Biking to Brick City, Part I: Prologue 23 October 2011

A few nights ago, I was on my bike at the corner of Houston and Sullivan waiting for the light to change.  A mangy guy on the sidewalk was gesticulating in my direction, clearly trying to get my attention.  While my normal inclination is to ignore such requests, I was feeling magnanimous: it was a beautiful night and earlier in the evening a friend had been generous with an excellent single malt Irish whiskey.  So I turned to see what the guy on the sidewalk had to say.

“You gotta be crazy to ride a bike in New York City,” he yelled at me.

Clearly, this guy has not been paying attention: New York, as most people know, is in the midst of a bicycle renaissance, with nearly 300 miles of new bike lanes built by Janette Sadik-Kahn’s DOT and a bike-share program scheduled to launch next year.  And while there is a tendency to think that Manhattan and the gentrified neighborhoods of Brooklyn are the biggest beneficiaries, last weekend’s ride out to JFK to tour the TWA Terminal included a few nice stretches along designated lanes and routes in Queens.

Digression: the bike lane on 157th Avenue took us right past New Park Pizza on Cross Bay Boulevard, which some claim is the best in the borough.  It was a pretty good slice, but looking at modernist landmarks always makes me hungry so my judgement might have been impaired.

There’s even a bike rack at the AirTrain station in Howard Beach. And though I doubt I’ll be towing my carry-on wheelie bag any time soon, the “City,” a British-made trailer/suitcase combo just might convince me to trade in my beat up Tumi.

Of course, I didn’t have time to explain any of this to the mangy guy on the sidewalk in the Village before the light changed, so I laughed instead: “Not so crazy,” I told him, “at least, not any more.”

When I first started riding in New York City in the late 80s, in the glory days of the kamikaze bike messenger, you did have to be kind of crazy.  If the taxis didn’t get you (and they got me twice), the potholes and the broken glass did.  Back then you rode on Park Avenue because there weren’t buses on it.  

Never did I imagine a day would come when there wouldn’t be any cars either, even if only for a few Sundays in August.  

Because of Summer Streets and its bike-friendly ilk, the mean streets of the five boroughs have begun to fade from view and recede in memory.  But those feeling nostalgic for a city less kind and gentle can take heart–there’s a reasonable facsimile a mere 8 miles away as the crow flies, though getting there by bike is a whole lot further.

Riding a bike in Newark in 2011 does feels like riding in New York twenty years ago. I’m not really exaggerating. There’s not as much traffic, but there aren’t any bike lanes (though the first protected bike lane in the entire state is under construction near Branch Brook Park) and motorists seem even more aggressive towards cyclists than they are towards pedestrians–and that’s saying something.  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been nearly run over while crossing with the light in a clearly marked pedestrian walkway–it happens at least once a week.  But in Newark, whether on two feet or two wheels, it’s not the taxis you need to worry about, it’s the SUVs, literally the Suburbans from the suburbs, whose drivers are doubly distracted–by their phones and by their outsized anxiety about being in Brick City.

Still, like a good citizen of the region–Greater New York when I’m east of the Hudson and Greater New Jersey (as Dennis Gale put it) when I’m west of it–I persevere.  

I leave the Mini in Manhattan, take the subway to Penn Station, switch to NJ Transit and arrive in Newark 17 minutes later (21 minutes if we stop in Secaucus). From the Broad Street station it’s a 10 minute walk to school.

Last year I started riding my bike to Newark on days I don’t teach.  More specifically, I started riding some of the way to Newark: from the Upper West Side, I pedal south on the Hudson River Greenway to the World Trade Center, take the PATH to Newark, and then ride one mile from downtown to University Heights. This saves no time, though it does save money ($11.50 total), but that’s an added bonus.  The point is the seven mile ride on the Greenway.

Though intolerably congested on weekends, during weekday commuting hours (and late at night) the Greenway is a joy.  Some may prefer the stretch that passes through Chelsea and the West Village, where the rebuilt piers have the sheen of the luxury city.

I favor the portion that passes under what remains of the West Side Elevated Highway of the 1930s–and not just because when you are under there you don’t have to look at all those ugly towers Donald Trump built on the old New York Central rail yards.  What I like about riding the Greenway under the Highway is the layering of past and present and the way the bike lanes, and the whole southern extension of Riverside Park, reclaim the spatial detritus of the automobile.  That may sound portentous, but transforming a dismal undercroft into usable public space really does signal a critical change in urban planning strategies over the past few decades.  Think of it as “collage city” besting the “noble diagram.”

And since I’m being grandiloquent, I’ll admit something else.  Since I started riding my bike [some of the way] to Newark, whenever I look west across the Hudson while on two wheels, I think of the Situationists.  Now, this could be simply a bad habit I picked up in graduate school; not unlike the heroine in Cathleen Schine’s Rameau’s Niece (“What was the point of having read so much incomprehensible Derrida if one could not make philistine deconstruction puns.”), it displays my self-satisfaction at erudition goofy enough to conjoin radical French urban theory from the 60s with present day New Jersey.

More seriously, it could be that cycling in as congested and auto-loving a place as New Jersey is kind of like a détournement for the age of sustainability, in a beach-beneath-the-streets sort of way.  Upon consideration, though, I’ve come to realize that the reason I’d been thinking of the Situationists while looking at New Jersey from the other side of the river is that I’ve been harboring a secret desire to turn biking to Brick City into a dérive.

Coming soon: Biking to Brick City, Part II: “Sire, I am from the other country.”

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