hasidic Jews have a very specific dress sense which looks like it’s straight out of the 1700’s. Big furry hats, breeches tucked into white socks, black suits and hats. Combined with the older looking tenement buildings it creates a really strange and intriguing look and feel to the area.

Rodney Street – Brooklyn

Onwards to the cool kids and my lunch. By this time I’m ready for Zagat’s, the best barbecue in New York – Fette Sau. I leisurely cycle under the Billyburg bridge, past all the kooky cafes, shops, studios and spray-painted squats. A few camera shoots to 354 Metropolitan Avenue. Fette Sau is in between a car lot and a grocery. Inside it’s tiled like an old butchers with all the funky design of a truly unique restaurant. Beer is served in old jam jars and the like. Was only a few in when I was there so no hassle leaving my bike in the yard. I can’t remember what cut of meat I had but it was brilliant. I could have stayed and had a load more beer but cycling when pissed has its side effects, like death and that. The chilli and garlic broccoli was superb and the real baked beans were an ideal accompaniment if a bit hard to comprehend being used to Heinz.
My lunch

Leaving Fette Sau, I make my way over the Pulaski bridge to Queens, my fourth borough of the day. In order to get there I have to go through Little Poland around Greenpoint. Not really much to write home about, certainly not as striking as the Jewish part of Billyburg, but no less interesting. Polish flags on display from cars, people with Polish football tops on. Think Poland have may have been playing a match that day hence them all being ‘Polish-ed’ out of their minds. Been on google earth since and not much Polski action on street view. Further down Manhattan Avenue I encounter my first real life clocker. A random homey stood on a quiet street with no people on, no car, a street with through the week businesses all closed, looking like an extra from Boyz in the Hood. Needless to say I cycled past without enquiring what kind of herbs, resins and chemicals he was purveying. On the corner was his runner, same get up, just younger.

Crossing over the Pulaski bridge, I encounter a few folk walking the other way, one of whom was wearing a Leeds top. Now I was pretty taken aback by this being a Leeds fan. He was with some other kids one of whom had a Tottenham shirt on. I should of said hello to him but felt uncomfortable just stopping him in the street and blathering on about Leeds. Think I was shocked to see a fellow Leeds fan in such obscure circumstances. Not so shocked about seeing one in New York, but clocking one in some industrial area, on some shit bridge between Queens and Brooklyn is pretty weird. Kind of regret not stopping him now and getting a photo just to stick in here.

I finally get to the Queensboro Bridge but it takes me ages to get to the walk way, I’m pretty tired now having done 20 miles or so. Was pleased to get onto the walkway, it was noisy as fuck. Kind of felt like getting closer to home getting back onto the Island.

Queensboro bridge walk way

1st Avenue is a welcome sight although I intend to cycle up it across 110th Street but going in the other direction to Bobby Womack. Original plan was to get up to the Bronx but time was against me and I was feeling pretty tired, had those salt secretions on my temple and forehead. I love that feeling. You know you’ve been doing some good to your body.

1st and 60th from Queensboro Bridge

1st Avenue from where I join it is pretty dull loads of traffic ploughing up at speeds, the road seems in decent nick from 60th for about 20 blocks or so, then as the wealthy condos turn into housing projects the road deteriorates. Strangely enough I’m finding this scenery more interesting. I stop at Yorkshire Liquor at 85th Street for a photo opportunity. I mean you have to don’t you. Would love to know the story behind naming it that. Maybe next time.

After about 90th street it becomes mostly projects on the right hand side but not threatening in any way. A few young lads giving you that stare, the same stare the brasses use in Holbeck – blankly looking through you to what you may “really” want, something you’ve got buried deep in your soul. Fortunately I have to ride past the same types on a daily basis in Leeds. Just ignore them and carry on, show no fear.

I stop at 114th Street at Jefferson park to watch some football. A kids team, all Hispanic girls and one white kid. I speak briefly with the coach, he tells me they’re are mainly Honduran and play in a NYC youth league. I watch for a bit, take on some water then onwards and upwards. Well just a few blocks at least. I get up to about 120th and my arse starts to go, don’t know what for, wasn’t like there was anyone around behaving in any way threatening or aggressive. I really should have gone right up to Lexington and 125, just for the Velvets reference. Instead I tacked West first on 117th, where there were some young Hispanic lads hanging out on the stoop, shooting that glare, the “what the fuck is this pasty looking, bike riding, basket using mutha luvva doing on our street”.

Or maybe they were just taking it easy on a warm October Saturday. Probably the latter.

I get to 116th and Park Avenue. Stop to marvel at the view down Park Avenue. Manhattan’s amazing man-made examples of perspective and leading lines are emphasised on Park Avenue as you have an elevated train track driven down the middle of it from 97th Street to where Manhattan meets the Bronx. I took a few photos but they were pretty poor. Nicked this off the web.

Harelm

So I’m in Harlem, I’ve not been stabbed, shot or mugged but no time to hang about for that, I’ve got to get the iron horse back complete with Miss Marple basket. Heading south I turn down Lennox Avenue and through Central Park. This has to be the dullest part of the ride for me. It’s a park, it’s green. Yep we’ve got them in Leeds. I tack across to the upper West side and pick up the Hudson Greenway to take me all the way back to the bike shop.

When I look back at the 40 mile ride the best bits were the ones which were occupied by the most humanity. Not the pretty park full of tourists and up town folk but the gritty filthy parts of town; the Jewish housing projects, the Latino clockers, the Honduran kids playing footy, cycling under the train tracks passing the graffiti, that’s what New York will always be for me. Next time you’re there get out of the bar, off your arse, hire a bike and get off the Island its ACE.