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Barbara Clough

Biking New York City

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Over the weekend, I took a break from CrossFit as I was doing family research in NYC. I've been an urban cyclist for years, having used a bike as my main means of commuting for many years that I lived in Boston. Way faster and far more fun than taking the subway, even if it meant being a bit more structure in my preparations. 

I was in NYC to immerse myself in the history of the city as I'll be writing about my great-grandmother who came in through the lower East Side and my family's slow migration up through Harlem and the Bronx. At first, I thought I'd be able to cover most of it by foot, but I neglected to factor in getting lost time, wandering around time, and finding the right house number time. 

My brother suggested the city bikes, which initially I was trepidatious. I'm comfortable biking around Boston where I know which roads or streets to avoid and where most cars are barely moving because we don't have long, open avenues that New York does. For instance, Park Avenue runs all the way up into the Bronx and is about four lanes of traffic wide. Cars can actually get moving! Not so Boston - I don't think there's a street in the entire city that length.

Well, I took the plunge on Sunday morning, and biked from Grand Central Station at 42nd Street all the way down to First Street and First Avenue, so I could make my morning tour at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. I was totally hooked. Biking in NYC is in turns exhilarating and terrifying, but once I got comfortable with the constant vigilance I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was able to get all over the Bronx, Harlem and Manhattan on Sunday and Monday, covering miles and centuries as I searched for buildings where my ancestors were born, married, and died. 

Many of the buildings were gone - most of the family homes - but many of the churches survived. I felt myself shifting in and out of the present - thinking about my great-grandmother in a 325 square foot apartment on Orchard Street or my grandfather living in a massive housing project in the Bronx. It brought their lives to my life in unexpected ways. I came back to Lowell both physically exhausted because of heat and long searching days, but somewhat emotionally exhausted as well in thinking about their lives from the 1880s and the ease of my life now. A really enlightening journey in so many ways.

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