I found myself in Harlem one Sunday morning, riding my bicycle around.
It was the first time I’d ever done it. I used to live in Harlem, but I never owned a bike then.
I was there with my bike because I was in the middle of riding around the entire outer perimeter of the island of Manhattan. Also something I’d never done.
There’s one big bike path that goes all the way around the island — for about 33 miles — along the Hudson, Harlem, and East Rivers.
The path — called the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway — is a bikes-and-pedestrians-only route for most of its length, but it disconnects at certain places where it’s necessary to ride along surface streets.
That’s what happens when you get to Harlem.
I rode clockwise around the island, which means I came into Harlem from the North, along the old Harlem River Speedway, which is a stretch of the bike path that goes alongside the Harlem River between Dyckman Street and 155th Street.
I didn’t know exactly where the path would let out, but to my delight it was at 155th and Eighth Avenue, right in front of the Polo Grounds Towers. That’s where the old Polo Grounds ballpark — former home of the New York Yankees (until 1923) and the New York Giants (baseball and football) — once stood.
At this point there are no Manhattan Waterfront Greenway signs to be found, so I had no idea if I was still on the route.
This was great, I thought, because from there I could just ride down through different parts of Harlem until I eventually reached 122nd Street, where — going due East — I knew I could reconnect with the bikes-only portion of the route along the East River.
So that’s what I did.
Across the street from the Polo Grounds Towers is Holcombe Rucker Park, where playground basketball legends have battled since the 1950s in the Pro League, the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, and the Elite 24.
At the southeast corner of 155th and Eighth is a parking lot that covers the spot where the “Mecca of Black Basketball” — the spacious ballroom known as the Manhattan Casino, later called the Rockland Palace — used to be. From the early 1910s through the mid-1920s, that’s where the country’s top African American basketball teams — such as the Alpha Physical Culture Club, the St. Christopher Club, Howard University, and the Monticello Athletic Association — played each other in front of crowds reaching 6,000 or more.
From there I cut over to Bradhurst Avenue, where I found the familiar Greenway signs and bikes-only path once again, and rode south alongside Jackie Robinson Park. Bradhurst turns into Edgdcombe Avenue, but instead of going all the way down as the route suggests, I took a left at 138th Street.
One block later, after crossing Eighth Avenue again, I found myself in the landmark historic district known as Strivers Row, which consists of beautiful townhouses built in the late 1800s that are named after the hard-working African Americans who aspired to live there.
It was early Sunday, so there was no traffic, and when I stopped pedaling to coast down the street slowly I was surrounded suddenly by a hushed gentle silence that felt timeless and sacred and tingly, like it was an honor to be there. And it was an honor. There’s something there, and it’s there whether people notice it or not. I thought to myself, how come I’ve never done this before? Why don’t they have a Harlem Bike Tour?
This aura was made more pronounced by the appearance of the old Renaissance Ballroom coming into view ahead of me on the corner of the next block. The Renaissance is one of old Harlem’s best-known landmarks (but, sadly, without official landmark status). Aside from being a famous dance- and entertainment hall, it’s also the former home court of the legendary New York Renaissance (a.k.a. “Rens”) professional basketball team, which played there from the 1920s through the 1940s.
When I got to the corner of 138th and Seventh Avenue, this is what I saw:
There were hundreds of people waiting next to- and in front of the Renaissance.
Were they waiting to get into a New York Rens game? I wish!
No. They were waiting to attend an authentic “gospel mass” at the neighboring Abyssinian Baptist Church.
What’s interesting is that these were tourists who had come from all over the world. I’ve been to Abyssinian for Sunday service before, but it’s been a while and I forgot about the lines that formed around the block.
I think that this form of tourism is a very good thing, not only for Harlem and for Abyssinian but also for the tourists, whose numbers were made up entirely of Caucasians and Asians. This fact is well-known throughout Harlem, especially by the enterprising street vendors who have set up there to sell beautiful African American themed arts and prints (seen against the wall of the ballroom in the photo above).
Yet, among the tourists, I couldn’t help but notice a certain level of obliviousness there too; a dimension of unconsciousness that was all the more obvious in contrast to my exquisite, graceful experience on the previous block.
I got off my bicycle and walked it across the street to get a closer look.
When I got to the sidewalk in front of the artwork, I stopped to allow a lone elderly African American gentleman to pass by in front of my bike. I could tell he had someplace to go. As he walked in front of me our eyes met, and he acknowledged the nicety through a brief twinkling connection. But I could tell he was slightly perturbed by all these people, so without missing a beat I said to him, with a smile, “If they only knew.”
That caused him to do a kind of double-take, over his shoulder, with an extra look of — all at once — astonishment, acknowledgment, and gratitude. Along with a wry smile. It was a familiar sort of a smile, filled with irony, reminiscent of the way John Isaacs — and other men of his generation — used to do that sometimes.
In that moment I knew that he knew that somebody knew … even if it wasn’t those people waiting in line.
Maybe I wanted to make sure of that, without making a big deal about it. Yes, that was definitely my intention. To make history now.