Each week I Google directions to bike to a different New York City neighborhood.
The picture on Google Maps for this week’s target, Mott Haven, was of fire fighters attending to a smashed up ambulance.
Given the reputation of the South Bronx, you couldn’t make that up.
The reality you find is more complicated.
When you cross the Third Avenue Bridge from Harlem the first thing you see is street art welcoming you.
The second thing is the Mott Haven Bar & Grill, which had it not been closed for the coronavirus epidemic, seems like a charming place, and evidence of renewal.
I rode along Bruckner Boulevard until Alexander Avenue where I made a left and headed up to 138th street.
Along the way you pass car repair shops, murals and an old factory that’s been converted into lofts.
Tucked under the Major Deegan Expressway, there’s a community garden with roses, a tree swing and a large communal table
It was hot, but sunny and the colors were vivid.
At 138th street I came across the 40th police precinct. This is not the precinct made famous in the Paul Newman movie Fort Apache – the Bronx (that was the 41st).
But it evoked a similar feeling today, because it was surrounded by barricades and blocked by patrol cars presumably in anticipation of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The protests broke out after the killing of a black man by police two weeks ago and have spread to nearly every town and city in America. New York has declared a curfew, which, coming on top of the pandemic, has made daily life even stranger.
I rode around the block to get to the Mott Haven Historic District that I had read about. I found the townhouses, but many are in poor condition. These have not been preserved like the historic districts in Harlem, or Hamilton Heights or Bedstuy.
I rode back and forth through several of the residential cross streets and then took 144th street over to St. Mary’s Park.
I recognized the park and realized I had been to the school across the street, PS 277. My friend Lila used to be the principal there and I brought her some supplies once.
It was a strange feeling and one I’ve had before – stumbling upon some place I’ve been and only then connecting the dots.
One of the reasons I like biking the city it because it forces you to understand how the geography and culture and history fit together.
I took a left on 149th street, which is a major thoroughfare and followed it along to Morris. It’s a busy street but notably poorer than any area I had visited on my biking forays so far.
On one corner a preacher was hollering to no one in particular in Spanish. A homeless man was bathing at a fire hydrant. There were a lot of desperate looking men.
It’s close to Manhattan and yet feels very far.
I took a left on Morris and then down Rider back to 135th street. Among rows of red brick warehouses you see signs of gentrification. There was a fancy liquor store and several new apartment buildings under construction.
On many streets I saw trees – their tags still attached – recently planted as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s million tree campaign.
I rode back up to 149th and crossed the Grand Concourse. It occurred to me that I’d never been there.
I’d lived in New York City for 30 years and never been to the Grand Concourse, one of the most famous streets in the city.
It was designed by a French immigrant named Louis Aloys Risse, with construction starting in 1894. It was modeled on the Champs Elysee in Paris. It was a big deal in the 1920s.
A famous hotel the Concourse Plaza Hotel opened in 1922 and hosted baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris because they could walk to Yankee Stadium.
Like much of the rest of the South Bronx, the hotel fell into disrepair in the 1960s and has subsequently been turned into a senior citizens home run by the city.
I paused in front of the enormous post office at 149th and the Grand Concourse. The windows have been boarded up, again in anticipation of violence from the protests.
I wanted to see the Post Office because I’d read about a restaurant that opened on the roof last year. Zona de Cuba claimed to be the first rooftop restaurant in the Bronx.
Now, its closed for the virus.
There’s a Haagen Daaz ice cream shop across the street. I tried to buy a coffee ice cream, but the internet was down. The shop was also boarded up.
I asked the kid working the counter about Zona de Cuba. He said the service and view are amazing, but the food isn’t great.