East of Elmgrove

Shifting Gears

A new arrival gets to know the East Side by bicycle

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The first time I see Blackstone Boulevard, I nearly hit a car. I’m coasting down Hope on my bike, a cumbersome junker I’d ordered online, and then I see it: two lanes of fresh pavement, separated by a wide median. But not a median – a park. And not just a park, but a park with its own dirt path.

Then I weave, a last-second maneuver, to avoid an old sedan idling at the light.

I am new in Rhode Island. After months of working in the East Side, this little slice of Providence is still a maze to me. Colleagues talk about cafes and bars I’ve never visited, much less seen. No matter how many times I drive over College Hill, the streets never link up in my mind. GPS gets me to Geoff’s or PVDonuts, but the centuries-old blocks pass my windshield in a blur. The only way for me to understand the East Side, or even see it, is to get on my bike and ride.

Some days, I whizz through a whole lunch hour, losing myself among the clapboard houses. I pedal past rows of parked cars, and the thoroughfares are so narrow that I wedge myself between bumpers to let a pickup pass. The East Side must be puzzled out, block by block. At eight miles per hour, I learn that Olney is steep but has a dedicated bike lane; that Rochambeau Library has a handy bike rack; that Wayland Square isn’t shaped anything like a square; that if you ride Gano long enough, you slip under the highway and arrive, like magic, in India Point Park.

I’ve lived in many places, and I’ve always learned neighborhoods on two wheels, but the East Side is a special challenge. There’s no vantage point, no all-encompassing view. I’ve driven these streets again and again, but only by bike do I notice the statue of a rearing bear – and learn who Bruno is. Sweating up Wickenden, I see a circular park, paved in brick and topped with the statue of a dancing man. I realize that this is Fox Point, a name that had no meaning till now. I have no idea who George M. Cohan is, but when I return home, I read everything about his vaudevillian life.

The weather warms, and my sinuses clear, and I can smell again – the greenery around Victorian houses, the curry pouring out of Not Just Snacks, the mildewy scent of the Providence River as I ease down Water Street.

Hip hop throbs from a Firebird. Two guys shout gossip inside a sanitation truck. Lunch crowds gush out of offices, dribble between cars, and pool in restaurants. I pass clusters of people, academics and laborers, yoga moms and teens released from school, and I catch bits of conversation, the way I might scan the frequencies on an FM radio. But it’s not a radio. It’s happening here, on either side of Thayer Street, where cars and pedestrians all move at the same parade-like pace. There is a blizzard of little nods and waves, people acknowledging each other on the narrow sidewalks.

I’m not alone, of course. The road is full of bicycles, from Huffies to recumbents. By the end of summer, the city’s bike-share program should go public, and cyclists will hit East Side streets in record numbers. Most rides will be brief and touristy, and little electrical motors will nudge them up the steeper gradients. There will be wrong turns and near misses. Tires will go flat and sunglasses will be lost. But their experience will be much like mine – a sequence of minute discoveries, curb after lamppost after mailbox, blanks filled in with pavement, until the map becomes a place, dense and freewheeling. And alive.