When I meet up with Jim Dellavalle so he can show me around the new bike park that he’s helped to build on a vacant industrial lot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the city is locked in a weeklong heat wave. Even though the sun is blazing down on the site, all I can think about is how much I want to try riding the track he’s designed.
He has other ideas. Dellavalle is a cool cat, a former pro-cyclist on the downhill, dual slalom, and freestyle circuit who has been designing bike tracks for 20 years. But when he shows off his latest creation, he doesn’t go straight to the two pump tracks, one for beginners and one for experts, where BMX and mountain bike riders can work up a sweat. He doesn’t begin by talking about the logs you can ride over, or the rock trail features where you can sharpen your off-road bike skills.
No, the first thing Dellavalle wants me to see is the stormwater management system that runs all through it. He points out the blueberry bushes and serviceberry trees that he’s brought in from his home state of Pennsylvania. He explains how during a torrential downpour, the runoff will flow into a rain garden blooming with echinacea and black-eyed Susans. "Our designs are environmentally conscious on the regular," says Dellavalle. "It’s part of the system."
He also wants to showcase all the other parts of the system that is coming into being here in Havemeyer Park, a one-year pop-up installation that takes up half a city block near the old Domino Sugar factory on the Brooklyn waterfront. This won’t be a park for very long — the Domino site as a whole, all 11 acres of it, is being redeveloped by the giant Two Trees real estate company into a 3.3-million-square-foot mixed-use project that will include residential, office space, and park space.
But that is all in the future. If you live in the present, the way you need to when you’re negotiating the steep curves of the pump track, here’s what’s happening.
The lot that is now, briefly, Havemeyer Park includes not only Dellavalle’s ingenious and compact bike paradise, known officially as Brooklyn Bike Park, but also an urban farm run by North Brooklyn Farms, a lawn for movie screenings, yoga classes, and music, and what Dellavalle calls "the reading room" – a placid green space surrounded by flowers where people will be able to choose from donated books (1,000 so far) and relax as they flip the pages. There will also be food served from shipping containers and a deck to eat on. The site is the result of a collaboration between Dellavalle and a company called Bobby Redd, which has being staging events of all kinds, from concerts to weddings, from an old church in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
All this was just a fenced-off no-man’s-land until a few months ago, when Two Trees put out a request for proposals for ways to make the space temporarily accessible to the community.
"The first concept was an outdoor neighborhood lawn, with more bike trails," says Dellavalle, a compact, wiry guy with an easygoing manner and a boyish grin. "With the collaboration we made it even better."
The gate to the site is open and anyone is welcome to come into ride the pump track, which is managed by local bike shop Ride Brooklyn, for free. Bike rentals are available if you don’t have the right kind of ride yourself. Kids can borrow bikes at no charge.
The course, a design that Dellavalle and his colleagues refined seven times using computer-assisted design, was built in just a few weeks by a dedicated crew, many of them volunteers. It includes a flat trail that runs around the outside of the pump track, so that adults or kids who don’t know how to ride will have a safe place to learn. That trail is surfaced with stone dust that makes it easy to traverse with a stroller or a wheelchair as well. The different sections of the track, which include a treacherous sand pit, are coded like ski runs – easy, moderate, expert. Something for everyone.
Accessibility is what Dellavalle is all about, for all ages. He keeps coming back to the importance of seeing biking as a “lifestyle” rather than a sport that you drop in and drop out of. “Families are disconnected from each other,” he says. “But if you can get lifestyle choices that get families back to the park, then they can reconnect.”
He talks about how a dad and his young son were riding the track on its opening weekend, July 13. "The kid kept passing him, he went around so many times," says Dellavalle. "He must have gone five miles. I told the dad, he’ll sleep well tonight and you can finally have some time with your wife on the couch." He smiles. "That’s what it’s all about."
As we sit talking, people keep coming by to hang out for awhile – some of the Bobby Redd staff, some of the farmers, a couple of volunteers. A couple of guys from a film crew shooting in the neighborhood drop in with big trays of food to share, and everybody grabs a plate.
The laid-back communal atmosphere is part of the point, says Dellavalle. “The bike park method is about a few things,” he says. “Social awareness. Physical education. Environmental education. And socialism, straight up. There’s a work ethic. You’ve got to dig to ride, you’ve got to volunteer some time.”
As we talk, a guy with no shirt on is shredding the track in the 100-degree heat. He ends up covered with dirt and with a huge grin on his face.
It’s my turn. Dellavalle gets me a bike and I warm up by going around the flat multi-purpose trail a couple of times. Then I move onto the beginners’ track. I’m pretty awkward at first and lose it on the tight turns, almost falling a couple of times. But with some coaching, I start to get into it. I forget about the heat. My heart is pounding from the workout. I want to keep going, but I’ve got an appointment to make and have to hand back the bike. “When you come back, you’ll have muscle memory of the track and it will be easier,” Dellavalle tells me. I’ll be back, I promise myself. I will master this thing.
Then I get kind of sad. This park, after all, will only be in place for a year before Two Trees breaks ground on a new residential tower planned for the area. The developers have promised that there will be plenty of community programming and park space on other parts of the site once it’s built out, but this exact place, which so many people worked so hard to build from scratch, will be gone.
Dellavalle is philosophical about it. He’s worked on plenty of tracks, for competitions, that have been erased after just a couple of days. What’s he’s really trying to build, he tells me, is a culture, a way of approaching life that starts with biking and goes through stormwater management, and who knows where it ends?
There will be other tracks to build. The tag at the bottom of his email signature sums it up nicely: “Fall down seven, stand up eight.”