Biking Through The Hoods, Paul F Pinsky (2010)

An engaging exploration of urban America

CityScape 139780615369556 250pp £8

No country defies easy understanding like the United States. So bombarded are we by a synthetic vision of the coastal cities viewed through Hollywood’s prism – that deeper understanding of the vast hinterland can be elusive. Happily Paul Pinsky’s Odyssey through fifty of his native land’s cities is a sure-fire antidote to the California’s-eye view familiar from screens large and small.

Between 2003 and 2007, a period he describes as his ‘early forties’ he decided to explore fifty urban areas by bicycle. Some rides he made as adjuncts to business trips, others required weekends away. He does not record his daily mileage, but he appears to travel at a sight-seeing, rather than an athletic pace.

The resulting portrait that he paints of his country is an extraordinary record that marries the breadth of Defoe’s 1720s journey around the United Kingdom with the understated reportage of Studs Terkel. Visiting mainly places that wouldn’t trouble the itinerary of the most determined tourist, his interests are urban design, community development, social class and race.

He seeks not to prove a point nor to seek out anything in particular, simply to experience and record his explorations of a broad slice of US life. Conceits such as ‘a quest’ might have provided narrative drive, but would have detracted his account’s slightly mesmeric quality, which mirrors precisely the experience of travelling for any distance through suburban America.

The country that emerges from the book is a perplexing one. Taken as a whole it is the most racially diverse nation on earth. Considered neighbourhood by neighbourhood it appears to be an ocean of adjacent mono-cultures. Rich and poor live side by side, when viewed from space. On the ground they frequently don’t even live in the same towns. Decay abuts extravagant wealth; industrial headquarters are easy to find, but the mass employment that they once provided has frequently gone; and, on balance it appears that Indians run the country’s most dependable cheap hotels.

Here he is in Buffalo, New York, which, to his considerable surprise, he finds to be ‘the worst that I would see in terms of physical infrastructure on my entire fifty state tour’.

‘You didn’t hear much about the slums of Buffalo; then again you didn’t hear much about Buffalo at all, except for all the snow it received. But here, in east central Buffalo, over quiet an extended zone – blocks and blocks, maybe almost a square mile in total – literally half the structures were abandoned. Abandoned, boarded up and starting to fall apart. The last part, the falling apart, maybe that’s where the snow came in. One hundred inches of snow a year coming down on an unheated, and un-maintained structure can wreak a lot of havoc.’

A few pedal-strokes on and he was accosted by a woman that he takes to be a crack addict, before being surprised to come upon a crowd of well-dressed white people – the first he had seen for some time – who on closer inspection were attending a funeral.

It might not be a book to fire up an ‘adventure cyclist’ but there is plenty to encourage reflection on what is truly adventurous. Pinsky demonstrates beyond doubt that two wheels provide the best view of urban settings, particularly if you seek to understand their place in the wider world. Perhaps he will inspire a new generation of pedaling chroniclers to map our world at a level even Google’s reach?

TD Jan 13

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