True Green Cities / Vignettes From a Green Life – New York City’s Danny Lieberman

Danny Lieberman, the king of New York City cycling for decades. Photo courtesy Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

How One Person Can Change the World

Before there was Al Gore and his “An Inconvenient Truth”, there were local activists around the world striving to make their community a greener place.  One of those local activists who impacted both the environment and the people who live in the environment, was Danny Lieberman, one of the forces behind New York City’s cycling world.  Danny was fearless and fierce, and yet one of the kindest, most generous souls I’ve ever met.  We lost Danny to leukemia this past weekend.   New York City, cycling, and the environment will never be the same.  While we’ve all been mourning Danny, his life cut short so, so early – his loss has brought together hundreds of his friends through Facebook, “Danny flash gatherings”, blogs and articles.  Danny had more friends than anyone I know – and real friends, not just acquaintances.  I’ve never known such a devoted friend, he worked at keeping his friendships strong with every single friend.  We lost touch for about eight years until he tracked me down two years ago through Facebook.  We spoke for an hour the day we reconnected.  For the next two years, Danny continually reminded me how important cycling was and had been to me and that my crazy life now was no excuse for not riding.  Danny never questioned how important cycling was – Of course we should all ride our bikes everywhere.  Of course there should be bike lanes accessible to all.  Of course everyone should share road tips and watch out for one another.

Danny’s life was a force for a better New York through Cycling.  He started ebikes – an early listserve that connected riders in NYC.  He marshaled every major ride in NYC.  He volunteered for Transportation Alternatives and the 5BBC.  He created some of the most beloved rides in NYC, many of which included key stops at his favorite restaurants, like his famous 5BBC Chocolate ride. If you were a NYC cyclist you knew Danny or of him.  If you didn’t know Danny, then you were not really a New York City cyclist.

Danny Lieberman on his favorite place – one of his many bikes. Leading a training ride for the Montauk century. Photo courtesy Alfred Garcia.

Vignettes From A Green Life

Our First Ride

Most of my favorite memories of Danny include cycling, architecture and good food.  Really, what more is there?  I met Danny on a sunny July day in 1996.  I had just joined the Five Borough Bike Club (5BBC) and Transportation Alternatives (TA) to meet new people, go on organized rides and see parts of New York I had never seen.  I went on a Brooklyn ride that he was leading.  We started chatting on an unscheduled stop to help someone with a flat.  We were standing beneath the Manhattan Bridge in what’s now called DUMBO, looking at the grand yet deteriorating buildings surrounding us. When he found out I was an architect he started grilling me about the styles. When he found out I was a preservation architect, he wanted to know all about the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  By the end of the ride I was hooked on Danny.

Our Scariest Ride

One of the scariest and most memorable rides with Danny was an 86-mile Sunday training ride for the TA Century in August 1997.  The ride started out well, but it quickly got very hot and at about mile 80 as we were weaving through the silent, deserted streets of the industrial Bronx, a massive thunderstorm blew in.  There was nowhere to go.  Danny spotted a parking lot filled with semis and screamed for us (about 8 of us) to get off our bikes, put our bikes under one truck and for us all to crawl under another.  We waited out the storm beneath a truck for about 20 minutes, laughing but scared (at least I was!) because it was getting dark, clinging to one another.  We were hungry and it was too dangerous to ride.  Danny kept us all calm and then carefully led us back to Manhattan on the dark, wet roads.  What should have been an eight hour ride became a twelve hour ride but I’ve never forgotten the camaraderie.

Looking Out For Everyone

Danny took this photo of me at the Pumpkin Patch Century in New Jersey in October, 1997.

Danny took this photo of me at the Pumpkin Patch Century in New Jersey in 1997. He recently came across it and posted it on Facebook. For some reason, I struggled through the ride and was the last person to ride in. Our group was waiting for me but Danny had headed out in the van in search of me. When he came back and saw me he yelled at me for five minutes – not because he was angry, because he was worried. I had turned my phone off and no one could reach me. I never turned my phone off again during a ride. Danny was every ride’s captain and mensch.

One Last Dinner

The last time I saw Danny was this past June.  I was teaching a summer class in NYC on Mondays and Wednesdays so flew in from North Carolina for four days a week.  Danny had had his bone marrow transplant about a month earlier and although frail and tired, was determined that we take a walk around Washington Heights where he was recuperating. He wanted to show me some buildings he’d seen in the neighborhood and try out a new Thai restaurant.  We reminisced about our past glory days of riding, commiserated about health care paperwork and enjoyed our Thai food while dissecting the character flaws in the second season of “Game of Thrones.”  After dinner, he insisted upon walking me to the subway.

Enjoying chocolate on March 31st, 2011 at one of Danny’s favorite places – L.A. Burdick’s on 20th Street in Manhattan. Danny, Lynette Chiang, David Holowka and I had a classic Danny-planned evening – a stroll along the High Line, dinner at a great French restaurant and running across 20th Street to get hot chocolate before Burdick’s closed.

I’ve read so many stories like this about Danny on his Facebook page.  He had this palpable, significant effect on everyone.  He made NYC the better, greener place it has become.  Without Danny, NYC wouldn’t have the hundreds of miles of bike lanes we have today. Without Danny many of us wouldn’t have the network of friends we have today.  And without Danny we wouldn’t have the memories of friendship, camaraderie, and great rides that made NYC the special place it was for me for so long.  Ride in Peace, my friend, you were a True Green Citizen.

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