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August 29, 2007

Sound and Silence: Night Biking New York City

Posted in: NYC

Night biking New York is amazing, but maybe not the way you’d expect.

As dense as it is, NYC is still in many ways a city divided — by geography, income, race. But there are two places where those barriers break down. One is the hustle and bustle of the post-apocalyptic subway system. The other is an 840 acre swath of green painted down the middle of the biggest metropolis we got: Central Park.

I’ve been biking in Central Park for some time but, through the summer, the rides have slipped later, later, and then beyond sunset. That’s when Central Park starts to feel a good deal more intimate and more isolating: turning what were vast rolling hills of green in daytime into soft islands created by street lamps after dusk, surrounded by a blackness where only fireflies remain. It changes the mathematics of distance.

Doug Aitken captured it nicely when talking about his video piece Sleepwalkers:

The work was focused very much on this idea of the city as an energy source, and its constantly changing rhythm. I saw it as this relationship between the individual and their environment; how at times you fuse completely with the world around you and other times you separate and carve out your individuality in isolation. (via soundcheck)

I found that was a recurring theme in my nightly travels — feeling connected, then apart — diving into the blackness only to emerge in islands of light and sound that the night makes seem otherworldly. From lover’s whispers to a woman yelling into her phone “Well whose baby is it then?!” to the impassioned proclamations of an impromptu summer play, illuminated only by flashlights.

Coming up the East Side, you emerge from the night to the big sounds of Summer Stage: a Malian singer, a flanged out guitar, Horatio Sanz getting big laughs. The instant you recognize the sound, it vanishes into Doppler and you’re in darkness again. A group of bikes rush out of silence, impossibly close, rattle past, and disappear in the shadows ahead. Silence again. Then, in a pool of light, the remains of a soccer game; stragglers jokingly yelling Spanish obscenities at each other as they kick the ball, wandering victoriously home. And they’re gone.

Just beyond is the great downhill (accompanied, as always, by Jane’s Addiction’s Mountain Song) as I wind my way at high speed past the last embers of light from Lasker Pool. The rush of wind hits my face like a thousand feathers. Then climbing over the now quiet rock-cast shadows of Heartbreak Hill, through the amber light of a bench-strewn path, and suddenly *snap* into the once dim, now blinding lights of 100th street — where neighbors, families sit outside talking late into the warm nights. Then home.

Riding anytime in Central Park is a wonderful thing, but night riding has a kind of deep beauty that sticks with you. It’s the same kind of mood that Dayton and Faris captured so expertly in Milky Way. Nights when you don’t need to sleep to dream.

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