Byrne’s approach to his bicycle diary entries is in reflecting upon his feelings about a city, mainly in terms of it’s bike-ability, but also through the rich historical and cultural aspects of these cities. I’ve come to appreciate this approach, and the honesty that comes with it. Part of me thinks that his window into the world from the bike handles distorts his view of the potential value that lies within those cities.
I never expected an open-minded fellow like Byrne to use words like “crappy town” (in reference to Niagara Falls) or such resentment and apathy in writing about the state of his own hometown Baltimore, and nearby Washington D.C. “I’m not nostalgic for the steel mills and coal mines, not even for GM plants — where they refuse—still!—to make anything but gas guzzlers, as they have for decades. Hell, fuck ’em—they’ve got it coming.” (Byrne, 22).
Yikes. Better to turn our attention toward Europe, and so Byrne leaves behind these sad cities of yesteryear, leading us toward more progressive cities, and ultimately wraps up the book focusing his energies on improving bike accessibility in bigger and better places, like NYC (a new home he’s clearly embraced more than his birthplace).
For this American city local (born and raised in Rochester, NY), Byrne’s dismissive tone feels like a betrayal to the cities that are most in need of some good old-fashioned grassroots pride. Then again, everyone has a point of view. And his point of view is framed exactly how he positions it in the title, as colored by the bike lanes he travels along.
Onward! To the places Byrne likes, because those are the chapters that were most fun to read about.
Berlin is big into bikes, so I guess that’s enough to make it cool. Europe has a manicured landscape, writes Byrne, after taking us away from American cities and across the pond. It’s a vast garden. The U.S. has nothing like it. We subdue and they cultivate, apparently (Byrne, 43-44). That seems like a gross oversimplification of the complex set of factors that go into city planning and habitation but okay, I guess I’ll buy it. Byrne moves on to get into some really fascinating reflections on a number of topics, including the ‘problem’ of beauty (reminding us of death in its surreal perfection), East Berlin and the Stasi’s residual effects, and how people are able to “perpetrate the horrors they do without justifying them to themselves” (Byrne, 73). Great reading, and excellent food for thought.
Now we move to Istanbul — a city I’m dying to visit. Byrne gives this city a pass on not being conducive to bike riding, nudging them at the end to consider it. His initial reaction to the city is not at all what I’ve seen in photos or heard from friends, but heck, I’ve never been there, so I can’t really argue. His first section is “Ugly Modern Buildings as Religious Icons.” Nice. Byrne tries to reconcile his judgy first impression (something we all do/should try to do). “Maybe…these structures express something. Something more than the bottom line on a developer’s budget. Maybe…they also stand for collective desires and aspirations of some sort.” Byrne continues, “For better or worse, they imply a self-determination. They say, ‘the future will be ours.’…Wrongheaded, maybe, ugly for sure, but free. And there lies the religious, ideological, and emotional element inherent in these monstrosities” (Byrne, 78-79). This deeper dive into the complexities of Turkish culture is what I’d hoped to see in the chapters about American cities. There are so many layers and dynamics to a city, that make it who it is, and influence what it will become. I liked seeing the thoughtful Byrne I’ve known and admired return in these Euro-centric chapters.
Byrne goes to see a traditional belly dance in Turkey, which took a muddied, intimate and honest approach to the joyous times we can tap into with the right perspective in this real and gritty world of ours; even when it doesn’t match up to how we’d envisioned it. Byrne’s Belly Dance Party story reminded me of a phenomenal book I just finished, Shantaram. Like the slum life Shantaram‘s main character comes to love in India, Byrne’s surprise encounter with frumpy girls in their skivvies (versus the glitzy belly dancers we would have expected) starts out as depressing and off-putting, but winds up somehow feeling warm and true to the city’s personality, with all its imperfections.
I loved reading about Buenos Aires, the “Paris of the South,” mostly because Byrne loved it so much. My favorite part is when he reflects upon what we can learn about a city from its nightlife. It reminds me the way Hemingway plays with daylight as representing lies and nighttime bringing out truth in The Sun Also Rises. “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night is another thing” (Hemingway).
Byrne celebrates nightlife, not as torturous in its honesty, but as proud of its true colors: “A history of nightlife!” he writes, “[W]hat an interesting concept. A history of a people, told not through their daily travails and successive political upheavals, but via the changes in their nightly celebrations and unwindings. History is, in this telling, accompanied by a bottle of Malbec, some fine Argentine steak, tango music, dancing, and gossip. It unfolds through and along dance parlors, and clubs. Its direction, the way people live, is determined by half-lit streets, in bars, and in smoky late-night restaurants. This history is inscribed in songs, on menus, via half-remembered conversations, love affairs, drunken fights, and years of drug abuse.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected someone with as complex a mind as Byrne’s to paint every city with the broad, forgiving stroke as I would. After all, he’s travelled the world, collaborated with some of the greatest artistic minds of contemporary culture, and read volumes of literature on these places of intrigue. Who am I to doubt his perception of the world, especially when he lays his novel out as a set of diary entries which are inherently subjective? We owe it to ourselves to do a similar assessment of how and why we perceive cities the way we do; and how we reconcile that with the cultural pulse that beats within them. Maybe Rochester is better than David Byrne thinks, and maybe it’s not. It all depends on which lens we’re looking through, and this book was written with a view from the bike lanes.
But enough about me, what did you think?
- Bicycle Diaries: Looking into the Mind of a Genius, from the Bike Lane (bridefied.wordpress.com)