Bike messengers (couriers): throughout all parts of the city, I see them snaking through on their bikes in gridlock traffic. Their job is demanding, stressful (there is a given allotted time between deliveries, and if those time constraints are not met, that means no commission), and very often unappreciated.
Yet the combination of their adept navigational skills, the considerable risks their jobs demand (in 2002, Harvard Medical School put out an occupational injuries report that stated bike messengers’ rate of injury in Boston was thirteen times higher than the national average), and a honed sense to beat out traffic gridlock have also earned them a kind of urban iconic status (with a defined sub-culture, rife with their own stereotypes). For example, I found a short animation-documentary (2008) — Future Shorts, Bike Messengers — made by animator/director Joshua Frankel, which builds its storyline through the two-sided coin of unappreciated labor
force/subversive urban symbol.
So with all the different modes of transportation that we seek out in the city (presumably for most of us, it’s in the form of the subway, a cab, a bus), how/what does bike-couriering look like in LES/Chinatown? What kinds of lessons in urban geography can we learn from bike messengers, given their encyclopedic knowledge of neighborhood routes/roads/streets that most city dwellers will never have? What kinds of urban vocabularies are shaped when one’s livelihood/work is, in a sense, all about the “route”?
My first round of my interviews with bike-messengers was with owner (and bike messenger/courier) of Stosh, Aaron Melys. We met early Saturday evening, in a small Italian cafe on the corner of 1st Avenue and 10th Street.
Stosh is one of several smaller bike courier companies that make their home in LES/Chinatown. Most of their deliveries, as Aaron explained, falls below 23rd street. Overall Stosh’s deliveries concentrate within the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn (although their services also cover Queens and the Bronx).
Here is what I found out:
*The bulk of the smaller bike courier companies are concentrated in LES/Chinatown. Several of them, including Stosh, work under co-op status (sharing space for cost efficiency);
*Bike couriers rarely deliver between boroughs (as Aaron explained, it’s cost-prohibitive — $30 alone to cross one of the bridges), although Aaron mentioned that there is a growing need for this kind of distance-coverage, as more Brooklyn-based companies are couriering items into Manhattan on a daily to weekly basis;
*”Is that still Chinatown? It’s hard to tell right now.” Aaron asked me this in the beginning of our interview, when I asked him to give a narrative mapping of the routes he takes through Chinatown (he noted that most of his clientele in Chinatown are not Chinese-owned businesses). He mentioned that his frequent go-to routes throughout Chinatown include Ludlow (towards Canal), Forsythe, Chyrstie. From Houston, he also frequently takes Essex down into Chinatown.
*Other thoroughfares include: using 5th Avenue as the main thoroughfare to downtown; using 1st Avenue (the beginning of the East Village, right at the cusp of LES) to go towards mid-town and the Upper East Side; never, ever taking Second Avenue (“It’s just a mess of cars, all the time”).
*Aaron’s narrative of changing boundaries (“All the borders, they change every few years”) gave way, primarily, to the appearances/disappearances/replacements (then starting the cycle again) of businesses. Of parts of LES, he noted that “blocks–too many–are overturning themselves into huge over-priced condos.”
A few weeks ago I conducted an oral history interview with a sanitation worker for the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which is part of a collaborative archival project spearheaded by NYC’s urban garbalogist Robin Nagle (in conjunction with Columbia University and the DSNY). In an interview with The New York Times, Robin described sanitation workers as unique demographic sociologists: “They can give you a demographic and sort of a sociological and anthropological interpretation of a given block or a given section of the city that’s remarkably detailed.”
And it was true. My interviewee, who grew up in Sunset Park (and whose daily pick up route also includes parts of Sunset Park), gave remarkably specific details of the demographic shifts that have occurred in the past thirty years, avenue by avenue.
If you sat down at the end of the day, and had to write a paragraph describing what your day looked like, what would you write? What is your mode of transportation: walking, subway, bus, car, biking?
The word, “thoroughfare,” has also very recently entered into my vocab-torrain (literally meaning, “a road or path forming a route between places”) — both Aaron and my interviewee at the DSNY mentioned “thoroughfare” several times during their interviews. It’s interesting to note that embedded within this definition, both “route” and “road” are used (the former to elaborate the second). What are the distinctions between these two words, literally and metaphorically? I’m remembering that cheezy poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” (the poem that many of us were forced to rote-memorize in elementary school). This invokes “road” as a linear trajectory, where as “route” means something different: routes become established through test trials, repetition. Its essence is pattern (a road transforms into route when it is made repeatedly), a temporal fixation that is not so much about moving “forward and on,” so much as it is about a kind of transitional space/time couched between two points (like a staircase).
Can you give a visual,descriptive mapping of the daily routes you make? Are they routes or roads? And in a city like New York, what do we make of our set routes against a backdrop that is always changing?