David Byrne, cycling and dreams

David Byrne is not exactly a sports cyclist. He is, rather, a flâneur of the bicycle: a metropolitan dandy in exploration, a "botanist of asphalt" (as defined by irresistible Gian Piero Piretto), a voyeur of buildings and humanity.

In his New York and then everywhere, from Europe to Japan to Latin America. " This point of view - faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person - became my panoramic window on much of the world over the last thirty years", writes Byrne in his book “The Diaries of the Bicycle” published in 2009.

" Through this window I catch glimpses of the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in. (...) A cognitive scientist need only look at what we have made - the hives we have created - to know what we think and what we believe to be important".

(cc) Flickr/Carlos Santiago
A year earlier, in announcing the installation of some of his bike racks (a guitar-shaped one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn's hipster district; a dollar-shaped one on Wall Street), the New York Times draws a profile of Byrne whose ironic conclusion wraps around a core of bitter truth: "Installation artist, author, blogger, recording executive, photographer, film director (...) He’s even been known to dabble in music”.
Despite the huge amount of talents and interests, David Byrne remains first and foremost a musician, at least on paper. Leader of the legendary Talking Heads, he has collected a good number of small masterpieces in his solo career. In 2011, Paolo Sorrentino wanted him as himself in This Must Be The Place; three years later, Sorrentino dedicated the Oscar for The great breauty to his most important sources of inspiration: the Talking Heads opened the list, followed by Fellini, Scorsese and Maradona. Byrne, by the way, came first: the statuette was awarded in 1988, for the soundtrack of The Last Emperor.

A long break from the music

Photo Credit (cc) Flickr/Claudio Olivares Medina
In 2009, however, David Byrne hasn't released a record of his own for five years now. He writes, reflects, travels around the world and scrutinizes it from his new panoramic window.

Perhaps he redefines his concept of well-being, which for a cyclist in a big city often coincides with the possibility of existing: Rome will also be spectacular, but it is also one of the least bike-friendly centers (in which Byrne finds himself), and the pleasure of the panorama is often interrupted by the scent of a pirate vehicle.

In Tokyo, contemplate the works of Yukio Nakagawa, virtuoso of the Ikebana, the art of floral composition; they are so elegant that they barely stand out from them as flowers. Then he takes his bike and is forced by traffic to speed along the sidewalks, slaloming among Japanese housewives with shopping bags.


Back in America, David Byrne takes a tour of Baltimore, his hometown, and found a dead city. It appears to be an evacuated Chernobyl, with a murder rate five times higher than in New York. He understands that a city that sacrifices itself to cars has consequences for everyone, not only for cyclists and pedestrians: the highways multiply and fragment it, they snatch its identity isolating it from the shores of lakes, seas or rivers where an urban center naturally tends to rise; the districts go out, the old urban roads, once congested, fossilize and disappear.

"Most of the time it turns out the cars are merely using these highways not to have easier access to businesses and residences in the nearby city» writes in The Diaries, " but to bypass that city entirely”.

In the meantime he spends a year, then two: Byrne publishes more and more detailed travel diaries on his blog. It has not yet recorded a new disc.

(cc) Flickr/@amarulero
It was then, in July 2011, that he arrived in Bogota. They take him to visit the tiny barrio of Bellavita: built illegally, the former is a lump of primitive houses without roads, water or toilets, what Brazil would call favela. When Byrne visits it, however, it's such a clean neighborhood that it seems almost out of Happy Days. What happened? How has the administration of the mayor Enrique Peñalosa succeeded in reversing the decline? Does it have to do with the new cycle paths, which run alongside well-kept meadows and houses made of orange bricks?


Let's take a step back: administration explains to Byrne that there was a $600 million plan to build a highway that was predictably efficient and lethal, similar to the one that contributed to the pulverization of Baltimore. Peñalosa opposed this, and allocated some of the money saved to the realization of a better idea: a line of fast buses with dedicated lanes, the TransMilenio, whose terminals were equipped with large internal parking areas for bicycles.

No longer isolated, satellite communities such as Bellavita reach the terminals by pedaling. After a few more kilometers of bus, they find the city and all its possibilities for work and recreation. The idea of the TransMilenium is not new: it was inaugurated some time earlier in Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian Parana, and is beginning to spread like wildfire.

This story came to mind because a few weeks ago finally came out a new album by David Byrne, the first one entirely signed by him since that distant 2004. It's called American Utopia, and it's an optimistic record. Before the publication, the musician prepared the ground with a laborious project: it is called Reasons to be Cheerful  and includes a website and a cycle of conferences between the therapeutic and the inspirational.

These are dark times, says Byrne; let's sift the world in search of good examples, born in small comminuties  ("Hope is often local") but replicable everywhere. I'll start by listing some, adds Byrne. Among the first that he proposes, seven years later, there is the case of Bogota.

10 anni di viaggi in bici

Like anyone who makes art, David Byrne needed a good reason to bother. His has always been cosmopolitan, but this time, inside, there is perhaps a little more world. There are ten years of cycling and health and wellness claims; there is the revolutionary shamelessness of a utopia in dystopian times.
Cycling himself from Bellavita to the TransMilenio terminal, in that distant 2011, Byrne is facing the last point of Peñalosa's redevelopment plan: El Tintal, a creative hub with library and auditorium built in place of a landfill (which Peñalosa insists on keeping the access ramp, as a reminder), already become a catalyst for a community once dispersed. " We who are engaged in the humanities - art, music, writing, dancing, architecture - often like to tell ourselves that we are doing some good. I often have my doubts. I doubt that art or a song can change people’s minds, but it seems there is real proof they can change people’s lives in other ways”.

Musician, cyclist and dreamer

Ours is a somewhat fictional reconstruction, without pretensions of infallibility, but we like to think that the first cog of American Utopia was triggered at that very moment: when the musician, the cyclist and the utopian, thanks to a particular inclination of the earth's axis, found themselves for a second perfectly aligned.

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