Biking the coast of Brooklyn on a beaten-up mountain bike is a feat akin to driving the Eastern Seaboard in a Dodge Dart. But there’s no better way to explore the waterfront—and see how it’s changing—than from atop a two-wheeler. From Greenpoint to the Rockaways, it’s a twenty-some-odd-mile trek that can take anywhere from five to ten hours depending on stops.
I start my journey at 3 p.m. by the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge at the Queens-Brooklyn border. The first thing that looms into view as I head south are the gigantic new twin sewage containers that resemble the domes of the Taj Mahal. Holding my nose against the stench of the treatment plant, I head for Greenpoint’s makeshift recreation areas, along the dead ends off Franklin Street; 30-inch stripers have been caught off Huron Street, where I find a couple tying a canoe onto their Volvo. On India Street near the water, men play cricket to Indian pop music. Near Greenpoint Avenue, strains of disco-punk assure me that the members-only skate bowl is still active despite rumors that it perished in the Greenpoint Terminal Market fire.
When Franklin Street turns into Kent Avenue, in Williamsburg, I come to the newly opened East River State Park, a seven-acre waterfront expanse that includes what used to be known as Hipster Beach (the title is still apt). I make another stop at Grand Ferry Park for No Ordinary Monkey’s annual summer dance party, then head to South Williamsburg, past the Manhattanesque 26-story Schaefer Landing condo development.
As Kent Avenue ends, I’m pushed away from the river by the Navy Yard, one of many such complexes (the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the Port Authority Piers) blocking the waterfront like desiccated dinosaurs. It’s a pretty unattractive stretch now, but the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative is planning a 30-foot-wide corridor of bike lanes, pedestrian paths, and landscaping along the waterfront that would run from Greenpoint to Sunset Park, right along this route.
Before long, I’m rolling over the cobblestone streets of Vinegar Hill, four blocks of nineteenth-century brownstones that evoke a toxic-disaster Western: storefronts with the curtains drawn, a Con Ed facility emitting an eerie buzz.
When I reach Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park in Dumbo, I’m back in civilization. Under the Manhattan Bridge, I cool my feet at the shore before cruising through Brooklyn Heights. When I reach Atlantic Avenue, I’m rewarded with a close-up view of the Casino St. Charles riverboat docked at the Brooklyn Marine Terminal.
Southwesterly turns through Red Hook bring me to Valentino Pier, where young people play boules on the lawn and men swilling Ballantine’s fish off the landing. At Van Dyke Street’s leafy end, I rest by the fountain outside of Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies. “It’s getting late,” says the man who gives me the day’s last tart. “Time to go fishing.” Past Sunny’s, the boho sailor bar, I reach a path that leads to Fairway’s outdoor tables, where shoppers gaze at the Statue of Liberty.
Next, I’m on Beard Street heading past the Ikea construction site. The Civil War–era buildings and dry dock here have been paved over for a parking lot, one of the many changes that’s prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to list the entire Brooklyn industrial waterfront as one of the country’s most endangered old places. I feel hungry—and moved to support another threatened institution—so I stop at the Latin-food stalls surrounding the Red Hook Ballfields and down a hot-off-the-griddle pupusa.
By the time I take cross the Gowanus Canal and reach Sunset Park, night has fallen. The doorman at Peyton’s Playpen is the last person I see until the guard at the Brooklyn Wholesale Meat Market many blocks later. This area will benefit from a greenway. As it is, I feel a sense of dread until I reach the illuminated American Veterans Memorial Pier and see kids riding bikes.
Getting a second wind, I sail down the bike lane that runs parallel to the Belt Parkway, covering 30 blocks in what feels like ten minutes, breathing in the smell of saltwater. I stop briefly to admire the pearl lights of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, then kill another 50-odd blocks in the blink of an eye. At the end of the path, I stop at the Art Deco Retro 50 Diner for a bathroom break, then head south until I hit the Coney Island Boardwalk. Normally, I would take a break to ride the go-karts, but Astroland’s new owners have already demolished the track.
I follow Oriental Boulevard through a tony neighborhood in Sheepshead Bay, then cross a quaint wooden bridge onto Emmons Avenue and glide past charter boats on one side of the street and the nightlife strip on the other. I’m tempted to join the revelers at outdoor tables and reward myself with a mojito, but after hours of exploring the waterfront—so much of it lonely and desolate—I don’t much feel like socializing. Instead, I ride on, past the abandoned airplane hangars of Floyd Bennett Field and over the bridge to the Rockaways. It’s after midnight when I finish my tour at the Breezy Point 9/11 Memorial. I listen to the crashing waves, and for perhaps the first time during my voyage, I feel close to the water.