(by Jane Margolies, New York Times)
WHEN I told my local bicycle mechanic that I was thinking about circling the city by following the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, he shrugged off my reservations about the unfinished route, which I’d heard was still dicey in parts.
“It’s Manhattan,” he said. “It’s an island. What are you going to do, get lost?”
Yet there I was on a recent Sunday morning, turning right at East 63rd Street, only to find that I’d started down the car ramp onto the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.
Though the Greenway does encompass some city streets, mostly it snakes for more than 28 miles along rivers, under bridges and through parks. My companion for the ride was the recently released 2011 NYC Cycling Map (available atbike shops or by calling the city’s 311 information line), depicting the Greenway mostly as an enticing thick green line along much of the coast, with dotted lines indicating sections to come. (Full disclosure: I recently worked as a freelance editor on the city’s new plan for waterfront development; the Greenway was mapped out years earlier.)
Cycling the route is on the whole satisfying and at times exhilarating — a boon for bikers like me who get bored going round and round Central Park. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t bumps in the road.
WEST SIDE From the West 103rd Street entrance to Riverside Park, it was a quick trip down a hill and under an overpass to reach the Hudson River. There, signs for the NYC Greenway — racetrack-shaped and green, with a five-leafed ivy motif — greeted me.
The Department of City Planning included a route around Manhattan in its 1993 master plan for 350 miles of recreation and commuting paths in all five boroughs. In 2002 Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pledged to have the Manhattan loop built, and the city began stitching together existing pedestrian walkways, esplanades and city streets into a single route — in some areas paving connections and in others simply planting signs pointing the way.
Hanging a left so that I’d be circling Manhattan counterclockwise, I quickly reached a new segment. Cantilevered over the water, the path between West 90th and West 83rd Streets has a jaunty boardwalk feel. Before it was built, cyclists had to veer inland up a steep hill and reconnect near 79th Street. Now the path continues uninterrupted for more than 10 glorious miles close to the river, from the George Washington Bridge to the Battery.
Although I’d timed my departure to avoid the crowds later in the day, already cyclists — along with joggers, in-line skaters and stroller pushers — were out in force. At a cafe around West 70th Street, servers were opening table umbrellas for the day.
Here in Riverside Park South, the bike lane runs under the elevated West Side Highway. Still, cyclists have a good view of the rusted remains of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, one of the relics from the city’s industrial past that you can see as you pedal. Out on the water a blue-and-white tugboat pushed a barge.
But keep your eyes on the path: Travelers streaming off a cruise ship rolled suitcases across the route at West 48th Street. Ten blocks later, a parked white bike, with back baskets overflowing with dried flowers, was a sobering memorial to a cyclist who was killed by a truck there in 2006.
Approaching Battery Park City after being separated from the water by basketball and tennis courts, I made a few turns near Stuyvesant High School and continued south, again right along the water. Hello, Statue of Liberty!
EAST SIDE When you get to Battery Park, the trick is figuring out which way the Greenway goes — now you see the signs for it, now you don’t. But once I was on the path bordering the East River, there were fewer cyclists than on the West Side, and no wonder. Although it’s thrilling to pass under the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, the Greenway here is a disjointed affair.
At East 35th Street the path heads inland, skirting the United Nations on busy First Avenue. Several blocks later I got caught up in the flow of traffic and found myself on that F. D. R. Drive ramp. My mistake was not spotting the pedestrian bridge over the highway, leading back to the Greenway.
The map says it’s a clear shot to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, at 125th Street. But repairs on the path in the East 70s meant that I had to tack back and forth across the F. D. R. Drive on pedestrian bridges. And for now the Greenway turns at 120th Street, so once again it is back onto city thoroughfares.
HARLEM AND THE HARLEM RIVER The Greenway continues west in Harlem — some blocks are lined with lovely old brownstones — then north on St. Nicholas Avenue. I crossed West 125th Street as noon church bells rang.
There’s no waterfront along this part of the Waterfront Greenway, but there’s plenty of greenery along St. Nicholas Park. Still, when I finally reached the Harlem River, after riding along Edgecombe Avenue and crossing over Harlem River Drive, it felt good to be back by the water again.
The view along this least-traveled part of the path isn’t fetching: high-rises and highway on the Bronx side. But fishermen with propped-up rods give this area a homey feel, while rowing crews gliding by add a sporty vibe. And because there’s practically no one else around, you can finally cut loose.
In fact, this area was called the Harlem River Speedway at the beginning of the 20th century, a straightaway for horse and carriage racing. Today cherry and crabapple trees beautify the West 180s. The yellow and green Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse occupies a pier at the tiny Swindler Cove Park (at Dyckman Street and 10th Avenue, in Inwood), with its winding paths and tidy rows of potatoes, lettuce and fava beans tended by students at the school next door.
DYCKMAN STREET CONNECTION This nerve-racking stretch of storefronts and double-parked cars connects the Greenway on the East Side with the trail along the Hudson. Eudes Espino, co-manager of Tread Bike Shop on Dyckman Street, said that at least once a day a cyclist wandered in to ask how to get back onto the Greenway. By the end of the year, work will have begun on a ramp to the Hudson River part of the path, according to the Parks Department. For now, head up Riverside Drive, then lug your bike up stairs to reach the path along the Henry Hudson Parkway.
GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE AREA To your right, the Hudson River is a silvery ribbon far below, glinting through the trees. At Inspiration Point, a 1925 overlook modeled on a Greek temple, cyclists stop and gaze at the George Washington Bridge. Soon you’re swooping down to the foot of the bridge, with the Little Red Lighthouse tucked at its feet. From here to Riverbank State Park, the Greenway runs through what feels like a big block party on weekends. Volleyball nets are unfurled. Barbecues sizzle. The scene is more pastoral along Cherry Walk, from West 125th to West 100th streets, where the path weaves between trees that were beautifully in bloom for me.
Nearing West 100th Street, a cyclist in front of me swerved to avoid broken glass. I did too. But several yards later, at the exact spot where I’d started my journey four and a half hours earlier, Dr. Edward Fishkin sat on a patch of grass next to his red Cannondale bike, expertly fixing a flat.
The medical director of Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center and a cyclist for 25 years, Dr. Fishkin bikes up to 250 miles a week, and the occasional flat just comes with the territory. He rarely experiences flats on the Greenway, however, Dr. Fishkin said, adding, “Compared to what riding was like in the city 20 years ago, this is phenomenal.”