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Cycling in New York (2)

by Gert Hekma in Nightlife & Reports , 27 november 2005


It’s getting easier to get around by bike in New York. Amsterdammer Gert Hekma wanted to explore Manhattan by bike and so he did. In this episode he continues his exploration of the Big Apple, and he actually doesn’t limit himself to Manhattan, but also includes other boroughs in his wanderings.

It’s a nice trip to not limit yourself to just the western side of Manhattan but to go full circle around the island. The advantage of the eastern side is that it’s deserted: no joggers or speed cyclists.


The disadvantage is that the cycle track is interrupted. The eastern side of Harlem is the toughest. You can’t go next to the water because of buildings or another bloody highway cutting the city off from the riverside. It starts off OK. From the top of Manhattan you first cycle along 10th Avenue under a raised metro track - choose the deserted footpath because the road is made of cobblestones, which will ruin your spine. You’ll find some funny and cheap Latino restaurants where they often have liver on the menu, aside from burritos, beans and pastas - healthy food for when you’re exerting yourself.



At the crossing with Dijckman Street you have to go in the direction of the water immediately, and, take care, for it is a complicated crossing and I was almost crushed by a gigantic American truck. The cycle track along the river offers a view of a park on the one side and the East River on the other. From this side the Bronx looks just terrible, with a real bidonville along the water. The track finishes at a crossing and if you don’t take the bridge to the civilized world you’ll end up in another little NY Third World: under a viaduct gather the homeless. There’s no cycle track here, even though the cycle maps of New York have been promising just that for years already. You’ll have to make your way through the poorest part of Harlem from 165th till 125th Street. The junkies and petty criminals which Harlem was so famous for are still here. Twice we saw police arrest young men. At another corner we bought some grated ice-block, just like in the Bijlmer. Around us people started to gather immediately: cops, a woman praising the Lord, a sales woman pitching her products and some young folk.

Eastern Track

The start of a civilized cycle track along the river, now very wide, marks the border of Harlem. There are several islands here, first Triborough, referring to the three boroughs which surround it, Queens, Bronx and Manhattan. This is a traffic center for cars and trains and there’s a hospital in a park. The pedestrian’s bridge was closed so we couldn’t visit but it didn’t look all that interesting anyway. The next island is Roosevelt Island, dominated by a series of uninteresting buildings. At the bottom, across the buildings of the United Nations, is an island named after a Secretary General of the UN from way back: Oe Thant. From the 90th till the 80th Street you cycle through a beautiful old park where the rich white people of the Upper East go to relax (the Upper West is for the libertarian Jews who wish to be separate from the right wing whites on the other side of Central Park).

After the park there’s a narrow footpath that finishes just before the United Nations building. From here the cyclist has to navigate twenty-five blocks down from 62nd Street along avenues and footpaths. From 37th Street till 23rd Street it’s a bit of a maze with a mini park, past a chic restaurant and apartment buildings. From 23rd Street there’s a nice new park and after that the cycle track and footpath merge at a power station to some sort of corridor between the highway and the buildings of the power plant. After these obstacles you get to the nicest part of the Eastern track: an old park with football and baseball fields and a lot of people having barbecues, partying or jogging.



Because the park borders on the East Village there’s a high percentage of Latinos and alternative people. Passing under the bridges we reach the fish markets. The neighborhood around it is being upgraded, from the center of fish trade to an exclusive wine and dine area. Right after that you get to South Street Seaport, an important tourist attraction of the city with old ships, restaurants and game centers. Past the financial district you get to another helicopter landing platform. Via the footpath you can cycle to the southern point with the beautiful old buildings of the ferry to Governor’s Island and finally the new building for the ferries to Staten Island. This last part is narrow, but it offers a great view of Brooklyn and the entrance to the harbor under Manhattan. Except for the touristy crap of South Seaport it’s hard to find a decent café or terrace even in this busy part of Manhattan.

Staten Island

Staten Island was surprising because of its total lack of public culture. There are benches in the parks and along the endless boulevard along the beach, but in the vicinity of shops there was not a terrace in sight, not even a bench. We ended up on a totally Albanese corner with a real mosque and a lot of shops and bakeries selling weak coffee, but nowhere could we find a chair to rest. There are huge malls on the island but the restaurants and cafes there don’t have sitting space outside. You can sit on the sidewalk with your coffee, that’s the only option. Or you have to ride all the way back to the beach or the park which will take you half an hour.

On places which seem to be created for a coffeehouse or a little eatery there is none. They say sometimes that public culture is good for democracy, but such is lacking here completely. When we saw an ideal place to sit down in front of a coffee shop and noticed folding chairs inside, we asked if we could take these outside to sit in the sun. Total panic arose: it was dangerous, it was not allowed, they didn’t have a license! We were the first foreign guests there ever and we ended up having a very nice conversation over a cup of coffee to which they had added a lot of milk and sugar without asking, another strange American habit. We couldn’t sit in the sun, but we left with lots of free cookies, because we had given them something to talk about.

On Staten Island there’s quite a few sights, such as the house of the lesbian photographer Alice Austen, which we unfortunately arrived at too late. During the week both the historical village Richmond as well as the Jacques Marchais Center for Tibetan Art were closed. It was warm and sunny and the beach was completely deserted on this weekday. The ferry with which you get to Staten Island is fun of course.

Brooklyn and Queens

The nice thing about the eastern suburbs Brooklyn and Queens is that you get to them via these gorgeous bridges. Amazing views. The nicest one, I thought, is the Brooklyn Bridge, which has an elevated cycle track instead of level with the road, offering a wider view of the south. Astoria (the western part of Queens), followed by Williamsburg and then finally Brooklyn are all interesting to visit. There’s an increasing number of queens and dykes moving to these neighborhoods, fleeing from the ridiculously expensive Manhattan. In Astoria they live amongst the Greeks and Arabs and they enjoy the abundance of shops and restaurants. Thank god they do have terraces here.



At the border of the neighborhood, at the East River side, you have a nice Sculpture Park and in the middle of industry you find a really neat museum, the Fisher Landau Center for Art (38-27 30th Street, Long Island City). Until March 2006 they have a show called Counting the Ways: Word as Image. And I saw this beautiful sentence there on a painting of Richard Prince: “My parents kept me in a closet for years. Until I was 15, I thought I was a suit.” There is more really interesting art there, by Andy Warhol, Matthew Barney, Barbara Kruger, Joseph Kosuth, Inez van Lamsweerde. More to the East you’ll find Williamsburg, with the alternative folk living around Bedford and Berry streets. This area is improving rapidly and some parts are nicely at the waterside.

If you continue in the direction of Brooklyn, the artists and gays turn into orthodox Jews: black clothes, long curls, enormous eighteenth century hats. Even though I have a huge satin fetish, I did not have the inclination to touch or buy one of their characteristic coats of black shiny satin. The families are fruitful and I wondered how many of these children would turn out queer, or with a satin fetish.
Brooklyn has a lot to offer. The first thing you’ll encounter from the bridge is the promenade along the water. Here once stood the “February House” on the Middagh Street, which I wrote about before, right at the start of the promenade. We had lunch around the corner in a sympathetic Latino restaurant.

From the promenade you have a terrific view on the water and the boats, down town Manhattan, Governor’s Island and, further away, the Statue of Liberty as well as Ellis and Staten Islands. The neighborhood behind the promenade is worthwhile cycling through. At the administrative center of the neighborhood is a worthless combination of shops which you see everywhere in the States.

It’s nicer to enter the area via the very busy Flatbush Avenue. It takes you to the Brooklyn Museum, the Botanical Gardens and Prospect Park. The museum is famous for its controversial shows. This spring there was a large exhibition of Basquiat (when I saw so much of his work together it disappointed me somehow). Go there on the first Saturday night of the month, it’s an open evening then and they have drinks, food and music. A party at the museum, but very busy and full.



West of Prospect Park you find the neighborhood Park Slope with the highest concentration of dykes in New York. Strangely enough I didn’t see the ladies at the farmer’s market at the entrance to the park on a Saturday morning. In Amsterdam it would be crawling with dykes. After the park, Flatbush Avenue runs further south; right through the middle of a very lively black neighborhood with a lot of shops. After some distance it turns into a more exclusive residential area with a high concentration of orthodox Jews. At the tip of Brooklyn, at Coney Island you’ll find mainly Russians.

Coney Island

When I visited there, enormous school-classes colonized the beach of Coney Island. While it had been sunny and warm in Manhattan, it was cloudy at the beach with a chilly wind. Maybe it was because of these weather conditions that all the attractions of the fair were closed. The combination of rides and restaurants looked sad. It made me think of Amsterdam and Zandvoort; sunny in town, foggy at the beach. At Coney Island I took a cycling track around along the south coast of Brooklyn. Nice views of the water and some ships but again such a nasty highway cutting off the neighborhood from the water.

The main shopping street, Brighton Beach Avenue, is lovely messy Russian under a metro on pillars. Their main food is bread, so there are a lot of bakeries and, funny enough, no restaurants this time. A lot of gold and cheap clothes though. Really something for fans. A little further to the West, near a fisher’s harbor at Sheepshead Bay you’ll find a few attractive restaurants that act Italian but are Turkish, how very Amsterdam. If you continue in this direction you’ll get to Plum Beach at the bridge to Rockaway Beach. I heard that there is a beach for cruising gentlemen, but I didn’t go that far.

Pow Wow

I turned left before the bridge, towards the deserted Floyd Bennett airport, which was an important army base during the Second World War when troops and material were sent to Europe from here, if it went by plane that is. It is a huge empty space where they sometimes hold events but which is usually left to nature. There are some dilapidated buildings and the city municipality has some stuff stored here but most of the area is green with occasionally some concrete runways. At the back of the area there is the romantic airplane museum: a hangar where old men voluntarily renovate planes as old as themselves. You can just walk in, you don’t have to buy a ticket and there are hardly any visitors.



The day we visited there was a “Pow Wow” taking place, an Indian party with music, dancing and a lot of stalls with genuine Indian art. Of course the dancing was with beautiful costumes and feathers. There were some beautiful dancing boys who looked rather uncomfortable in their colorful costumes in front of the audience. Outside of the dancing area they were a bit peevish but on the dance floor their movements were smooth. They were accompanied by drums and male voices that regularly soared. Both the colorful costumes and the high-pitched voices gave the whole thing something pleasantly gay, even though the youngsters didn’t seem to be all that happy with that.

Just Yank The Handlebar

To cycle with a destination is nice and useful. But to just wander around, letting the bike take you around without a clear goal, is the best. Whenever the left looks better than the right or straight ahead, you just yank the handlebar towards your desired spot. When the city takes you up in her strong arms and you stumble upon all kinds of beautiful and interesting things.
More or less by accident we once ended up on the main street of Harlem. We had visited the Schomburg Center, which is dedicated to the inheritance of African Americans. They had an exhibition on the immigration history, a large part of which was about the period of slavery.



There was a book on lynching “Without Sanctuary” (4th reprint) with postcards that white men sent to each other after another illegal execution of mostly black men who were sometimes accused of raping white women. In some photos you could really see the hatred and the excitement in the eyes of the white men committing these murders. I noticed that I also felt excited by these images, identifying more with the black victims however, than the white perpetrators. How would other readers respond? It’s not really a book you buy and unashamedly have lying on the coffee table. That same afternoon I experienced a bizarre use of the book when we were walking twelve streets further south along the 125th Street. Literature for black Harlem inhabitants was being displayed on tables outside.

I was surprised by titles like “Male Love in Prison”, a novel on gay sex in prison with a happy end: after jail-love you go back to women. Very realistic for black youngsters, ten percent of which is in jail right now. In between the tables stood a soldier of Malcolm X, in uniform and with a microphone; a black nationalist evangelizing. Behind him, images were stuck to the wall showing the photos from the book that just before had stirred a strange excitement within me. My boyfriend walked ahead of me and worked his way through the crowd that had gathered around the radical speaker; who noticed him and asked where he was from. My boyfriend walked on quickly, this was hardly the place to admit you’re from a once huge slave-trading nation. Now it was my turn, so I mumbled that I knew best where I was from and left it at that. Were it my flashy clothes which betrayed me? The Black Nationalist then yelled through the microphone that I was a white homosexual out to pervert black young men. Luckily his audience didn’t consist of partisans, at least they didn’t show it.

Even though the situation was unpleasant, as an offended white homosexual amongst a black straight crowd, it also had bizarre funny aspects. Indeed, I had tried to paint pretty pictures of gay life for black youngsters during my lectures, and I would most certainly love to pervert these babies. I wanted exactly what he accused me of. It was also bizarre because I had just identified myself with blacks who were being lynched; in a way that the Black Nationalist would have found perverse. We got out safely, with an interesting experience of homophobia. That guy unfortunately had nothing he could teach me, not on slavery, and not on sexual desires either.

A More Human City

New York is a city of juxtapositions. Along the “gay drag”, the 8th Avenue between the 14th and 23rd Street you can be openly gay. The East and West Village are very gay friendly and the pier of Christopher Street is almost exclusively gay and lesbian, except for some joggers and tourists. At the spot where the rich old white gays have lived since the sixties, now the poor young black queens and dykes gather. Far away from the streets of Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, where they come from and where it’s far from gay-friendly.



How nice would it be if these youngsters at the crossing of Christopher Street and the pier on one side, and the cycle track along the Hudson on the other, would embody the future of the United States. Together with that other group of Americans that crosses over here - who could be also agents of a more human city life - the cyclists. A multi cultural, homosexual and sporty life along the Hudson: who will be the successor of Walt Whitman and sing about it?



 







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