I fall from the curb one wheel at a time and stand up to push with all my pounds against the slope. It’s never easy.
Up 16th Street east away from the harbor, leaving the Statue of Liberty behind. Each block is a confused collection of old and young: peeling, window-barred houses in the shadow of six-story condo buildings with ten-foot windows. A Puerto Rican flag hung here two years ago. Now, Liverpool FC.
Right on Seventh Avenue and over the conch shell static of the Prospect Expressway. The trees are fewer, the houses smaller in this swath of neighborhood wedged between six lanes of highway and 478 acres of Green-Wood Cemetery. The Italians, then the Poles, then the Puerto Ricans, then the whitish mutts from New England and the Midwest. Legacies abut legacies here: Monsignor’s, across Fifth Avenue from Eagle Provisions Inc. (Keilbasy & Polish Provisions), down the block from La Boulangerie Lopez, surrounded by 718 Bar, Sea Witch and South.
Back up the hill past Southside Coffee’s sea of glowing Apples and left on Prospect Park West. I slide between a bus and a parked side view mirror, gliding into the curve of Bartel-Pritchard Square. The housing stock is regal along the park. Uniform pre-war apartment buildings with names like Park View and Maurice sit eye-to-eye with Prospect Park’s trees. Farther north any trace of modesty gives way to lone-standing mansions with Google engineers, actors, authors, senators and old money as tenants. The historic district isn’t the nation’s — or even Brooklyn’s — wealthiest enclave any longer, but its 130-year-old brownstones still sit a safe distance from the issues faced by actual America, the 99-point-something percent who don’t live in Manhattan or this tiny corner of Kings County.
I put one foot on the ground and glide through the Grand Army Greenmarket, maneuvering past mothers in matching lululemon tanks in queue for locally sourced arugula. The bike lane curves around Grand Army Plaza’s 140-foot arch, the gateway to North Flatbush Avenue and Downtown Brooklyn’s towering new condo buildings. I keep right and lean into St. John’s Place. Brownstones and gargantuan co-op buildings. Asian, white and black. Zaytoon’s, The Vanderbilt, and The Islands Exotic Caribbean Cuisine. Beyond Classon’s wine bar and Franklin’s beer garden and Nostrand’s West Indian carryout and to the brink of gentrification. Kids yell “Fag!” as I ride past. I get it.
Turn left and back around the block to where my grandparents lived on Prospect Place before fleeing to the vast, steady sameness of Kansas when Crown Heights started to change. This was before the race riots and the scourge of crack and plummeting property values. I get it.
West on Bergen, running parallel to the brown-dirt expanse of the Atlantic Yards project. Between Carlton and Sixth, I hop onto the north sidewalk and grab a chunk of chain link fence. “Super Bass” shouts from a parked SUV as kids occupy four halves of basketball court, playing loose 2-on-2 and 3-on-3. I bounce back off the curb and continue west past the exhaust-hot air over Flatbush Avenue and back into the restaurants and strollers and jaywalkers of Park Slope.
I glance north down Fifth Avenue. A block away, the Barclays Center looms larger than life. The new home of the
New Jersey Brooklyn Nets, a hand-in-pocket eminent domain land grab, the eradication of homes and businesses and a neighborhood, rent hikes for the ones who survived, the perversion of what was so pure just a few blocks back.
Bergen trickles through the traffic-choked lanes of Fourth Avenue and into the dark, arboreal heaven of Boerum Hill. Formerly home to Heath Ledger, currently known for the Montreal-style bagels at Mile End Delicatessen, always the address of the sprawling Wyckoff and Gowanus public housing complexes.
I take a right on Court Street and ride against the stream for a block before ducking through tight traffic onto Pacific Street and right again onto the bike lane-bestowed Clinton Street. Past Atlantic Avenue, the beautiful old Brooklyn of Capote and Mailer and Du Bois unfolds. The streets narrow to European proportions and everything is impeccable. No peeling paint, no honking horns. Just church spires and mature trees and carriage houses. The 19th Century in color.
I ride west down Montague until the road meets the curb and eye-level meets the sky. I drop two feet to the sidewalk and roll the bike along on my right. The harbor opens up. I sit on a bench and listen to the BQE flow and flow and ebb and flow 25 feet over the edge of the pavement. The Statue of Liberty stands short to the left, watching the sailboats and ferries loll past. Lower Manhattan gleams like a handful of crystals to the right. Up farther — past the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges’ triangle — Midtown rises like a wave, its crest the Empire State Building.
I sit and watch, think and not think, plucking the spokes like piano wire. I get it. This all isn’t mine and it isn’t yours; It’s all of ours.
At least for today.