Knowing the city by bike

One of the commitments I've made since moving to this city-of-cars is to bike as much as possible. It seems to baffle most people I've met here, since this is truly a place run by, dependent on, and celebrating of cars. (Somehow that last sentence sounds weird and wrong, but how else to describe cars' pervasiveness?) I grew up on bikes as a kid in New York. (For which I am ever grateful to my father, though there was a point where I hated him for making me ride.) NY always seemed like the ideal bike city, though people have found it odd (and scary) that I would bike there. Manhattan's traffic is pretty well-regimented. Relatively few streets have stop signs, cars are used to maniacal pedestrians, and pedestrians are used to maniacal drivers. There's a choreography that happens on the street, and the bikes are just another part of it.

San Francisco was an ok bike city, as long as I plotted the route so that there weren't too many killer hills. Though once the bike got stolen (one of many many bike thefts in my life), I didn't bother to replace it. LA has surprised me. I find biking remarkably pleasant, and I love seeing the city at a bike pace. Driving everywhere was making me miserable. And so much driving takes place on freeways, that the city seems impenetrable. In addition, the architecture is pretty monotonous and strip malls often house surprisingly interesting restaurants or stores, but how is one to know what's worth visiting and what's not? All these fortress-like facades made LA feel inhuman to me. I learned the freeways pretty quickly, and I learned not to try to take shortcuts on non-major roads (my favorite is the roads that either start north-south and mysteriously start taking you east-west, or even better the ones that loop back altogether, such as one road in Westwood). But on a bike you can fix your error pretty quickly. In traffic here, making a mistake can add a half an hour, but on the bike, it's usually a small detour.

Besides the logistical aspect, that one can flout others' traffic miseries, it also allows me to see the city on a different scale. In Casablanca I walked everywhere. Within a month, I had a really good sense of a large part of the city. So much so that when I returned from a weekend trip with a big group of the Jewish community, I couldn't understand why our bus driver was taking us down a particular street. When I commented on it to one of the women, why is he taking us this way? He should go that way. She seemed amazed that I even knew the streets at all. In her mid-40s, she said she had no idea where we were, even though we were only 10 blocks away from the community center. But unlike Casablanca or NY or San Francisco, LA is not walkable in the same way.

On my bike, I get to see the city at night, the hordes of predominantly Latino workers waiting for buses that seem to never come. I can observe the anger and road rage of drivers as they jostle to beat each other to the stoplight or the freeway entrance, without having to join in, entirely. And the city can be really beautiful -- and its natural surroundings are amazing. In spite of the fumes and dirt, and an upsetting accident yesterday, I love getting to know LA on two wheels.

Yesterday I decided to bike down to a health clinic in South (eastern) LA. I'd been down there three times already, and I figured it was safe enough to bike. One of the concerns people here have voiced to me is that the neighborhoods themselves might not be safe. But I actually think being on a bike makes people more welcoming of you into their community. Driving down a street with the windows rolled up, an anxious-looking white girl with out-of-state plates --- somehow that seems more ripe for harassment to me than being vulnerable and visible on the bike. And it was a great ride. About 7.5 miles southeast of where I live, I got to see some of the residential parts of town. I rode through downtown LA, which is one of my favorite parts of the city, because it feels like a real city. It has...gasp...history. And there are industries clumped together, in ways that remind me of the east coast. I miss that out here on the west coast. San Francisco felt relatively devoid of history, after having grown up in NY. I love biking through the streets of cheap stores that have sprung up in old buildings, I love the flower district and the "fashion" district, with all its fabric stores and hawkers. I'm sure with the internet and online-life, many of these tangible real-world spaces are disappearing. After biking through those more vibrant areas, the city became a bit of a wasteland.

It made me realize that Baltimore, which always seemed to me to be the city that has been abandoned, is not unique. I think other American cities have all grappled with shifts in economies, such that downtown areas became blighted and ghosts of their past. (Philly definitely used to be like that in the 80s and 90s, though you'd hardly realize it now.) But Baltimore has always felt like a much more extensively abandoned city. I suspect part of that is because it's relatively small, geographically, so it's more obvious, perhaps, that entire blocks are boarded up and left to decay. LA seems to operate on some sort of eternal expansionist theory. The luxury of the west, I suppose, there's a sense that there's always more vast spaces. (These theories are relatively half-baked, since I've yet to read anything about this...more they are my own reflections on the space.) As I crossed the city, I felt a bit like an urban archaeologist. Concrete on-ramps, desolate factory buildings, and then suddenly residential areas.

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