The More Things Change Part One Million: Things, And How They Change (Or Don’t, As The Case May Be)

New Yorkers can’t agree on much of anything, though at the moment we are seemingly united around one common sentiment, that being how much these damn motorscooters suck:

It’s tough to see what’s going here if you’re not familiar with the sensory overload that the DOT puts forth as “street design,” but if you look to the upper left you’ll see the cyclist has the green (yes, that’s a traffic light just for bikes, isn’t New York City amazing?):

And the moto-scooterist appears to be cutting across traffic to make a left-hand turn, despite the fact that the left-turn light is red:

Given this, the cyclist’s consternation is understandable, and while I try to remain aloof when riding these days I’d be lying if I too didn’t feel like stomping someone’s nuts in at least once during every commute:

I’d also note that the cyclist is riding too fast for a bike lane (I think at least 50% of New York City cyclist frustration is caused by the misconception that you should be able to maintain a steady 17mph in a “protected” bike lane), but I’m also slower than most people so I may not be completely objective, and anyway it doesn’t change the fact that this was entirely the motor-scooterist’s fault. So I won’t.

Given how crazy it is out there, it’s tempting to look back in time and see if there was ever an epoch during which there was anything resembling order on the streets of this great big mess of a metropolis. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a notion among advocates in particular that the streets were more benign in some bygone era, even though trolleys or teams of horses or whatever the most formidable vehicle was at any given time always seemed to manage to run people down in significant numbers, even before automobiles were a thing. In fact, according to Horse Canada, equines were more dangerous than cars are today on a per capita basis, and who am I to argue with Horse Canada?

Yes, it was a real shitshow:

It was also a literal shitshow, because, you know, horses take giant shits:

And as hard as it is to believe, even the smuggest minds of their generation couldn’t figure out how to solve the problem:

Yes, urbanists were just as useless then as they are now, and ultimately the solution turned out to be…


Though of course the cars brought a whole new set of problems, and now here we are a hundred or so years later right back where we started…well, sort of.

Still, going entirely by videos that only show select parts of the city at select times, one does come away with the (obviously naive) sense that there was an idyllic period when the automobile had solved a whole bunch of problems that had been facing the city but hadn’t yet completely ruined it:

See, now we’re in the automotive equivalent of The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 and the goddamn things are everywhere, but back then there weren’t as many of them and they still represented progress and upward mobility or whatever.

Of course, you won’t see any of the bad cars stuff in the video because that’s not what whoever made it wants you to see. You also won’t see cellphones, rampant obesity, or Crocs, because none of those things had been invented yet. All of this contributes to the sense that the New York City of the 1940s was some sort of utopia–as does the sight of children swan-diving into the East River:

That is until you consider that they’re probably swallowing mouthfuls of raw sewage:

By the way, it’s hard for me to imagine street urchins on the Lower East Side could dive like that, so I’m guessing they drove those kids in from a prep school somewhere just for the video. Now I don’t know what to believe.

Another thing you won’t see in the above video is bikes–I watched the whole thing and I didn’t see a single one. I didn’t see any in this video from 1911 either, though I didn’t watch it as carefully:

Nevertheless, I did see this scene of early motordom:

Now you see why they used to be so tough on drivers:

Pretty amazing that back in 1917 you were already able to digitally forward an article to someone, though.

But while videos of the hustle and/or bustle of midtown Manhattan suggest that the bicycle was not a part of the urban landscape in days of yore, other videos–such as this one of a Brooklyn hipster with narrow bars–suggest otherwise:

And of course we always had a lively bicycle racing scene:

We were at the cutting edge of race bike design, too:

[Photo: Classic Cycle]

The “Win With Dick Power” ads simply write themselves:

[Photo: Classic Cycle]

And what layperson hasn’t been harangued by a bike nerd about how cycling used to be a hugely popular spectator sport?

If there were two things that could fill Madison Square Garden in those days, it was bicycle racing and Nazis:

And I’m not kidding about the Nazis:

Twisted ideologies aside, they sure knew how to sprint in those days:

That’s putting your nose to the grindstone.

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