Biking during a pandemic: documenting a city’s redefined normalcy

Courtesy of Ben Fikhman.

In April, after a month of living a strictly sedentary lifestyle under a statewide quarantine, I began to challenge myself to bike distances of which I never thought myself capable. This became the unparalleled highlight of my time at home in New York City this past spring and summer. There was no better way for me to decompress after an abnormal semester marked by persistent uncertainty and the forced adaptation of my social relationships. As soon as I would take my bicycle out of the garage and take off from the driveway in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the dilemmas, concerns and stressors that tormented my headspace began to temporarily evanesce. Every day, I biked further and further, until one day I finally reached a different borough, Manhattan. It felt surreal to swerve down a desolated Broadway road and see the parks of East River emptier than ever. It was one thing to have been watching the beauty and physical emptiness of my home city in April. But then came an opportunity to see what felt like a gradual restart in May and June. We all craved a return to normalcy in the first moments of uncertainty and crisis, but what we didn’t realize is that the life of this city would inevitably continue with a revised normalcy, rather than total restoration. And I watched it happen during my biking trips.

What a mind-boggling month of March that preceded my biking adventures! I remember the stun when Tom Hanks’ infection was publicized, the entire NBA season got postponed and the president announced travel bans without congressional approval, all in one hour. So little felt clear, including the science behind the coronavirus, so sheltering home began to feel like not just an obligation, but the only option. New York City would continue being an epicenter of the global pandemic into April… 

But by May, New Yorkers all around me began to tend to themselves and their loved ones through outdoor activities. There were the families that I passed at Flushing Corona Meadows Park in Queens. The elderly couples walking arm-in-arm, making their way towards a once-deserted Coney Island boardwalk. The speed-walking workers in the Lower East Side, fumbling through their pockets or ringing a friend or family member. The barbeques held on Manhattan’s western waterfront, near the George Washington Bridge. The acrobatic performance groups at Washington Square Park that would amuse the crowd for minutes on end. Masks covered their faces, but the occasional lift of the eyebrows and stretching of the cheeks reflected the happiness and livelihood that the empty city lacked for a while. I witnessed every social unit’s willingness to protect the safety of community at large, but also to not lose sight of the closeness within their own group. No longer did I need to sit at home and cringe when my parents would attend Social Distance fundraisers in the living room. I realized what I could do now, and I began to explore the sandbox that is New York City in a way that I would never have predicted: with a bike and a camera, amidst a pandemic.

For too long, I refused to really explore New York. Every time I thought about going on a long walk or bike ride was similar to how I would get an epiphany from a movie and swear to change the course of my life, but then just forget about it shortly afterwards. In April, however, I was determined to document a city with a vast majority of people who have not surrendered their individualism, but at the same time, are acting in solidarity with one another. Uncertainty reigned, but scientific clarity has grown. A wave of N-95s and disposable surgical masks proliferated throughout the city in the first moments of pandemic-era outdoor exploration. And then I watched the protection equipment become more fashionable and commercialized, whether they contained flowers, political slogans or anything that restored color and life to a historic, tragic moment. Biking every week through the neighborhood suffused with high school memories, I watched as the Pier 2 basketball courts at Brooklyn Bridge Park began to slowly reopen, and New Yorkers filed in gradually. There were some players who took precautions, keeping their masks on and social distancing, despite the heat and sweat, and there were others who blatantly ignored the necessary precautions. Despite these differences, I filmed the scenes in front of me. As I sat down on the soccer field at Brooklyn Bridge Park, I watched the videos that I took, remembering the enormous crowds that the piers once hosted. I remember when, a year before the pandemic, I went with a friend of mine to play four hours of basketball, and then we reeled in frustration a day later upon discovering on social media that Kyrie Irving visited shortly after we left. At every familiar place I passed by bike and filmed on my trips, I reimagined the scenes that I shared with people whom I love and cherish, or merely am acquainted with. And within the places that I have never visited, especially in Queens, I imagined what could someday be new memories. 

In the middle of May, my bike rides had revealed to me just how pensive the urban environment makes me, in the midst of ongoing global changes in every sense—political, digital, spiritual, social, you name it. I would get lost in my paths, entering random alleys and stopping at different buildings or parks. Oftentimes, when recording city life, I didn’t care if people were bunched together or staying far apart, and I didn’t care if it was a homely bodega or a majestic skyscraper in front of me. I took the camera out of my string bag and filmed for about 15 seconds. Then, I stood and thought about it. I watched how people interacted with their environment, seeing how normally they walked, jogged, or biked, and how easygoing their conversations were despite the seemingly apocalyptic atmosphere that blanketed the city just a month ago. 

May saw a beautiful renewal of life and solidarity. Voices of all backgrounds filled the air. The bikers who waved and smiled at me were still there. The bikers who yelled at me to watch where I was going were still there. This was my city, and I cherished the prevalence of every emotion that came with it. All of these different things were what made me so pensive during my bike rides, but what would come at the close of May magnified how deeply I thought about my surroundings. 

On May 25, an innocent Black man in Minnesota named George Floyd suffered a grisly fate paralyzed under the knee of a police officer for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd was murdered, and the killing only added to the long list of names that have become hashtags and calls for change. The city in front of me transformed with lightning speed. Strangers from all over the city would meet at disparate landmarks or historical checkpoints, mingle and then unify their voices so that they could be heard blocks and blocks away as called for an end to police brutality. Bridges, roads and parks flooded with people who sought to effect change in a fight for police accountability, racial justice and equal opportunity. It was a citywide reckoning that was long overdue, centuries overdue. And amid this new form of solidarity was the maintenance of the normalcy that New York had to accept back in April and May. They marched, they chanted, they sang, but their faces were covered. Change was on the horizon, and I was amazed by how us ordinary New Yorkers were able to bring it about. In under three weeks following the murder of George Floyd, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the repeal of 50-A into law, ending the dangerous shielding of policing misconduct records, as well as the prohibition of chokeholds and false race-based 911 calls. It felt amazing to realize that I watched the people’s groundwork be laid for historic legislation just by riding a bike through the city, oftentimes with no established agenda or destination. 

I’ve grown enamored of seeing what was on the ground using my new favorite mode of transportation. Signs were to be seen anywhere, including hanging off of balconies in neighborhoods from Park Slope to East Harlem, and there was also an explosion of popular  slogans being written in arbitrary locations or even inscribed into buildings. I remember gaining speed on the Williamsburg Bridge at night and then just charging downhill, seeing all of the slogans whiz past. “BLM,” “No Justice, No Peace,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Defund the Police,” “Love Trumps Hate,” “Stop Killing Us.” I tended to think about each one that I passed. One would encourage me, another would concern me. There is much more progress to be made in light of a deeper and more accurate understanding of systemic racism’s prevalence in our country, but I was proud of my city, and my camera and I were ready to document as much as could be captured. I filmed while entering the Brooklyn Bridge during a large demonstration and walked my bike as I was surrounded by emboldened protestors bumping Prices by Lil Uzi Vert. While getting off the bridge, I observed uneasily a line of police officers on one side of the street and another group of police officers on the other side handcuffing and walking away with protestors one by one. Weeks later, I was captivated by the sight of the deeply conservative Brighton Beach filled with the noise and songs of Black bikers, and signs that have spread hope for real change and justice. However, another day, as I biked north from home until dusk, I watched as countless businesses in Eastern Manhattan, small and large, were boarded up simultaneously, in preparation for a potential night of looting. 

History took place in front of my eyes and through the lens of my camera every single day I left my house to bike during the quarantine. I thought about the Civil Rights Movement and the time of the Spanish flu, as well as what the future holds for both progress in public health and addressing systemic racism in every facet of our society. But sometimes, for the sake of finding mental relaxation, I tried to live in the present serenity of New York and find its quiet places. After dozens of miles of biking throughout Brooklyn, I sat down on a field of grass at Red Hook and just watched the water. Other days, I searched for murals and memorials in empty streets. One of the greatest stop-and-stare moments of my summer followed an urgency at 4:30 a.m. to quickly eat breakfast and bike to the middle of the Manhattan Bridge to catch the sunrise beaming onto the skyline. I fixed the lens of my camera through the fence on the side of the bridge’s walkway and recorded with awe the changing colors of the sky and the water that sandwiches the skyline. Cyclist-flaneurs like myself, gorgeous sunsets reflected onto buildings and parks, the passionate social disturbances led by protestors in the streets and bridges, empty roads and parks, families of all backgrounds renewing engagement in outdoor activities safely and unsafely, are all featured in the video that I eventually produced in August. 

Personally, I feel that the hundreds of miles I have traveled and experienced from April to August have strengthened me in physicality and maturity. I checked the weight scale one day before going back to Vassar in August. All 15 pounds I gained during my first year on campus were lost. My legs felt powerful. I haven’t taken a bus or train since March. I became capable of reaching any point in the entire city by bike. My trips have helped me to either abandon or mend unsettling drama in my social life, and I longed for a new semester of higher education more than ever before. Nothing brought more joy and eye-opening resolve to me in this turbulent time than biking and experiencing firsthand the changing world in an urban setting.

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