Riverside path delights N.Y. cyclists
Travel feature, San Jose Mercury News, July 18th, 2004
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It was sunset on this island's western shore: Waves were lapping against the piers as the breeze curled off the water. You could hear the shouts and scuffles of feet in the sand from young men playing volleyball, the whir of the anglers' reels as they made their final casts of the day and the click of the cyclists' wheels riding homeward. Wait, New York City?

Yes, Manhattan is an inviting island, but tourists and inhabitants alike have long forgotten that fact. For years, the unwelcoming concrete of the cargo piers kept all but the most maritime-minded away from the city's shores. All that changed, however, with last year's completion of the Hudson River Greenway -- the new New York edge.

Bicyclists, in-line skaters, joggers and walkers can travel 11 miles on a riverside path that showcases the diversity for which New York is so famous -- while defying its equally infamous stereotypes.

The northern terminus of the Greenway is the George Washington Bridge at 181st Street. On the ride south to Battery Park, cyclists pass young and old playing baseball with their families, bourgeois Upper West Siders sporting their Roca Wear and financial district dwellers relaxing on the piers sans cell phones and pagers.

"People aren't as much in a hurry over here," says one ponytailed theatrical producer who rides the path as often as he can. "People are nicer. There's an energy of the water, a certain vibe that comes off the Hudson. No matter where you are on the path, most people are affected by it."

That's because in the mecca of work, the river is where New Yorkers come to play.

Basketball courts are ubiquitous along the path, and you don't need West Fourth Street skills to join a game -- at least half the guys on the courts shoot like Woody Harrelson looking for a sucker. Be aware, though: The older courts (Upper West Side and Harlem) have very particular rules and customs. At twilight on the 76th Street courts, I made the mistake of suggesting an 11-point game to the only remaining player, a middle-aged man in a purple jersey, inducing him to shout, "The last game on these courts is always to 15, baby! Anyone around here will tell you that!"

The law of the courts may be sacred, but the law of gravity along the bike path is open to interpretation. Farther south in the West Village, Trapeze School New York will help you "learn to let go" as it did Carrie in "Sex and the City." Since opening in 2002, Trapeze School New York has gone from curious novelty to bona fide learning "platform" for residents, tourists, and corporate teams seeking cohesion (it is still New York).

Back on terra firma, the Greenway's cultural sites add another dimension to the ride. The young at heart will be delighted by the lighthouse-turned-museum under the George Washington Bridge, the inspiration for Hildegarde Swift's classic children's book "The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge."

Another historic museum to visit along the path is the Intrepid, a converted World War II aircraft carrier. It's very hands-on; even adults can crawl around inside a Revolutionary War submarine, an A-6 Intruder cockpit and, of course, the aircraft carrier itself.

For a small dose of Hollywood, don't miss the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel ventilator tower, the intergalactic Ellis Island of "Men in Black." The real Ellis Island is visible a little farther down at the end of the path, where you can take it in along with Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty and the Verrazzano Bridge in one gentle turn of the handlebars.

A pleasant day will make the bike path seem short. But the journey that made this relaxed ride possible was long and bumpy. According to Transportation Alternatives, a New York bicycling advocacy group, the idea of a bike path was formulated in 1973 but didn't pick up speed till the mid-'90s. An interim park along the Hudson opened in 1998, and the plan got a hefty boost when Michael Bloomberg, a cycling enthusiast, was elected mayor in 2002. Bloomberg appointed Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, a bike commuter, to oversee his pet project: the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, a bike loop all the way around the island.

The Hudson River Greenway was part of that project, and since September 2003 cyclists can make a full loop of the island, with a few detours. It's not recommended, though: "Biking on the East River is like smoking a pack of cigarettes," said one cyclist who moved from the East Side to the West in part because of the Greenway.

The Greenway is "an interstate for cyclists," says Richard Walukanis, who has been using the bike path for 20 years, well before there was parkland surrounding it. These days he's retired, but he bikes three miles down to Chelsea Piers from the Upper West Side several times a week to go ice-skating. He used to have the path all to himself, but he says he prefers the company. "The atmosphere is just joyful. The river is so special -- even in the wintertime."

That's no empty sentiment. The much-maligned Hudson is cleaner these days through the efforts of the state and environmental watchdog groups. Len Zimmerman, a recreational fisherman who lives on the East Side and fishes on the West, sees the difference in the quality of the striped bass, white perch, bluefish, cod, fluke and eels that make up most of his strikes. "Every year, the colors get brighter. The grays are real grays, and the blacks are blacks -- you can count the stripes on the bass. Most of these guys," he says, waving to the other fisherman on the pier, "`are fishing for their dinner."

With relaxed attitudes and waterfront activities more appropriate to Manhattan Beach than Manhattan, it should surprise no one to find displaced Californians lining the Greenway. Sarah Shamah, a grad student at New York University and a Southern California native, says she has bumped into more fellow Californians near the Hudson than anywhere else in the city. "We sort of gravitate toward the river, I guess. It's slower-paced, more relaxed -- it reminds me of San Francisco, having the parks near the water," she says. "This whole general area has a real West Coast feel."

Indeed, it is the beach-like fringe of the original concrete jungle -- Manhattan's own West Coast.

IF YOU GO

Renting a bike: Bicycle Rental Transportation Alternatives lists bike rental places in the city at www.transalt.org/calendar/century/rental.html.

Prices are $4-$7 an hour; $20-$35 a day (helmet and bike lock can be $5 extra).

Entry points: Uptown, 72nd and 96th streets are good starting points. Downtown Chambers Street will put you at the top of Battery Park City.

Rest spots: The beginning of Rockefeller Park near Chambers Street has welcoming lawns and good views northward. At the tip of the Battery, you can take in Lady Liberty and the Verrazzano with a frozen lemonade. In Riverside Park at 70th Street, rusted pier relics, Little League games, the impromptu Hudson Beach Cafe and great views from the Trump-built pier make for a favorite stopping spot among the locals.

Summer events on the river: The River to River Festival (www.rivertorivernyc.com) runs dance and music events all summer long at venues such as Castle Clinton, an 1812 harbor fort in Battery Park, and the lawns of Rockefeller Park.

On Aug. 21, the 23rd annual Downtown Dance Festival will present a multiethnic mix of up-and-coming performers and seasoned professionals. Free. Visit www.batterydanceco.com for details.

Hudson River Park's RiverFlicks series will be showing films along the piers ranging from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" to "The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman." The hook: free popcorn.

Other Hudson River Park summer events: www.newyorkled.com/nyc_events_Hudson-River-Park.htm.

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© Copyright Ethan Todras-Whitehill 2004