By Alex Halperin
On a Tuesday morning not too long ago, Keith Nelson, co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, left south Williamsburg with a few unicycles in the back of his car. Last fall, Nelson and his friend Rob Hickman, who was in the passenger seat, had been tooling around with their unicycles when they decided to ride over the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge “is such a focal point in our neighborhood,” Hickman said. The trip “ended up being so much easier than our expectations, our fears, that we decided to then do another couple miles and go to McCarran Park and back.”
Their journey inspired them to unicycle over every bridge in the city. “It seems to make sense. I mean, when we decided to do all the bridges we did not know how many bridges that would entail,” Nelson said. Nelson, who’s forty, wore a straw boater hat and a red t-shirt promoting Hell on Wheel, a Chatham, New York unicycle club. “We counted in our head only twenty or thirty.” They’ve revised their estimate to 2,078. “The ‘why’ is, I think, an evolving question. The idea of spans and connections and what a bridge does both philosophically and architecturally has some kind of interesting flavors for both Rob and I from different angles.” As Nelson drove, he mused, “Most of what’s become boring in New York doesn’t have any bridges. Bridges have always been put where there’s intriguing things happening.”
In rapid succession they checked off the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and began the search for the city’s more obscure crossings. “As far as we know, nobody’s compiled a list of every single bridge. Each facet owns some. DoT owns some. MTA owns some. Parks and Rec owns some, but they don’t communicate,” Nelson said. “Most of the bridges that we’re focusing on are water spans but I think the city’s count includes many overpasses and arches and things we didn’t originally think of as a bridge. So we are now documenting those.” There are also sky bridges between buildings. “I have a feeling they’re not in the count at all.” Sky-bridge access might present a problem, he conceded.
Hickman, a sculptor who lined the ceiling of the red line subway stop at 72nd St with more than one million pieces of laminated glass, hopes the bridge tour will evolve into a book or exhibit. He even found an intern for Unicycle NYC Bridge Tour “first of all to figure out where all these bridges are.” They’d discovered about fifty-one bridges in Central Park, considerably more than the city’s count. “There actually used to be a lot more bridges in Central Park but Robert Moses tore a lot down when they brought automobile traffic to the park.”
“Bastard!” Viveca Gardiner, a friend from the New York circus community, cheerfully hissed from the back seat. In blue sunglasses and basketball shorts, Gardiner was the first woman to join the tour’s rotating cast of unicyclists.
“Yeah especially at the northern end,” Hickman added.
“We’re finding throughout the city that Moses really effed it up,” Nelson said.
“The Verrazano was an accomplishment,” Hickman said.
“Yeah he did some cool things,” Gardiner added.
“No not for him, for us,” Hickman countered. “I’m trying to get Keith to do this illegal crossing right now” of the Park Avenue Viaduct. “It goes up on the Grand Central around the Pan Am building or Met Life Building or whatever it’s called.” Debate ensued over whether the Park Avenue Viaduct is a bridge. “We have to do a practice illegal crossing because we’re going to do the Whitestone, that’s gonna be our big one.”
“He’s got that camouflage seat. He’s safe. Nobody’s gonna to see him,” Gardiner pointed out. As the car approached JFK, she spotted the elevated Airtrain track. “Shit, Rob’s looking at it.”
“I bet it has a sidewalk,” Hickman said. “It would be awesome.”
Nelson parked on a quiet street near the airport and the trio pulled their unicycles from the car. Hickman said the trip would be bridges number 126 and 127 and Nelson synced his iPhone to post their route on Twitter. They began weaving through a quiet neighborhood of small, beachy houses. From 101st St they made a left onto 160th Ave. Nelson, who’s something like a professional unicyclist, looked relaxed. He pogoed up onto curbs.
Gardiner’s less experienced. Later, she said when she’s riding, “I’m so exhausted and focused I can’t stop thinking about it for a second.” She described unicycle riding as a constant act of self-correction. “You’re always falling.”
The group approached Ramblersville-Hawtree Memorial Bridge, a road that arced gently over an inlet from Jamaica Bay. Halfway across the bridge Hickman looked at the plaque, which first appeared to read “Pamblersville-Hawtree.” “There’s no cohesive coherent list of bridges in New York City that includes this name. We found this through Google maps.”
As Hickman admired the plaque, Gardiner careened up on her pale green unicycle. “Can you move out of the way please? I’ve gotta make it over a bridge while I’m up.” She reached the far side and lifted her arms in victory. “This is a sweet bridge,” she said. “I love this bridge.”
Copyright 2010 Alex Halperin