Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Quote of the Day (Stephen Crane, on Bicycles’ Mid-1890s Conquest of NYC)

“The bicycle crowd has completely subjugated the street. The glittering wheels dominate it from end to end. The cafes and dining-rooms of the apartment hotels are occupied mainly by people in bicycle clothes. Even the billboards have surrendered. They advertise wheels and lamps and tires and patent saddles with all the flaming vehemence of circus art. Even when they do condescend to still advertise a patent medicine, you are sure to confront a lithograph of a young person in bloomers who is saying in large type: ‘Yes, George, I find that Willow rum always refreshes me after these long rides.…’ There are innumerable repair shops. Everything is bicycle.”—American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist Stephen Crane (1871-1900), “New York’s Bicycle Speedway,” in Crane: Prose and Poetry (Library of America, 1984)

Stephen Crane might be better known for producing such masterpieces of naturalism as The Red Badge of Courage and stories like “The Blue Hotel” and “The Open Boat,” but during the furious decade of writing that preceded his death at age 28, he was also a prolific journalist. This particular charming slice of life was published in McClure’s Magazine in 1896. 

While noting,  as in this passage, the proliferation of the bicycle, Crane also commented on how it was transforming the larger American realm of fashion and mores—specifically, its encouragement of a ladies’ form of apparel that whose practicality now made it all the rage: the bloomer. A citizen, he writes, with something like the literary equivalent of a raised eyebrow, "covenants with himself not to grin and nudge his neighbor when anything particularly amazing passes him on the street.”

(For a longer-term view of women and bicycles, please see Joanna Scutts’ take on “Women on Wheels.”)

I got to thinking about the changing presence of bicycles in American life because of COVID-19. New York area residents are understandably concerned about the spread of the virus through public transportation. It seems, according to this post on Medium by the advocacy group TransAlt (i.e., Transportation Alternatives), that “Across the U.S., bicycle manufacturers have observed an unprecedented rise in demand since the arrival of COVID-19.”
TransAlt faults New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for not more actively encouraging the spread of the bicycle in the city. But the longer the coronavirus lasts without a vaccine, the more likely it is that enduring changes may occur in how Americans get around. Bicycling won’t, of course, be the all-purpose solution to longstanding issues with public transit crowding and safety, but it is an option that thousands are increasingly choosing for themselves.

(The image accompanying this post—The Byron Company’s 1896 photo "The Evening Telegram Bicycle Parade - Riverside Drive”—is part of the collection of The Museum of the City of New York. It was used as part of the museum’s 2019 exhibit, “Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History.))

No comments: