If I Can Ride It There...
New York, New York, a helluva town. The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down. The people ride in a hole in the groun'. New York, New York, it's a helluva town!!
– "New York, New York" (from "On the Town)
"Tonight we came here to party. We are going to dance, to sweat....here what happens to you remains to be seen....welcome to the Shrine."
– (from "Fela!)
The week before last, I traveled to Brooklyn on what's become my annual visit with my lovely daughter, Rebecca, and her beau, Lee. And it was my second year in a row to ride my bike around NYC.
As before, I had a wonderful time with Rebecca and Lee, who served as my tour guides. We explored the Brooklyn waterfront, and rode the subway (I'm an expert at negotiating the F Train). And we explored some of Manhattan, where my daughter works and where she lived for a few years. At the Museum of Modern Art, we took in a Tim Burton exhibition and experienced the performance art of Marina Abramovic (see the last blog entry).
We also took in the high-energy Broadway musical, Fela!, which tells the story of the legendary Nigerian musician/composer/political activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and was a highlight of my trip. Fela created what became known as Afrobeat, by fusing Yoruban tribal rhythms with pop, funk, jazz and rock; a good sampling of his music made it into the show. The theater itself was designed to look like Fela's night club, "The Shrine."
We also dined at several fine restaurants. Sampling country French and Italian cooking meant trying out a variety of spectacular appetizers, including octopus, broccoli, beets and cheeses. We also had Brooklyn pizza, far surpassing any pizza I've had in Los Angeles.
Last year, for reasons I don't know that I can articulate, I purchased a fixed gear bike on my arrival in Manhattan (a fixed gear bike doesn't coast; the rider is either pedaling or stopped). Despite my daughter's trepidations, I found Manhattan to be a bike-friendly city, with lots of bike lanes, many broad avenues, and reasonably courteous drivers and pedestrians. Although I did have some close calls, it was no worse, and frequently more exciting, than riding my bike in Los Angeles.
Last year, I rode around Manhattan with a couple of cyclists I met in an on-line bike forum, each of whom separately offered to take me on tours of their city. This year one of them, David, was ironically and regrettably – for me – playing with his band in Los Angeles as I was riding around NYC on my bike. My other guide, Glenn, who runs his own business, took time off to shepherd me on another tour of NYC this year.
While it probably cost me as much to ship my bike back and forth to NYC as it did for me to make the flight there and back, it was worth the expense. With Glenn, I pedaled through several Brooklyn neighborhoods, crossed the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan, cycled past the Empire State Building and rode over rivers of concrete, which took us deep into a series of canyons bordered by skyscrapers that rose above us sharp-edged mountains. We pushed through Lower and Upper Manhattan, Central Park, and beyond Harlem, riding as far north as the top of the island, to The Cloisters, a museum which sits on a hill above the Hudson river, looks like a monastery, and contains an impressive collection of medieval European art.
Earlier we cycled past a tour bus bogged down in traffic like a mammoth in a tar pit; the tourists on board stared out at the city from behind tinted windows. As we glided past the stuck bus, Glenn observed that I was experiencing NYC in a far different manner than most visitors. It was true: putting foot to pedal, having to pay careful attention to the traffic and to pedestrians, while simultaneously taking in the sights, was certainly an intense way to make a connection with the city surrounding me.
In a way, I suppose NYC became, for me, my own "Shrine." Like those who visited Fela's nightclub, who fell under its spell, and swayed to the music of Afrobeat, so I fell under the spell of the city, and moved to its syncopated rhythms.
That I would try to tell a story about my journey to New York with my photography was a given. However, up until the morning of my flight, I wasn't sure which camera or cameras to bring with me. A full-on DSLR would have offered me more creative control than a point-and-shoot digicam.
Knowing I wasn't going to carry the former with me on a bike ride, though, I decided to only bring the smaller camera, my little Panasonic Lumix TZ5. I could slip into a jersey pocket (or I would have, if I wasn't wearing a windbreaker in 30 degree F temperatures) or carry it over my shoulder with a strap. I'll let others decide how well I did with my choice.
Note: Click on photographs to view larger versions.
Above: Most of the U.S. was invisible to me, socked in underneath cloud covers. One of the few clear views I had came relatively early into the flight, as we streaked over the San Gabriel Mountains, still deep in snow this early spring morning.
Above: After landing at JFK in mid-afternoon, I found my way, via subway, into Brooklyn. This was my view when I walked up to street level. The little Brooklyn Heights Bike Shoppe was just a few blocks away, easy to reach as I carried my bike messenger bag – crammed with my computer, bike helmet, and an e-reader – and wheeled my carryon luggage behind me. I'd shipped my bike to the shop a few days earlier. My bike was already assembled, and a few minutes later my daughter walked into the store. Together we walked back to her apartment Carroll Gardens, which historically is an old Italian neighborhood.
Above: While most of the trees were still without leaves, flowers, like these daffodils, were blooming all over town.
Above and Below: There are blocks and blocks of lovely apartment buildings in Brooklyn, many built more than a century ago.
Above: bikes are locked outside all over NYC. The two bikes above are both quite nice, and not particularly well-secured.
Above: My friend, Glenn, met me on my first full day in Brookly, while my daughter was at work.
Above: Glenn led me through the Williamsburg neighborhood. It's home to perhaps 70,000 ultra-conservative Hasidic Jews, who maintain a culture largely distinct from the rest of Brooklyn and NYC.
Above: While much of Brooklyn is upscale or in the process of becoming gentrified, there are more gritty areas.
Above: Glenn rides ahead of me across the bike-friendly Williamsburg Bridge, which opened in 1903, becoming, for some years, the longest suspension bridge in the world (and beating out the former record holder, the Brooklyn Bridge). To remain upright on our bikes, we had to lean into the strong, fridid wind that swept down the East River. Once we reached Manhattan, the skyscrapers largely blocked the wind.
Above: Glenn patiently waited for me to make photographs throughout the course of our ride, including this one of the Empire State Building. I was a true tourist, craning my nick up at the third tallest building in the U.S. We rode quite a way up Madison Ave., and after lunch, rode for miles north over Amsterdam Ave.
Above: Ordinarily, I eschew french fries in favor of healthier fare. After a couple hours in the saddle, though, I didn't mind treating myself to a calorie-rich meal (including a "Famous Cuban Pork Sandwich"); Glenn looks like he isn't quite sure whatever he ordered was the right choice.
We didn't want to leave our bikes unattended while we ate, however, with temperatures barely above 40 degrees F, sitting outside was a challenge.
Above and Below: Glenn on the George Washington Bridge, over the Hudson River. We crossed over about halfway, enduring a wind that was even stronger than it had been as we'd cycled over the East River.
Above and Below: The Cloisters, which is at the top of Manhattan, replicates the look and feel of a Medieval monastery.
You might note the jersey I'm wearing, below. If you followed some of my earlier blogs, you'll not be surprised to learn I'm a bit ashamed to admit I purchased it just for this trip. It's a replica of the Brooklyn Chewing Gum company's team jersey. The company, owned by two brothers, was located, not in Brooklyn, but in Lainate, a town in northern Italy. Founding the company at the conclusion of World War II the brothers wanted an American-sounding name, on the theory that this would make their gum more popular than it would be with a more prosaic Italian name. The racing team, sponsored by the company, is long gone (perhaps the gum is, too), but Brooklyn, the city, if not the gum, is still celebrated by the jersey.
Above: Glenn gets ready to negotiate for space with a gaggle of Canada geese, along the west side bike path, which parallels the Hudson River.
Above and Below: There are dogs and their companions all over New York. We found this dog at the base of some stairs, where someone was carrying their bikes up those steps.
Above: Several of these buildings are owned by Donald Trump.
Above: In NYC, neither cyclists nor pedestrians wait for a green light if cross-traffic is free of cars. That's not how it works in Los Angeles, where I live. On one-way streets in Los Angeles, cyclists tends to stay to the right. In NYC, bike lanes on one-way are often on the left side of the street; cyclists, including Glenn, feel free to ride in any lane, as long as they aren't impeding traffic. Although we are riding on the right in the photograph above, as often as not we didn't.
Returning to Brooklyn, we rode through the very congested rush-hour streets of Manhattan. This photograph doens't do justice to just how clogged the streets can be. At one point, with a moving van blocking an intersection to all vehicular traffic, we followed pedestrians over a cross-walk, while irritated drivers futilely honked their horns.
Above: Not too far from the Williamsburg Bridge, which would lead us back into Brooklyn, Glenn stopped in Chinatown, to pick up some fish at his wife's request.
Above: We rode back over the Williamsburg Bridge, looking north, up the East River, with the Manhattan Bridge in the distance. The wind had finally calmed a bit, and I found myself racing a slow-moving train over the bridge.
Above: Glenn, bag of fresh fish in hand, pedals off to his home a few minutes away, in the Park Slope neighborhood. Chances are we won't ride together again for a year.
Above: While my daughter and Lee headed for the gym, I made ready for another ride, this time staying in Brooklyn. By Los Angeles standards, it was cold.
Above: A cyclist takes a break in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Arch, at Grand Army Plaza, across the street from Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
Above: Saturday morning was Farmers Market day at Prospect Park.
Above: I rode through beautiful Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and which opened in 1867, after the same to men designed Manhattan's Central Park. There weren't as many other cyclists as I thought there might be; perhaps the cold and the early hour kept them away.
Above: Later in the day, Rebecca and Lee took me on a walking tour of the Brooklyn waterfront, across from Lower Manhattan. The Empire State Building rises up out of the skyline from beneath the supports of the Williamsburg Bridge.
Above: A engaged couple pose for their photographs, with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Skyline in the distance.
Above: After taking in the Broadway show, Felz!, we walked to the subway through the brightly lit Times Square.
Above: It's not easy to meet people while riding a bike. On my last ride in Brooklyn, on Sunday afternoon, I managed to meet the lovely Barbara, who was walking her dogs, and who lives not too far from my daughter. We spent a few pleasant minutes in conversation before I headed by to Rebecca's apartment.
Above: I made another ride through the Williamsburg neighborhood, hoping to photograph some of the people whom, to me, look as if they live in a separate country. In fact, I was the outsider, the stranger in a strange land; I certainly stuck out, dressed as I was in my bike clothes, standing over my bike on street corners, waring a red windbreaker and my big, white helmet.
It's wrong – for me – to sneak pictures of people. It's wrong because it's not fair to my prey, and it's wrong because the photographs I sneak are rarely among my best. Others are far more successful than I am, perhaps because they spend more time at it. On the other hand, I like the above photograph, precisely because it leaves those I've pictured unidentified, even as it tells a bit of a story about who they are.
Above: This is another picture that tells a story. For, despite their fast increasing numbers, the Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn are, in their homogeneity, a people apart, forever a minority, strangers in a strange land. This picture, I think, exemplifies that reality.
Above: Late in the day, I made a final ride and then right back over the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883. I dodged tourists who kept stepping into the separate bike lane and saw a few cyclists as a gathering storm prepared to break over the city. That night, around the corner from Rebecca's apartment, we enjoyed a final meal together, eating the best pizza and calzone I've ever had.
The next day, with my bike packed and ready for pick-up, and after a final lunch with my daughter in mid-town Manhattan, I traveled from Brooklyn on the Long Island Railroad to JFK, and my flight home. It's going to be a long year before I return to New York.
Note: Click on photos to view larger-sized versions.