Sep '02 [Home]


Biking Into New York's Past
by Elizabeth Seay
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The city slept, it seemed, as we entered Times Square and found it empty. It was 1:00 a.m., and we filled it up, 200 bikers, squinting in the day-white lights and racing as fast as the words crossing the ticker above us:  " … anthrax … Israel assassination … bombings … war …" A man in dreadlocks who was selling red roses put a hand out to slap high-fives with us.

"What is this?" he called.

"History class!" a biker yelled.

The class was "History of the City of New York," taught by Kenneth T. Jackson at Columbia University and in its 28th year. Prof. Jackson aims to make urban citizens of his students, and the all-night bike tour is a nearly annual rite of initiation. The point of the tour, heading from upper Manhattan to Brooklyn, is not athletic achievement but a slow, intimate journey that allows riders to feel the sweep of the city, if not in their hearts, then in their sore thighs.

Last fall, just a month after Sept. 11, the journey had a particular resonance. We lovers of history—I wasn't in the class, but was a Columbia grad student tagging along—weren't used to seeing it in the making. For us, studying history was a source of vicarious experience, a way to pretend we lived in interesting times. Now, history had overtaken us. We needed desperately to make sense of it, and we needed to know what would happen to the city. People usually take night tours like this one because going out in the dark is spooky and transgressive, but this fall, there was something to be afraid of in the city.

If history held any guidance, Prof. Jackson would be the man to provide it. Also the president of the New York Historical Society, he was known for his entertaining and erudite lectures, delivered in a mellow, Southern accent (he is a Tennessee expatriate) as he paced in the aisles. He grounded the abstractions of history and urbanity in the concrete (literally), giving class credit for walking tours and volunteer projects. A lecture on New York's water system ranged from flushing to Flushing, Chase Manhattan to the Manhattan cocktail. The class syllabus carried a Woody Allen quote:

"There is no question there is an unseen world; the question is,
how far is it from Midtown, and how late is it open?"

12:00 a.m.  Prof. Jackson, wearing a helmet over his cropped white hair and carrying a megaphone, began the tour. Despite his mileage in New York, he said he was a little unsure how this ride would go. He feared emergency workers would stop us before we got too far downtown. But as he led the pack of bikers out of Columbia's campus gates and toward Central Park, the mood was upbeat. Everything made everyone laugh, from the man on the sidewalk yelling, "That's my bike!" to the monstrous city bus bearing down on the group. Kids sped up to talk and then dropped back, hopped their bikes onto sidewalks, and passed each other on the straightaways.

Prof. Jackson told us to notice the massive wall of the Memorial Cancer Hospital building, the first dedicated cancer hospital, as we rode into Central Park. It was one of the institutions he uses to make a point about how New York "laid the groundwork for greatness." Part of the genius of the city, he said in his lectures, is the way it has solved urban problems, from fires to dirty water to crime to disease. Terrorism, he implied, was just the next problem to be solved. The bikes whispered through the park and on through Times Square.

1:40:  The farther downtown we went, the more American flags appeared. Below Union Square, they hung from windows, fire escapes, and car radio antennas. In the meatpacking district, we bumped over cobblestones and ran a gauntlet of music emerging from doors open to the cool night, from the country whine at Hogs & Heifers to the beat coming out of dance clubs. Usually, these clubs were tough and seedy, with their plain doors and warehouse walls, and prostitutes stood in the doorways off the empty streets. But on this night, the bouncers waved to the group. The city was "softened," Prof. Jackson said.

2:00  The tour stopped on Spring Street, and Prof. Jackson offered a choice that reflected the two basic directions I'd seen New Yorkers turn after 9/11:  obsessive thinking or drinking. Some students went to the New York City Fire Museum, which had opened up for this group, and others went to a dark, old tavern called the Ear Inn. I followed Prof. Jackson to the museum, where students took off their helmets and studied old gas masks, fire engines, a posed, stuffed dog that in life had been a firehouse mascot, and the rattles of the night watch of the 18th century. "Night fires were and still are the most dangerous fires," a placard said, reminding me of the smoke still coming from the ground downtown. I spoke with Vivian Lehrer, a slim, alert senior with a brown braid, who was taking notes from an article posted on a wall. She had already started making sense of the disaster by launching a research project on emergency responses to the World Trade Center's destruction.

She told me about how on Sept. 13, his first class after the disaster, Prof. Jackson scrapped his planned lecture and spoke instead about catastrophes in the past—the great fire of 1835, which destroyed 674 buildings in Lower Manhattan—a bigger proportion of the city than the World Trade Center—and the violent draft riots that swept through the city before the Civil War. These events had disrupted the city more than the leveling of the World Trade Center. A fire on the General Slocum excursion ship killed at least 1,021 in 1904, a sizable share of the population at that time. Vivian said she had sensed a positive message in Prof. Jackson's lecture after Sept. 11:  "He's optimistic," she said. "The city is vital and you can't destroy it through its buildings."

3:00  Prof. Jackson went back into the Ear Inn to round up stray drinkers. Some of them opted to stay. The rest of us stood outside, hopping up and down beside the bikes in the damp chill. "This is where we get to suck it up," Prof. Jackson said as he returned. When the tour got under way, the students were exhausted and slow, their bikes weaving over the slick of car oil and vegetable matter on Chinatown's streets. "It's really bad when people just, like, stop, for no reason," a girl grumbled to no one in particular. An associate professor at Columbia who was tagging along said, "Do you smell something burning?" He had never been to the World Trade Center site.

4:10:  In the financial district, we turned and leaned through the tangle of alleys that once ran through a Dutch village. These places had been slaughterhouses, markets, residential neighborhoods, and graveyards over the years. Less than forty years ago, a produce market stood on part of the World Trade Center site, now returning to the open air. Indeed, it was odd that Ground Zero lay so near the city's Ground Zero, the neighborhood from which it had grown, making the destruction reverberate through all these pasts. On this night, lower Manhattan seemed like a maze where all roads led to the same place. It emanated down every side street: smoke, the grinding of machinery, and the glow of klieg lights, brighter than in Times Square. We parked our bikes and walked toward Ground Zero.

Night simplified the view. During the day, the site was hard to comprehend, because it seemed familiar:  red cranes swinging toward us, the backing-up beep of trucks. At night, the sight was coldly infernal. The smoke flared white toward the ghostly Gothic arches of a tower fašade. People gasped, one by one, as they filed past a view of a junkyard heap that was 5 World Trade Center. A few took off their bike helmets. An athletic girl with a blonde ponytail hid her face on her boyfriend's shoulder. The rest stood and stared.

If we were waiting for answers, Prof. Jackson had no easy ones. He said very little there. His better answer lay in the experience itself, which told us what remained of the city. As we walked back to our bikes, sanitation trucks rumbled by, hosing down the streets, preparing for morning.

5:00  We headed toward the Brooklyn Bridge with no noise but the occasional squeak of our brakes. On the other side, most of us would ride the subway back to Columbia. In the middle, Prof. Jackson told us to pause and look back at the city. He talked about the bridge as engineering marvel, link between great cities, and inspiration to writers.

Before the bridge existed, Walt Whitman wrote about crossing to Manhattan on the ferry. Where he saw masts, the fires of foundry chimneys, and "thick-stemm'd pipes of steamboats," we saw blazes in the sky as planes circled around Newark airport; the gray absence on the downtown skyline; and the expanse of lighted windows heading north. If New York's vertical reach was diminished, its horizontal span still seemed endless. The great energy of it lit our way as we rode on over the bridge.

(Elizabeth Seay's stories have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and in the anthologies, Before and After:  Stories from New York and Floating off the Page:  The Best Stories from the Wall Street Journal's 'Middle Column'. She lives in Brooklyn and is a grad student in the Writing Division at Columbia.)

Photo:  © 2000 George Kunze