11 July 2016

Brooklyn Heights: Another Reason I Am Not A Racer

Yesterday, I wrote about the things that caused me to realize that I am not, at heart, a racer, even though I pretended to be one for a few years.  In brief, I care more about the feelings and memories I have, or associate with, my rides than I do with how fast or how far I rode.

Well, today, I had another insight as to why, even after a third-place finish in a race, I couldn't have pushed myself to "the next level"--whatever that might have been--even if I'd had the talent, trained harder and simply wanted to win more.

This afternoon I spun Tosca, my Mercian fixed gear, through some Brooklyn and Queens streets.  Part of my ride took me through Brooklyn Heights, which today is--at least in the eyes of many--the very epitome of an urban "brownstone" neighborhood.

In 1965, the City's newly-formed Landmarks Commission--created in the wake of the outrage generated by the destruction of the original Penn Station--designated much of the Heights as the city's first Historic District.  Good thing, too:  During the two decades following World War II, Americans set their sights on modern houses in the suburbs, not historic buildings in the inner city.  As a result, those beautiful old houses began to decay, and Robert Moses thought they--and similar houses in nearby Park Slope--were simply obstacles to building the expressway he wanted to carve through Brooklyn.

I stopped to read the plaque on one of the houses that would have been razed--a Federal-style building on Middagh Street. No racer, I think, would have interrupted his or her ride in that way--or to look at other houses.  The fact that I had just a crappy cell phone with me--and, therefore, couldn't take good pictures--would have been enough of an excuse for a racer (or the racer wannabe that I was) not to stop and look at buildings.

And if I were training for the next Tour or Giro or whatever, I probably wouldn't have noticed that in a neighborhood full of Federal and Greek and Italianite Revival-style buildings--which brought the neighborhood its landmark designation--there was something that stood out:

The Cranlyn Building is beautiful, but it's not what people normally associate with the Heights.  If anything, it's practically a textbook example of Art Deco.  It would fit seamlessly on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (though the Cranlyn is in be tter condition than most Bronx buildings) or even in Miami's South Beach.   But it's not just the visual contrast between it and the houses (and the Church of the Assumption) on Cranberry Street that's so interesting. 

To me, the Cranlyn has a different kind of energy to it. Yes, it is an apartment (condo) building with a chrome-zinc-and-glass Italian cafe on the ground floor on a street mainly of single-family homes.  More important, though, the building feels like jazz--just look at the pattern of those lines!--in a neighborhood that is, perhaps, more Mozartian.

The way those lines unite Art Deco with jazz reminds me of the relationship betwen graffiti, break-dancing and hip-hop. Just watch "Beat Street" (corny, I admit, but with great music from early hip-hip artists!).  Pay attention to the dancers and to the graffiti-covered subway trains as they rumble along Bronx viaducts:  Look at the way those lines of graffiti move, look at the dancers' movements and pay attention to the beat.  That relationship is, I think, something the movie captured brilliantly.

The funny thing is that, even though I was riding at a slow speed (for me, anyway!), I was still going about five times as fast as anyone walking the street.  Yet no one seems to notice the building, or its contrast with the rest of the neighborhood.  Even more ironically, as a pedestrian, I never noticed what I'm describing:  I first noticed it from the saddle of my bicycle.  

And, in the strangest twist of all, during my racing days, I had experienced the Heights only as a pedestrian:  I never rode through the neighborhood!


  1. A bicycle does put you into another dimension...

    Pedestrians are preoccupied with the random brownian motion of other sidewalk users, avoiding uneven surfaces, the byproducts of pets and now users of electronics who hardly know where they are. Then there is the different perspective from the street afforded by a bicycle and the fact that riding gets the brain working in a quite different manner. Having a camera does get you to slow down and observe...

    I have never been competitive though occasionally enjoy a victory but only if it comes from natural talent. The bicycle has always been about the ride not the time. When at school I did manage to introduce cycling as a new "sport" but my friends in the group were just out for the easiest time possible! Anyone who tried to join with their fancy ten speeds I would run the legs off while the others sunbathed. All that practice chasing busses and trucks for a draft came in handy.

    I am obviously watching the TDF but wish they would go a bit slower and show us some more of the country!

  2. Coline--I have always felt that, while cycling, I see more of a place--even more than I see while walking. You very beautifully explained why that is so.

    What you say about the TdF is funny. The first time I saw it on television, I came away thinking that the ride was done through sunflower fields and on a couple of Alpine passes before ending at the Arc de Triomphe!