Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

14 June 2010

Where Are The Women?

I don't know whether it's possible to be an urban cyclist without having or developing some sort of interest in architecture. One of the wonderful things about New York and some other cities is that you can find a gem where you weren't expecting it.

This beauty is right across the street from the new Yankee Stadium:

I hadn't been in that part of town in a long time, so I don't know whether or how recently the building was renovated.  I suspect that it was fixed up as the new stadium was built, but I also suspect that it hadn't deteriorated very much, as so much of the neighborhood around the old stadium (which was next to where the current stadium stands) had for so long.

If people couldn't tell that I hadn't spent much time in the neighborhood just by looking at me, they had to have known once I started taking photos.  Then again, maybe some architecture lovers have trekked up that way.

Wouldn't you love to live in a building with this over the entrance?:

Or this by your window?

For a moment, I wondered whether someone might get upset with me for pointing my camera at his or her window. But building residents may be used to that sort of thing.

So, how did I end up there?  Well, I just hopped on Tosca (my Mercian fixie) and pedalled across the Queensboro (a.k.a. 59th Street) Bridge.  After descending the ramp on the Manhattan side, I found myself riding past Sloan Kettering, Rockefeller University and lots of dimpled blonde toddlers escorted by nannies or au pairs who are much darker than they are.  As I rode further uptown, the kids got darker and didn't have au pairs or nannies.   None of it was new to me, but something would be after I passed the building in the photos.

In Manhattan, almost everything above Columbia University is commonly referred to as "Harlem," and in the Bronx, almost everything below Fordham Road is called "The South Bronx".  As it happened, I pedalled through the places that are, technically, Harlem and the South Bronx.  But I also passed through a number of other neighborhoods that consist almost entirely of people of color, most of whom are poor, and whose neighborhoods are lumped in with Harlem and the South Bronx.

I ride in those places because there are some interesting sights and good cycling.  But today I noticed something in those neighborhoods that, I now realize, makes them not only different neighborhoods, but different worlds, from Astoria, where I now live and Park Slope, where I lived before moving here--not to mention neighborhoods like the Upper East Side and Yorkville, which I also rode through today.

In neighborhoods like Harlem and the ones I saw in the Bronx, one generally doesn't see as many adults, especially young ones, cycling.  And, as one might expect, the bikes one sees are likely to have been cobbled together.  I'm not talking about the kinds of bikes one can buy used from any number of bike shops or the ones available from Recycle-a-Bicycle and other places like it. Rather, I'm talking about bikes that look like the riders themselves spliced them together from bits and pieces that were tossed into the trash or found lying abandoned somewhere or another.  

As often as not, the bikes and parts don't go together.  I'm not talking only about aesthetics:  Sometimes parts that aren't made to fit each other are jammed together and held together by little more than the rider's lack of knowledge about the issue. 

It was usually poor men of a certain age who were riding the kinds of bikes I've described.  Younger men might ride them, too, but they are more likely to be found on cheap mountain bikes, some of which came from department stores.  A few are the lower-end or, more rarely, mid-range models of brands that are sold in bicycle shops.  Those bikes were probably acquired in one degree or another of having been used; none of them looked as if they were purchased new.

But the most striking thing I noticed is this:  I did not see a single female of any age on a bike in those neighborhoods.  It make me think back to other times I've been in those parts of town and I realized --if my memory was serving me well--that I never saw a woman, or even a girl, on a bike.  

I started to have those realizations after I stopped at an intersection a few blocks north of the stadium.  A very thin black man was crossing the street.  He approached me and, in a tone of consternation, said, "You're riding a bike?"  For a split-second--until I realized why he was asking the question--I thought it was strange and ignored him.  But he persisted: "You ride a lot?"

I nodded.  

"Be safe.  I don't want a nice lady like you to get hurt."

"I will.  Thank you.  Have a nice day."

I realized that I may well have been the first woman he, or many other people in that neighborhood, had seen on a bike.     

How would his life be different if he saw more women on bikes? And, even more to the point, how might the lives of some of those women be different if they rode bikes?  And, finally, I wondered, how might those neighborhoods be different?


  1. Great post. We live on the Williamsburg/Bushwick line and the only women cycling are part of the gentrification that's taking place (myself included). The neighborhood is predominantly an industrial park and so not very residential but the groups who do live here are a combination of a few Latino families who've been here forever and artists/hipsters of the last 5-10 yrs. I have never seen a Latina on a bike in the neighborhood. It's an extraordinary thing to think about, actually. But the men and boys ride all the time. For transport, for their jobs, kids riding around in packs on BMX.

    I started cycling when I moved to this neighborhood around five years ago because I felt it was the safest, easiest way to get out of here without driving. We are close to the subway and 10 minutes from Manhattan, but it's a good mile of walking through warehouse buildings and I didn't really like doing that. I feel perfectly safe on my bike, though.

  2. You know, in Vienna it's sort of the opposite with architecture: There is so much of it, that I just sort of start blocking it all out and not noticing any of the interesting details. Funny how that works. Too much of a good thing?

  3. As a woman, I'd rather bike than walk, as long as I knew where I was going.

    I've often wondered about why biking is such a guy's thing, and I've concluded that it's because it's a machine (guys' turf), and you might mess up your hair if you ride. I'm not mechanical, but I love the freedom and don't much care about perfectly coiffed hair.

  4. Neighbourtease: I also feel safer on a bike than when I'm walking through some place. In that sense, our bicycles give us freedom. That may be one of the reasons why bicycles helped women to become more liberated by the end of the 19th Century than they were earlier.

    Velouria: Hmm, I hadn't thought of that. I wonder if natives of Vienna--or any other city noted for its architecture-- feel the same way. The native Parisians I met when I was living there seemed proud of, but didn't pay that much attention to, the architectural details of their buildings. Maybe, as you say, they're just accustomed to having so much.

    Bliss: Machines=guys: Interesting point. I'm thinking now of something a jeweler once told me: Guys who wouldn't be caught dead wearing any other kind of jewelery will think nothing of dropping a month's pay on a watch.

  5. I expect the differences are cultural. I used to work with people from low socioeconomic groups (of various races and ethnic groups) and many (particularly the young) seemed to cling to status symbols such as having a car, or expensive clothes and jewelry. To ride a bike or take the bus to work or the grocery store was the stamp of poverty. Unfortunately, much of our marketing and advertising simply reinforces that perception. Most middle and upper income people also buy into the message, along with the one that, up until recently, also convinced us we had to have a 4000 square foot home and that anything less was merely a "starter home".

  6. I can see how someone would become accustomed to all the beautiful architecture around them if they had lived somewhere for a while. After living in the U.S. my entire life with our mostly bland architecture, I can't imagine ever tiring of the architecture in European cities :)

    I agree with She Rides a Bike in that biking does seem to be associated with poverty in many areas. For example, in the south, the majority of people riding bikes are younger kids, university students, or those who ride for sport (primarily guys). Very few people use a bike for transportation to work - and if they do, I think that others view it as being necessity rather than choice and assume that they can't afford a car. And yes, marketing and advertising have done us no favors by making people think that they've "made it" if they have a house and a car. Not sure how we change that though - while certain cities in the U.S. are making progress, most still endorse the automobile as king and feel that bicycles are for recreational use only.