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Brooklyn Public Library’s Bike the Branches

Bike Brooklyn’s old timey crime scenes

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Take a tour of Brooklyn’s sordid mafioso history — and check out some books while you’re at it.

The Brooklyn Public Library’s second annual Bike the Branches cycling bonanza is happening on May 17, and organizers this year have planned 12 themed routes to carry riders between prose palaces. The “Underworld” jaunt brings bikers to the sites of former speakeasies, the childhood homes of famous gangsters, and the scenes of infamous crimes, with a litany of libraries along the way. The event will put pedal-pushing Brooklynites in touch with the borough’s once-dark corners, organizers say.

“It gives people an on-the-ground feeling of Brooklyn’s mysterious past,” said Cheryl Todmann, director of special events for the library.

This is no spin around the block — the route is 39 miles. It starts at the Park Slope branch, not far from two childhood homes of Al Capone and from Grand Prospect Hall at Third and Prospect avenues, where Capone supposedly got in the fight that landed him the nickname “Scarface.” It then stretches from one end of the borough to the other before ending up at Grand Army Plaza.

From Capone territory, the trip heads down to the Windsor Terrace branch, which sits near a cluster of former speakeasies off the Caton Avenue corner of Prospect Park. Next the route winds through Borough Park and past the site of a 1934 armored truck robbery on 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst, and down into Coney Island. At the Sea Gate end of the Boardwalk is where Abe Reles mysteriously fell from his hotel window in 1940 on the day he was set to testify against the mob in court. Posthumously, Reles became known as the “Canary Who Could Sing but Couldn’t Fly.”

The second half of the ride doubles back through Sheepshead Bay, Flatbush and Brownsville, brings participants past a few more speakeasies in Clinton Hill and Williamsburg, and, before looping to the destination, offers a stop at Willie Sutton’s childhood home on High Street near Sands Street in Brooklyn Heights. “Willie the Actor,” was a notorious bank robber who got away with $2 million during his career and the neighborhood now brimming with financiers was known as “Irishtown” in his day.

Not all the routes are so long or sordid — an eight-mile Where’s Waldo?–themed course offers the most family-friendly option — and the organizers emphasize that cyclists can take shortcuts or hop on public transit at any time because the day is designed to get as many people involved as possible.

“It’s for everyone — from families who are going to one or two branches — to cycling enthusiasts,” said Todmann. “I like the breadth and depth of the tours. Anyone can find one they love.”

Prizes will be awarded to the riders who visit the most branches during the day. Last year’s winner saw 27 of the borough’s 60. But for most riders, Bike the Branches is just about experiencing the borough.

“I’m pretty new to the city, and I want to get into bike riding,” said Christie Williams, who recently moved to Brooklyn from Washington, D.C. “This is a great chance to see Brooklyn.”

Williams was at Central Library on May 13, getting some headgear for her and her daughter at a free helmet giveaway held ahead of the branch ride. Riders who sign up for Bike the Branches can also get a free pass to rent a CitiBike for the day.

No matter how many branches bike-riders hit, the day is a chance to do some sightseeing and give that library card a workout.

“I believe in the public library, so this is a good way to show my support,” said Ravi Ragbir, a Brooklyn Heights resident.

Library honchos expect 500 people to participate this year.

“A lot of people may only now their local branch and Central,” said Todmann. “This is a great way to increase the visibility of all our branches.”

“Bike the Branches” library bike ride (Various starting locations and routes, misc.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/btb). Saturday, May 17, 10 am–5 pm. Finish line celebration at Grand Army Plaza 5 pm–7 pm. $20.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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