October 20, 2005
Bike the Big Apple
A retired teacher helps tourists take the city by the handlebars.
Chasidic Williamsburg, Roosevelt Island and Long Island City are easily navigable by bicycle, but given New York's frenetic pace, you might prefer an expert take you there.
Bronx native Joel Seidenstein stands ready at the handlebars.
After 33 years teaching social studies in the city public schools, Seidenstein launched Bike the Big Apple bicycle tours as a second career. His professional experience and Borscht Belt one-liners make this Teaneck, N.J. resident a charming guide.
On a recent Friday, I joined Seidenstein, a second guide and eight tourists for the "Back to the Old Country -- The Ethnic Apple Tour." For five hours and 18 miles we cycled over bridges and waterways, dodging traffic jams, potholes and hazards by taking "quieter" streets. (This is New York, after all.) It was a great alternative to explore the city's ethnic diversity and visit one of its most interesting Jewish areas: Williamsburg.
Our tour began on Second Avenue as we picked up our bikes at the Pedal Pusher Bike Shop on the Upper East Side. Equipped with helmets and Velcroed ankle ties to keep pants from getting caught in bike chains, we headed south, single file, to 60th Street. We schlepped our bikes up a flight of stairs and wheeled them on to a massive tram for a ride over the East River. Featured in the smash film "Spider-Man," this Swiss-made ski tram was installed about 30 years ago. It is one of the few of its kind operating in an urban setting. Surrounded by windows on all sides, the 360-degree view was spectacular.
Within minutes we landed on Roosevelt Island. While we stopped and admired the views, Seidenstein explained how the island evolved into a "city within the city" as a refuge for smallpox victims, the insane and criminals. Once known as Welfare Island, it was filled with institutions and "undesirables" from the bigger city just across the river.
Seidenstein led us on our bikes across the island, pointing out landmarks along the way. When we reached the northern tip of the island facing Hell's Gate, Gracie Mansion and the Triborough Bridge, Seidenstein read to us from Charles Dickens, who visited the island 150 years ago and described the "ugly nakedness of these houses of hell."
To leave the island, we pedaled up the 59th Street Bridge to Queens, then past the former Pepsi-Cola plant to Long Island City, where we stopped at a small park at the end of the railroad tracks. With the beautiful backdrop of the city behind him, Seidenstein recalled the history of the neighborhood and how barges met trains delivering goods destined for the city.
As we made our way into the heart of the neighborhood, Seidenstein pointed out the ethnic mix of the area. Examples were everywhere. A Spanish bodega called Los Amigos Deli stood in the shadow of the Italian Manetta Ristorante.
Soon after we were in Greenpoint, a Polish-Russian neighborhood that also has an Islamic presence. Mosques and Orthodox churches stand practically side by side. While the rest of our group, which wasn't Jewish, went on to eat in a non-kosher Thai restaurant, I continued on to Williamsburg, with the plan that our group would join me there after lunch.
I had a great time exploring this Chasidic neighborhood on bike, meandering down the streets and into a few shops. An estimated 60,000 Satmars call Williamsburg home, and I found myself amid the Sabbath eve bustle. I felt a bit out of place as a modern woman with a bicycle in tow, but knowing that I was soon to be joining their pre-Shabbat rush, I also felt a certain kinship and an appreciation for their traditional way of life and the preservation of many important Jewish values.
When the rest of the tour group rejoined me soon after, Seidenstein asked me to translate Hebrew writing spray-painted on the sidewalk that encouraged the observance of the "holy Shabbos." As we stood there discussing the Satmar way of life, the local bus rolled by, the words "Williamsburg Trolley" spelled out above the windshield in Hebrew letters.
From Williamsburg we continued onward past a few other sites, including the old Navy Yard, where director Steven Spielberg has purchased property to build a "Hollywood of the East."
Leaving Brooklyn, the Friday traffic was heavy, but the view of Lower Manhattan was well worth it. Our ascent onto the Brooklyn Bridge was the perfect finale. The expansive skyline unfolded to our left and right. Once we reached the halfway point, Seidenstein wowed us with more historic details about the fascinating construction of this architectural masterpiece.
For more information, call (877) 865-0078 or visit www.bikethebigapple.com.