Biking New York City: The Handlebar Tour

East River Bicycle.jpg

In case it has been a while since you have ridden a bicycle around Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens — as I have in recent weeks — here is a shortlist of some developments around New York City: midtown sidewalks are overflowing with tourists and too narrow for the pedestrian flow (especially around the many Elmos posing in Times Square); the South Bronx, while still very poor, has an emerging middle class; cruise ships dock in Red Hook, Brooklyn, on the same piers that were once the provenance of gangland; potholes and deteriorating asphalt are everywhere, despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reputation for elevating the city’s infrastructure; and Queens is still struggling with all the Robert Moses expressways and bridges that make traffic patterns there a maze of dead ends, even on a bike.

Here are some observations from my handlebar social survey:

Uptown: The nicest neighborhood I discovered is what realtors now call South Harlem, from about 145th Street south to Central Park. The crime rates are down, the bistros are up, and the wide sidewalks and relatively quiet streets make for lovely strolling or, in my case, bike riding.

Because the scale of the neighborhood is often limited to four-story brownstones (East Harlem has more projects, but also a Target and a PetSmart), gentrification has spread like a wildfire. A mansion on Strivers Row, the once and future dream of Harlem homeowners, costs about $1.8 million. One-bedroom apartments on West 116th Street and Lennox go for about $350,000.

On the Waterfront: It's sixty years since unionism, pilferage, and mob violence killed off New York’s ports, eventually sending cargo ships and containers to Baltimore, Norfolk, Newark, and Boston. The city has now reclaimed its rotting piers and empty warehouses with waterside parks, ferry stops, exhibition centers, and cruise terminals, including the one in Brooklyn that's large enough to tie up the Queen Mary.

Especially on the West Side of Manhattan — with fewer mobsters gasping at the ice picks in their backs — the piers are part of an expanding and vibrant dockland scene, complete with picnic tables, skateboard jumps, arboretums, and restaurants, all of which have splendid views of the Hudson River.

Gridlock: One of the downsides of New York’s continuing prosperity is that it risks becoming a gridlocked city of Asian proportions. One Sunday I biked the length of Fifth Avenue, stunned at the number of cars clogging the streets and the bad quality of the pavement.

Coming into Manhattan across the East River bridges is free, and New Yorkers love their cars with a demolition-derby passion. I even saw motorcyclists popping wheelies down Fifth Avenue, to the indifference of the police, who clearly weren’t in the mood to confront biker rebels without much of a cause.

The Freedom Tower: The new One World Trade Center looks like the cookie-cutter office buildings in Shanghai and Hong Kong, or perhaps an enormous shower stall. It is long on defiance but short on urban grace.

The city would have done more for downtown if it had returned the blocks and cross streets lost to the footprint of the first World Trade Center development, improved the rail network, and allowed the Battery Park and Wall Street areas to flow together into a vibrant neighborhood.

The Freedom Tower is more a symbol than a practical city project. Four billion dollars (with myriad subsidies loaded into the budget) will be spent essentially for a large, mostly public, office building at a time when everyone prefers to work from home.

The Mayoral Race: In the November election to replace Michael Bloomberg, the Democrat Bill de Blasio (public activism) defeated the Republican Joe Lhota (Harvard MBA). Neither had a large political base before the primaries, although both have been active in city politics for the last generation.

Lhota was a disciple of former mayor Rudi Giuliani and ran the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for Bloomberg, but despite managerial competence had no chance of winning. New Yorkers want it all: neither higher crime or taxes, nor stop-and-frisk and budget cuts (“fuhgeddaboudit”).

Critics of de Blasio say his feel-good liberalism will set New York’s clock back to 1977, when television announcer Howard Cosell told America from Yankee Stadium: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” which is also the title of a book on the low water mark of New York’s urban decline. His supporters say he will bring a degree of social justice to what is otherwise a capital intensive city.

The Bronx: Also in 1977, President Jimmy Carter went to the smoldering South Bronx, to publicize the extent of New York’s decay. Ronald Reagan went during the 1980 campaign, to highlight that Carter had not done anything to haul away the rubble and fill in the vacant lots.

By the time Bill Clinton got there in 1997, the heavy slum lifting had been done (thanks to New York city and state officials), and all he could do was bask in the success. Despite or because of the presidential grandstanding, Charlotte Street, which became the South Bronx's signature photo op, is now a suburban enclave, with 89 single-family houses and graceful fenced lawns.

More than anything else, however, what brought back the Bronx was a wave of immigrants in the final decades of the 20th century. They came to wealthy New York looking for jobs, and needed affordable neighborhoods where they could raise their families.

Queens for a Day: I rode from Randall's Island, a splendid oasis in the East River, through Astoria and Flushing to College Point and Whitestone. Even with some new bike paths, Queens suffers from too many highways cutting across its underbelly. I got lost near Citi Field and rode 500 yards on the Van Wyck Expressway.

My destination was the old army base at Fort Totten, once the Gibraltar of Long Island Sound (built to keep Confederates out of New York harbor), now a forlorn park and reserve training center, although with stunning views of the water and the New York skyline.

The future of Fort Totten could be another bellwether of New York City. Should its dilapidated historic houses — from the genteel, 1930s U.S. Army base — be renovated and sold off, part of a mixed-use plan to get more families into the lovely park and historic base? The same decisions need to be made about Governors Island and parts of Ellis Island. Or should all private development in historic areas be banned, even if the parks remain shabby without enough public money for renovation?

Because I grew up in and around the New York City that for much of my life was deteriorating, I view most recent development around New York (except for the ugly destruction of Pennsylvania Station) as positive. To me, Fort Totten should be both a park and a place for families to live. Why leave a waterfront partly in ruins?

Will it happen when Bill de Blasio is mayor? Somehow I doubt it. I wouldn't think a mayor could win reelection with privatization projects in a faraway Queens park — although I never thought that the Bronx would again be thriving, South Harlem or Red Hook would be safe, or the West Side piers would become part of a stunning city revival. All of this has been accomplished with a blend of private and public money.

Conclusions? As Woody Allen said, “There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?”

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His new book, Whistle-Stopping America, was recently published.

Flickr photo by Charles16e: East River Bicycle with Fishing Rod Attachment


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