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.

Blogging in lieu of fieldnotes?

I realized recently that I was writing to one friend a bit compulsively. In some ways, it was nice to get back in touch, and to have him to stay in contact with, but also, I realized, he was filling a void. I haven't been sending fieldwork updates to my friends, the way I did when I was in N. Africa for 2 months one summer. Partly because fieldwork is now in the States, and it's easy to have a phone call or feel no real break from life before and after. But it also means that I won't have a written (casual) record of time here. In Morocco, I was also writing to my boyfriend at least once a day if not more often, making my life as humorous as possible, crafting the story a little bit. It's a great record to look back on every now and then. So, I decided it was time to re-visit the blogging experience. The last time I kept a blog was in college -- and I kind of cringe at the thought of it. It was in the early days of webpaging, and it was awfully confessional. I finally got my college to remove it a year or two ago, much to my relief.

Fieldwork at home is weird. I'm not sure where it begins or ends, and while some might say fieldwork rarely has convenient packaging like that, there is something particular about working in your own country. Being able to fly home for holidays or drive north to visit friends in San Francisco. At the same time, I love this about my chosen career. I like that things are rarely seamed, that I can return easily, should I wish, to do more work. Of course, the downside is that much like being a student (where there is rarely a moment that work isn't somewhere rattling around as a possibility), it's hard to not feel hyper-vigilant all the time. I can't read the NY Times online without one part of my brain scanning for research tidbits. U.S. goings-on tend to relate back to my research somehow. This is true for anyone who does research, I know this, but somehow it feels all-pervasive, with no discrete fieldsite.