This is a story of a bicycle (Schwinn Typhoon) and a neighborhood (New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.).
I have been taking longer distance bike rides for over fifty years, starting when I was about twelve years old. These first trips were on the bicycle I then owned, a Schwinn Typhoon. My friends and I rode to places all over Virginia Beach, especially daylong trips to rural areas like Pungo and Princess Anne Courthouse. We called them Bike Hikes. They always involved Twinkies from the Seven Eleven, or buying hamburgers somewhere. Our biggest obstacle was our parents, who constantly tried to stop us from riding on two lane country roads, saying that it was toooo dangerous.
My final Bike Hike on the Schwinn Typhoon was with the late Steve “Slice” Johnson. At fourteen we both wanted a job and we both could not find one. We had seen an ad in the newspaper for a cafeteria opening up at Military Circle Mall, just over the line into Norfolk, fifteen miles away. I guess we had no idea what we would do if we actually got a job there. Anyway, the two of us biked out there fifteen miles in the July heat and interviewed for a job we did not get. In those days we did not know anything about bike locks. We walked outside the mall after the “interview” and the Schwinn Typhoon was gone. Stolen. His red Peugeot bicycle for some reason was still there.
We had to call his parents to come get us, and that was the end of my story with the Schwinn Typhoon. The bicycle I got to replace it was my first ten speed, a much much better bicycle for my Bike Hikes.
Let’s fast forward about forty-nine years. Tootie and I love to visit New Orleans, and we keep two bicycles in the crawl space underneath our friend’s house in Uptown. Tootie’s bike there is an updated 1970’s Schwinn that is perfect for city cycling. The streets of New Orleans have huge potholes and are consistently patched and bumpy. Our other bicycle there has been an old ten speed that has always felt a little unstable in these conditions. Several friends my age have hurt themselves recently on bicycles, and every one of these accidents involved falling after hitting obstructions in the road, like potholes or speed bumps. I decided that at my age I needed a more stable bicycle to use on the unstable streets of New Orleans.
Miracles do happen; on Craigslist, only one block from our friend’s house, for $150.00, was a Schwinn Typhoon! And it is in perfect shape, hardly a scratch even though it is no newer than the mid 1970’s. This is an original Schwinn made in Chicago. Anything made after 1982 is not an original Schwinn, it is just a brand name. Tires were fully pumped up, it was ready to ride. The drink coozie on the handlebars came as part of the deal. By modern standards it is astonishingly heavy. But that is less important because New Orleans, like Virginia Beach, has no hills!
The second part of my story involves the Ninth Ward, the trendier part of which is now often called Bywater. In a recent wire story in our North Carolina newspaper I was shocked at its inclusion as one of the Best Places in America. The Bywater, really?
When Tootie and I lived in New Orleans 1981-88 the Ninth Ward, parts of which are also called Bywater, was a source of local jokes, a working class community that was stuck in time. Nothing more symbolized this than the weekly cartoons Vic & Nat’ly that came out Sundays in the Times-Picayune during the 1980’s. We still have a book of these cartoons by local artist Bunny Matthews. The cartoons centered on an elderly couple that spoke in the neighborhood’s unique patois. These New Orleans accents sound more Brooklyn than Southern.
Bunny’s book even has a map. The Uptown short term rental we have currently been staying in is just above the letter E in “RIVER” in his drawing below. The French Quarter is just to the right of the letter S in the world “NEW ORLEANS.”
On this recent early December day Tootie and I biked from our apartment to see Bywater again, and how much it had changed. It is about five miles through solid city. We biked through Uptown, then the Warehouse District.
At the end of Canal Street we parked the bikes in front of Harrah’s casino, to see if they had any $10.00 craps tables.
Tootie likes to play craps if the stakes are low enough. I do not gamble. Unfortunately the tables were $ 25.00 minimum, so we got back on the bikes and headed through the French Quarter. As always, it is lovely.
We turned down Esplanade Avenue,
Then went left on Burgundy Street, taking us through Faubourg Marigny.
Faubourg Marigny eventually transitions into Bywater. The Upper Ninth Ward. There are miles of double row houses like these.
Part of the reason that the National Media might have chosen Bywater to be The Next Great Place is that young people (artists!) from all over the country have been moving here, so much so that real estate prices have zoomed up. I theorize the real artists are already moving to the next gentrifying area of New Orleans, wherever that is. New Orleans is big enough that for now there is always going to be a next-area-to-gentrify. For example, are these real artists or just young people or does it matter? What about the locals who are being priced out of their own neighborhood? There are a lot of out-of-state license plates along these streets.
We reached the end of the line at Poland Avenue. One cannot bike further without crossing the Industrial Canal Bridge. The other side of that bridge is the now-famous Lower Ninth Ward, which flooded severely after Hurricane Katrina. Tootie and I turned the bikes around and headed back towards the French Quarter. We first looked back down Poland Avenue as it meets the Mississippi River. Bywater is separated from the river by railroad tracks and a levee. One forgets how close this river really is. The Cape Kennedy shown in this photograph is a ship sitting in the river!
It was about cocktail hour and we headed towards one of our favorite bars in New Orleans, Bar Tonique on Rampart Street, on the edge of the French Quarter. They make their own tonic for the gin and tonic. They have an enormous selection of drinks at low prices, and a cat that sits on the bar.
Tootie and I have developed a rule: only drink one cocktail. The second is never as good as the first. We climbed back on our bicycles in the now darkness and biked back the several miles to our rental apartment. One the way we stopped to pick up groceries at Rouse’s on Howard Avenue.
Yes, we made it back safely. New Orleans has become a much more bicycle friendly place.
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