My sister, Cat, and I are twins, born on April Fools Day (unbeknownst until that moment to our mom and her doctor), and we wanted, as usual, to do something special on our birthday on April 1, 2007 when we were, for a change, both in New York City.
Exuberant Lynette Chiang of Bike Friday had introduced me to an architect, David Holowka, who had created an architecture bike tour of Harlem. He agreed to host a birthday ride and he graciously extended the invitation to the New York City Bike Friday crowd.
Seven of us gathered on a Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. at Central Park North under cloudy skies — a perfect day for an urban tour. Had the weather been sunny, we all might have instead been cruising down River Road. Also, few drivers had yet ventured outdoors.
David rode a Brompton and loaned his other folding bike, a Moulton, to Zak. Riding regular bikes were my sister Cat and me, former Transportation Alternative president Charlie Komanoff and another architect Roger. We all envied Bennett’s Bike Friday, a shiny red Pocket Tourist. My neon orange Bike Friday Crusoe was waiting for me in Greece.
David led us to the Teresa Hotel where Fidel Castro once stayed and Nikita Krushchev visited him. Across the street we studied the Adam Clayton Powell statue with all the legislation he passed noted on the bottom. David pointed out Stanford White buildings on Strivers Row, Duke Ellington’s home, Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated, the apartment building where Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Dubois lived (which had unobstructed views of Yankee Stadium), and Alexander Hamilton’s home, Hamilton Grange, that was originally located several blocks northward and was delicately moved in the 1800s.
One apartment building we visited was known for its distinct terra cotta tiles that were also used at Ellis Island. David said the tiles were made so well (a lost art) that during renovations to the immigration building only 17 tiles out of 26,000 had to be replaced. (There are only a handful of artisans who can still make terra cotta tiles.)
David introduced us to Sylvan Place, a charming one-block street that looks more like New Orleans than New York. Behind it on a hill stands the Morris Jumel mansion, the oldest home in New York City. George Washington used to stay and hosted many dignitaries.
Astor Row is another unusual street for New York because the small apartments all have a sitting porch and grassy front yard.
We capped the morning off with brunch at a delicious soul food restaurant (heart shaped biscuits!) called Miss Maude’s Spoonbread II on 125th Street.
It was a terrific two hour tour enhanced by David’s entertaining and illuminating stories. We could not have covered so much ground in such little time but for the efficiency of our bicycles. A number of Harlemites took notice to the effect, “Look. They’re all on bikes” as if cycling were a novel form of transport instead of the most effective means of locomotion in an urban environment.
Photo, Left to right: Charlie, Roger, Cat, Colleen, Bennett, David posing in Sylvan Place