18 January 2010

A Bike Ride Into Change

I just had to get out of the house and on my bike, even if only for a little bit. And even if I still had a heavy cold.

Today I pedaled somewhere I haven't been in quite a while: the Williamsburg waterfront. It's not far from where I live, but it seems like an accomplishment, given how little bicycling I've done over the past few months.

Plus, I had a feeling that my lungs and sinuses wouldn't clear themselves much more if I stayed in the house. So I took my trusty Mercian fixed gear bike, which made me feel as if I'd ridden only yesterday.

It's only been about six or seven months since I've been there, but in some ways I could scarcely recognize it. Oh, the amazing views of the Manhattan skyline haven't changed. Nor has the metallic yet briny smell of the mist from the East River about half a mile from the Williamsburg Bridge.

One odor that's gone is that of a freshly-opened box of Domino's brown sugar. That smell filled the air near the factory that made the stuff, next to the river and practically at arm's length from the Bridge, even after it closed a few years ago. Now that the aroma and the jobs that made it possible are gone, I wonder what will happen to that building. If a structure can be beautiful in a Dickensian way, that factory building is. Will some developer turn it into a condominiums?

If it were to be converted, it certainly wouldn't be like the condo buildings that stand along the waterfront now. Construction on those condo buildings started about two years ago; they have been completed for several months now. They are much like others that have been built in the last ten years or so along the city's waterfront: rectangles of steel, mortar and glass that are meant to be stopovers for the night for young professionals who work, and young trust-funders who do whatever they do, in and among the famous buildings they can see from their apartment windows. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I have a hard time imagining them as places of rest, much less living.

Even more noticeable was the new bike lane along Kent Avenue--and the absence of trucks. I have long enjoyed cycling there after business hours and on weekends, when the formerly industrial landscape became strangely serene. When I rode there on weekdays, I was never worried, not even when the trucks came and went: Most of those drivers were considerate and curious. All you had to do was make yourself visible and not do anything stupid, and all was well.

It was even quieter there on Saturdays than on Sundays because most of the small factories and warehouses that lined that stretch of the river were owned by Hasidic Jews. Although I have seen them only from a distance (As I understand, their religion frowns upon communication with outsiders unless it's absolutely necessary.), they were part of the landscape, if you will. It was odd, to say the least, not to see any along Kent Avenue today.

In a way, it's surprising that these changes didn't happen sooner. The part of Williamsburg along and near Bedford Avenue has long been a hipster haven, and many of the lofts near it were artists' and musicians' studios. As happened neighborhoods like the Village, Soho and Park Slope in past decades, what follows young creative people and wannabes is young money, whether of the yuppie or the preppie variety.

Now, I don't mean for this to be a sociological analysis. Instead, I just want to describe a change I've noticed. Even though I hardly ever had contact with the Hasidic Jews, I somehow felt a kind of kinship with them. As best as I can tell, it has to do with the fact that they're survivors, and I can say that I've had to be one. So, even in my lycra-clad racer-wannabe days, I felt completely at home when I rode through the Hasidic Industrial Zone, if you will.

Plus, they were, I now realize, among the last holdovers of an old way of living and thinking in New York. They worked at the waterfront. They weren't there for the views or the prestige of a waterfront address, mainly because, when they were there, a waterfront address had no prestige. Maybe it's because New York has so much shoreline that residents of the city didn't value--and, it seemed at times, denigrated--the water's edge. The most prestigious addresses in Manhattan (along upper Fifth, Madison and Park Avenues) are the ones furthest from the water. And in Park Slope, the further up the slope--and the further from the water--you go, the more elegant and pricey the brownstones become.

Meanwhile, the waterfront was for laborers, like my uncle who worked at Bush Terminal in Brooklyn. This seeming disdain for its shores was perhaps best seen in this city during the 1950's and 1960's, when the NIMBY projects, like public housing and waste disposal plants, were built along the oceanfront in Far Rockaway and Arverne and along the Hudson and East Rivers in Harlem.

So...I grew up among people who made their living--and, in some cases, lived--by the water. I still feel drawn to it, and to the kinds of people I've talked about, today. Perhaps that is the reason I've connected more easily with my students than with my colleagues.

But today, the few people I saw were at the water's edge, not to work, and not even to play, but for the relative proximity to the skyscrapers they can view from their windows. For some of them, it could just as well be part of the decor, as the remaining piers may as well be.

Don't get me wrong: I met a few people who were friendly enough when I stopped at the pier and went into the Duane Reade store at the base of one of the buildings. Admiring a baby's big blue eyes got me talking with his young parents; a young woman struck up a conversation over my bike when I propped it up by the pier. They all seemed nice enough and if I spent more time with them I might've found common ground. But I have seen the place in which they're living in a way they never could, and they could not even know that the eyes that allow for that way of seeing are fading; no new ones are being born to replace them. Of course that is inevitable: The world has changed, and so has this city and the neighborhood in which those younger people are living.

Jobs like the one my uncle worked no longer exist; the places that employed people like my uncle for those kinds of jobs--some of them located, only a few years ago, where those condo buildings now stand--are also gone. Gone, too, are the expectation that people like my uncle would work in such jobs (or that they would work in a factory, as my father did when I was a kid) and that their wives would stay home with the children they bore, as my mother did until my youngest brother went to school.

Part of me says, "Good riddance." After all, most people wouldn't want to work those jobs if they had other choices. And women, save for ones like the Hasidim, don't have to have children as soon as they're old enough to bear them or marry men so as not to compete with them for their jobs. Plus, if a woman is going to work, she doesn't have to be a nurse, secretary or elementary school teacher, as honorable and necessary as those jobs are.

In some way, I've come to realize that those changes have made my changes possible. I am not bound by those expectations that people once had for males like the one I portrayed or for the woman that I am and have become. So I had the option--though I had to wait many years for the opportunity--of leaving the constraints of my male body without dying. And I did not have to become the sort of woman Christine Jorgensen, bless her soul, became.

That is because the world in which I lived not so long ago no longer exists. Of course, that is a good thing in many ways. But sometimes it's still jarring to see so much change, and that it seems to have happened so quickly, even if I had to wait a long time for it. But here it is. I'm still finding my way around it and getting to know some of the people in it--and myself.