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Cycling in New York (1)

by Gert Hekma in Nightlife & Reports , 10 oktober 2005

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

New York. It’s a city of extremes, with liberal and ultra-orthodox Jews, yuppies and sweet old ladies, cyclists and chauffeurs, boring gays, cool gays and a local government that doesn’t want to have anything to do with sex or gay sex. The city is fairly liberal in an ocean of conservatism. In many aspects it really resembles Amsterdam although there are some significant differences as well. New York’s size is just so much bigger, when it comes to people, gays, art, shops or restaurants. Sodom at the Amstel could never compete with its offspring, the Big Apple at the Hudson. But Amsterdam has certain things that New York definitely has not. Like a decent Red Light District, or the comfort of being able to have sex in a bar or in a park, or a local and national government that are much more tolerant towards sex. All those officials often get cold feet when they think of the liberal image of Amsterdam that a lot of Americans and New Yorkers long for.

When you mention the fact that you’re from Amsterdam, most people in New York respond positively, often very positively. A Christian woman I met on the train who had spent a week in Amsterdam evangelizing “loved the city”.

A wild student of mine, who didn’t want to leave Amsterdam but had to because of her study and her parents, had the coat of arms of Amsterdam tattooed on her foot and the bill went to daddy dearest. When I mentioned the fact that I live in the Red Light District during a lesson at the city university, I caused chaos in the classroom that lasted for at least five minutes. All those students that had never been to Amsterdam had the wildest images of it.

A bookseller picked up my accent and asked me where I was from. When he found out I was Dutch he blurted out: “Oh, that country where the age of consent is twelve.” I had to disappoint him. Four years ago our parliament unanimously voted to raise it to sixteen again. We’re not thát liberal and tolerant. Sometimes I had to explain New Yorkers that the tolerance for gays in Holland is recent and at times quite shallow and that our hospitality for foreigners has definitely diminished after the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh.

It was hard to talk some people out of their idea of a utopian paradise at the North Sea - that little country of free drugs, sex and euthanasia. That is, if they knew of Holland and the North Sea at all cause geography is not one of their strong points.
I went to New York to teach but was prohibited to do so. Since 9/11 the Americans are paranoid and exaggeratedly formal and I was “victimized.” Instead of teaching I had to take a compulsory holiday. So I went shopping for books and clothes, I visited art galleries, gay professors, libraries and exhibitions. All those things are to be found there in a lovely abundance. But riding my bike in New York became my biggest passion. Go there, buy a bike and explore that city! You really get to know the Big Apple when you cycle around.

Avoid rush hours

It’s easy to cycle in Amsterdam and it’s getting easier in New York too. As a real Amsterdammer it was one of my first wishes to explore Manhattan by bike and so I did. Most people think it’s dangerous to cycle in New York. It’s not too bad actually. Most traffic is one-way so that makes things easier. New Yorkers are usually careful drivers, only the taxis can be dangerous cause they look for little gaps in traffic - and that’s exactly where the cyclists are.

Three main dangers are chauffeurs that want to turn right and have no idea that there could be a cyclist that wants to go straight ahead (or in this case, gaily forward); people getting out of cars who never take any notion of other traffic, and thirdly the road itself, with some really big and deep holes - in many aspects it truly is a third world city. Something else that you want to pay attention to, are the traffic lights - because you’re looking around too much or you’re focused on traffic you tend to sometimes forget about the traffic lights. They are quite high up as well.

And you run the risk of going crazy because of the taxi drivers who’ll honk their horn at anything.
More and more people in New York take the bike. There are about 100 bicycle shops in town and on Saturdays there are some spontaneous bike repair and selling corner spots in the East Village now. In the East Village or in Harlem are some cheap places where you can find a bike for 50 to 100 bucks. Usually you can sell it back to them for about 25, so to rent one (from 25 bucks a day) is to waste money. There are always second hand bikes for sale at the flea markets of Chelsea (6th Avenue and 25th Street) and another in the East Village (Avenue A and 11th Street). Several avenues and streets now have marked cycle tracks that are fairly safe, although they’re also used for parking sometimes.

The most beautiful track on Manhattan is along the Hudson. From Battery Park to the Cloisters, indeed, all the way from South to North there’s smooth asphalt for skaters, cyclists and pedestrians. You can also take your bike with you on the subway for free, but avoid rush hours. Just ask the personnel to open the special size door (also handy when you have a lot of luggage).
In New York it’s mainly the couriers and the Chinese, Latino and Afro food delivery boys that are on bikes. As a cyclist you find yourself consistently in the pleasant company of multi racial young men. And there are the alternative ones who use the bike as a means of transport in the city.

A large group of men and women are racing along the Hudson for their health as others jog or fast-walk in the park. On a Sunday afternoon you’d better to avoid the bottom part of the track along the river, it’s just too busy then with the diverse users. The rest of the city is pleasantly quiet on Sunday, which is perfect for a new cyclist. Manhattan’s Central and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park are so popular with cyclists and skaters that they’ve introduced one-way traffic around the park. Ridiculous for wandering and practical cyclists but on beautiful Sundays and holidays you’d better stick to it, because there are large groups of cyclists just racing there. I also saw two cyclists crash badly.

Other than the law-abiding health and speed freaks they have little respect for traffic rules. They run red lights, take the footpath, go against traffic, have no light and never will they get a ticket, a surprise for an inhabitant of Amsterdam where the police is wrongly cracking down on cyclists. The cyclist in New York exists in a pleasant legal no-man’s-land.

You see more from your bike

Where do you go as a cyclist? Well anywhere lust will take you! On your bike you can visit a lot of slightly remote cute bars on the East Side, all the museums, or the men’s wear floors of Saks, Barney, Bergdorff Goodman, Bloomingdale, Macy, in Soho at Prada, Yamamoto and the other top designers or at the fashion outlet Century 21 close to Ground Zero of 9/11. It’s easier, faster and more fun to explore all kinds of neighborhoods.

I went to Harlem, Astoria, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Williamsburg, to the beach of Coney Island. You see a lot from the subway but you see much more from your bike and better, you can stop wherever you think is fun. Let me share a couple of my highlights.
The route along the Hudson has become very beautiful. It starts at the bottom at the ferry to Staten Island, then you have Battery Park, the new Holocaust Museum in Tribeca, a nice new park with an Irish monument, a yacht harbor, another park that gets very busy with young men playing sports and sunbathing girls when the weather is nice, and then you get above Tribeca to all the piers.

The first is nothing special, with a joint that serves bad coffee and hotdogs. If you think New York is just a little too slick this can be quite refreshing. After that you glide past tennis courts, baseball, basketball and little dog-walk fields like you see them everywhere in New York. Extra interesting is this little field where they do trapeze exercises. Then there’s a pier with parking garages and the sporting fields where gay football players train, and after that those of Christopher Street. On Sunny days it’s just crawling with queens there and in the evenings some young dykes join them.

This used to be the epicenter of outdoor sex on Manhattan, nowadays, all there’s left is a little corner of Central Park for this illegal recreation. At the entrance of the pier you can get drinks and snacks and there are public toilets. You can’t ride your bike, there’s an army of park rangers ready to stop you. The same goes for alcohol, obscene behavior, all completely prohibited. The middle of the pier is a real meadow and lots of people are lying around chatting and sunbathing. You can spot a lot of queens with tiny dogs.

New Yorkers are not allowed to have sex anywhere so they moved from dark rooms to dog hotels, from parks to dog-walking-tracks. Just another way of making contact. And when a queen has a problem with his pet he can send it to a shrink. The latest new market: dog psychiatrist!

From the 14th Street you run into the Chelsea Piers - another big sporting complex with two restaurants, complete with outside tables, with harbors for touring boats and luxurious yachts. Pier 63 at 23rd Street is an alternative location for events, where they hold salsa and tango lessons and where you can rent kayaks. In the summer there’s a nice open-air venue that serves food and alcoholic beverages, and it sticks a bit further out in the river. It’s cool there when the city’s hot. I like this pier the best because of it’s relaxed atmosphere: the varied public and all the historic boats that are moored there. It lies a bit hidden behind the building of “basketball city” where they also train the police horses.

Get rid of that highway!

Ten blocks further there’s a helicopter pad for tourist flights around the city. During my stay two of these flights crashed, one in the water of the Hudson and another on the beach of Coney Island. The latter crash killed some people, so be aware of these air vehicles. After this you get to the ferries which take you to the other side of the Hudson (one dollar extra for a bike) and the maritime museum with the aircraft carrier The Intrepid, a submarine, a real Concorde and a Stealth bomber.

Cruise ships still dock at the next piers. The US demand stringent security of these boats because of the terrorist threat. But in New York itself they don’t take this all too seriously, or maybe the two cops just pretend to be taking a nap. After that there’s a nice little park with a nice work of art (an apartment in a bottle). Above 60th Street you just duck under the highway, which has as an advantage that the city is not disconnected from the river like most of the time. My advice to the New Yorkers: get rid of that highway so the city and the river can meet. I’ve never seen a city that has such a connection with the river yet insists to turn it’s back to it.

In this area there’s a new pier and beautiful ruins of old ones.
From under the highway you get to the Riverside Park, which was once famed for it’s cruising sailors, now there are mainly jogging ladies, with or without baby buggies. This is a beautiful old park; all previous parks are newly made and still have to grow. Somewhere close to 75th Street there’s a bar on a hilltop along the river, partly making use of the catacombs under the highway. Halfway through the park you have to move up one level to get behind the highway. You can also go straight ahead if the weather is nice and dry, along a narrow sandy track between the river and the highway.

From the 100th Street it turns into a nice cycling track but it stays very close to the highway. It romantically meanders towards Harlem. Romantic for straights that is, because gays are nowhere to be seen here. At the 135th Street the bike track changes into a parking lot. You have to duck under the highway again here. It’s a funny place with an enormous grocery store annex supermarket, a popular barbecue place with a lot of outside tables that nobody uses and an abandoned motel, which would be perfect for a GALA sex party. Continue behind the motel over what could very well have been a garbage belt and follow the vague track in Northern direction and soon you’ll reach the George Washington Park.

This, I think, is the nicest part of this trip. At the start it’s still quite busy at a parking lot. On sunny days there are vendors with drinks and Puerto Rican food. After that it gets quieter and prettier. A railway replaces the highway, with real trains that sound their great horns (most railway stations and tracks in the US are unused). Under the tremendously high George Washington Bridge stands an adorable little lighthouse. It’s history caught in an enormous amount of text as if their struggle for independence had taken place right here. Nothing further from the truth: it’s a cute little tower without any heroic historical meaning, but because they lack general history they lump a lot of words to every human spot in the US of more than a century old.

Manhattan’s most Northern tip

The track leads through quiet bushes steeply up, with a great view of the Hudson and the green banks on the other side - still frequented by cruising gay men. Unfortunately you end up between the lanes of the highway, a beautiful track but traffic on all sides. The apartment buildings of Harlem rise up high on both sides and with a bit of luck you can see the hole in the hill caused by a landslide in May 2005, which caused the road to be blocked for days. It was a miracle that none of the apartment buildings had been damaged.

The bike track then has a sharp turn and if you don’t break in time you will crash down a staircase! You’ve come to the most Northern tip of Manhattan, beyond The Cloisters Museum which was built from dilapidated French monasteries. Descend in Northern direction, turn left on Dijckman Street where there’s a little harbor bay and a café that’s probably only open on Sundays and holidays. If you go right you’ll get to Broadway with the Dijckman House, an original “Dutch farm” like you never encounter in Holland. It’s a museum but closed for renovation at the moment.

Broadway takes you after ten blocks to the bridge towards the Bronx. A river, some rocks, a railway station with little trains, makes you think you’re in Switzerland for a second. But one step further and you’re back in the Bronx and San José de Porto Rico. Before the bridge you can turn left to the most Northern tip of Manhattan with yet another lovely largely forgotten park.

There are a lot of curious sights to be seen in Harlem. Black neighborhoods in the US often look like they’ve just been bombarded. Which led to the joke that that’s why black soldiers really feel at home in Baghdad. I saw such a neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey, where I visited the last home of the nineteenth century poet of democracy and comradeship Walt Whitman.

But Harlem is not a ruin anymore because they’ve been renovating thoroughly so that large parts now already look quite good. Since Bill Clinton rents an office on 125th Street, the main artery of Black Harlem, it turned into a decent shopping street with all the major American companies. On the West side you have the Audubon Terrace near 156th Street with the deserted and gorgeous El Barrio Museum for Spanish art, and at 166th Street is the Morris-Jumel Mansion. This house was built in the eighteenth century as a summer villa.

During the civil war George Washington lived there for a while and conducted one of the battles with the British from this house (hence the name of the bridge and the neighborhood Washington Heights). Around 1800 the house was bought by a French merchant, Jumel, who was married to miss Capet, also from French heritage but born in America. She’d been the mistress of most of the leading men of the new state and after her husband’s death she married ex vice president Aaron Burr. This museum is deserted as well; I even had trouble finding the entrance. It’s nice to see and so much simpler than comparable houses in Holland from the same time frame.

A lovely quiet park, which reminded me more of the Dutch river the Vecht than of the worst part of Harlem, surrounds the house. There was a black couple sitting on the porch, impeccably dressed, and they asked me what for heaven’s sake was to be seen in that villa. They listened to my explanation with great interest. I was very surprised to read that Mrs. Jumel had been the mistress of so many well-known men from that time. I always thought that Americans had always been so chaste and decent. Would these stories just come from evil gossip and rumor or was I going to be forced to change my image of a country that has always been puritan when it came to sex?
(to be concluded)



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