Escapes: Enjoying Manhattan’s (temporarily) car-free streets


Morning yoga on Lafayette and Spring Streets, one of many offerings at Summer Streets, Manhattan. (Kate Black/PHOTO BY KATE BLACK)
August 12, 2011

I’ve done yoga in some pretty exotic locations: in a casbah outside Marrakesh, on a terrace overlooking St. Lucia’s Piton mountains and in the Caribbean Sea. But nothing quite compared with rolling out my mat on the street near the intersection of Lafayette and Spring streets in New York’s Soho.

Twist to the right and I could see Ed’s Lobster Bar, Soho Grill and, above them, a stack of New York water towers. Arch back and I caught a glimpse of the elaborate Corinthian columns of 225 Lafayette St. To focus, all I had to tune out was the ticking of bike chains gliding by, several loud conversations in Chinese and the click of at least one digital camera accompanied by a voice exclaiming, “Look at the people doing yoga!”

Experiencing the city in novel ways is the draw of Summer Streets, the annual event that bans cars along an East Side corridor stretching from the Brooklyn Bridge to 72nd Street. Traffic still flows across town on the major thoroughfares, and you can still hear the rumble of the subway underground. But bikers, not aggressive taxi drivers, rule the streets, and activities such as yoga, rock climbing, sand sculpting and guacamole-making cause otherwise hurried pedestrians to stop and linger awhile.

Launched in 2008, Summer Streets was inspired by similar events elsewhere, such as the Paris Plages. Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially called it an “experiment,” warning that if street closures wreaked too much havoc on traffic, he wouldn’t be afraid to call it off. He hasn’t. Now in its fourth year, the event, which takes place on three Sundays in August, has become something of an institution.

I started the morning with that 45-minute yoga class, then wandered over to Balthazar Bakery with my sister Kate for croissants and iced tea. By the time we returned, the yoga studio had been transformed into a demonstration showcase, where you could learn, among other things, how to fix a bicycle flat.

We didn’t need to know. Right next door was a stand where bikes with perfectly pumped tires were available free for one hour. (After that, you’re charged a typically inflated New York price: $1 per minute.)

In theory, I’ve always liked the idea of riding bikes in New York. But the reality — speeding taxis, jaywalking pedestrians and kamikaze bike couriers — has always put me off. Summer Streets creates the perfect environment for scaredy-cats. Most cross-streets are closed to traffic, and the ones that stay open are manned by volunteers in orange T-shirts who wave red and green stop-and-go signs as if they were playing a citywide game of Simon Says. (Like New York’s traffic lights, they also seemed to be synchronized, which means if you keep up the right pace you rarely have to stop.) The only potential reason for worry was the sheer number of riders, which at times created its own sort of traffic jams.

The city feels both airier and more layered seen by danger-free bike ride. I noticed Parisian-style mansard roofs atop a set of lofts on Bond Street, something I never would have seen from a cab. I marveled at the gorgeous Gothic facade on the old New York Life building near Madison Square. I watched competitive green market shoppers elbow one another out of the way for $8-a-dozen eggs at Union Square. At 25th Street, we considered visiting the Whole Foods City Picnic, a street filled with tasting booths for smoothies and granola bars. But we passed, figuring that it wasn’t the best use of our free hour. (And can’t you just stop into Whole Foods for the same thing any day?)

Clearly, Kate and I weren’t the only ones having a good time. Riding back down Park Avenue, I overheard a woman telling an event volunteer that she had just moved to New York. She hadn’t known about the event but had come down from her apartment when she saw the thousands of bikes parading down the street. “I almost didn’t believe them when they said the bikes were free,” she exclaimed. “In Boston, that’s not the way we do things.” (To be fair, Boston launched Massachusetts’s first bike-share program this summer.)

Other New Yorkers, as they are wont to do, had carefully planned the best way to take advantage of the activities. Johnnie Chan and Caroline Lai, both 28, began a run at 72nd Street. As they made their way downtown, they stopped for snacks, waited in line for free bike helmets, which were offered at 25th Street, and ended in Soho at the rock-climbing wall. Lai was a little hesitant. But in the end, she strapped herself into a harness and climbed and rappelled like a pro.

Doing things you never thought you’d do in the middle of a New York street: What better way to celebrate summer in the city?

Black, a former Washington Post staff writer, is a freelance writer in New York.

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