Wednesday, May 20, 2009

'Bike Question' Goes Back a Long Way

Here in New York, where more and more people are communting to work on their bikes, cars and cyclists have a feud that puts cats and dogs to shame. The battle plays out through extended middle fingers and horn honks and in the office of the Department of Transportation, where planners are trying to provide hundreds of new miles of bike lanes while not pissing off drivers too much by depriving them of parking spaces and the breathing room they're used to on the road.

I was amused this week to find in some old Brooklyn Eagle articles that this animosity goes back a long way. For example in an 1897 editorial, the writer laments the increase in injuries caused by the new contraptions, and the antagonistic behavior between the two parties [note: wheel, wheeler, or wheelman was a term used for a cyclist back then. "Scorcher" was also used]:

“There are horse drivers, who, encountering a wheel on a lonely rode, cannot resist an expression of their opinion by blocking the highway, or by running over to the left, or doing some other thing to endanger or annoy its rider. And there are wheelmen who are just the same sort of people on their bicycles.”

An article from 1880 covers a meeting of the city's aldermen in which they "wrestle with the bicycle question” — namely whether bicycles were entitled to use of the streets the same as other vehicles and whether the same rules of the road should apply.

There were some at the meeting who were in favor of restricting the use of bicycles on Sundays, but that didn't fly.

“It has been without exception decided that the bicycle is a vehicle, and as such has equal right with other vehicles, to the use of the streets without discriminating restrictions” was one sensible point of view. The rebuttal was that “bicycles and their riders when in motion frighten horses.”

Well, cyclists can't have that charge thrown at them anymore, at least.

There is another objection to biking that we are well past culturally, and that's the moral and physical harm it could do to young ladies. According to an 1896 Eagle article, Charlotte Smith of the Woman’s Rescue League thought biking was "undoubtedly injurious to some girls." She believed "the physical condition of the average girl will not permit of her taking long rides on a bicycle and on account of the exhilarating effects of the spin of a wheel, the practice is kept up until before she knows it the rider will find herself a physical wreck, burdened with many serious diseases."

She continues, "By far the gravest question to be considered in connection with the bicycle is its effect upon the morals of our young folks. The popular stand taken by the public in regard to the bicycle girl, representing her as an American woman of independence, and capable of taking care of herself in any predicament, has had a demoralizing effect upon youthful riders. This sentiment has instilled in girls the impression ... that they can go where they choose, whether or not they are accompanied by a male escort. This feeling grows upon the girl as her riding becomes more general, and her spins are soon taken in the evening as well as during the day. This continues and she grows further and further from the influence of her parents…”

So as bike advocates look to topple the dominance of car culture, they should keep their spirits up and remember that the movement can already claim women's lib as an accomplishment.
The photo above, courtesy of Old Brooklyn in Early Photographs by William Lee Younger, shows bikers in Prospect Park in 1896.

The Story Behind Coney Icons

The Coney Island History Project’s exhibition center opens for the 2009 season on May 23 with the new exhibition "Coney Island Icons: The Story Behind the Landmarks of the World’s Playground." Archival and contemporary photos, documents, anecdotes, interviews, souvenirs and artifacts are used to tell the story of Coney Island’s four city landmarks---The Cyclone Roller Coaster, Wonder Wheel, Parachute Jump and Childs Building. The exhibition is curated by Charles Denson, CIHP Executive Director, noted historian and the author of the award-winning book Coney Island: Lost and Found.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chinese Immigration Exhibit at BHS

I went last Thursday to the opening of a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society called “Living and Learning: Chinese Immigration, Restriction & Community in Brooklyn, 1850 to Present.” Speaking with the curator, historian Andy Urban, I was interested to learn that Brooklyn has the fourth largest Chinese community in the country. Fascinating.

Urban just finished his Ph.D on Irish and Chinese domestic servants, and told me that he kept coming across Brooklyn in his research. Brooklyn was apparently a "hotbed" of pro-Chinese immigration activity, led by none other than Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the famous abolitionist.

I was also interested to read in the exhibit that “Many of the agencies and policies that are integral to today’s Department of Homeland Security originated with the Chinese Exclusion Act,” such as the category of “illegal” immigrant, the border patrol and the original immigration and naturalization service. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, prohibited and criminalized Chinese immigration to the U.S. and made citizenship impossible for Chinese already residing in the states.

Sketchy practices are always easier to spot in hindsight. Awareness of this past should hopefully make us more sensitive and sensible when we think about present-day immigration issues, but probably won't. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed during WWII, when we were allies with China. So then we started rounding up the Japanese and putting them in internment camps. Jeez.

The exhibit will be on display until August 30, but if you don't feel like dragging your butt off the couch, you should check out the sweet oral history setup they have on their web site,, which includes interviews spanning about 50 years from members of the Sunset Park Chinese community.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Big, Powerful Towers of Information

You may have read in the Times about the fight over Wardenclyffe, the Long Island site of inventor Nikola Tesla's bold work on "a global system of giant towers meant to relay through the air not only news, stock reports and even pictures but also, unbeknown to investors such as J. Pierpont Morgan, free electricity for one and all."

Well, it reminded me of the Sperry Gyroscope's arc light, which, granted, was slightly less ambitious, but was still a big old electrical tower used to transmit information. Elmer Sperry was a Brooklyn-born inventor, and his arc light was the world’s most powerful searchlight. For election night in 1916, with a strength of 1,280,000,000 candlepower, the arc light was installed atop the Sperry Gyroscope Company’s building on Flatbush Avenue Extension, near Manhattan Bridge Plaza.

This, of course, was pre-radio, TV and internet, so the Brooklyn Eagle passed on the election results to Sperry's people, who then provided the news flash (get it?). This way, people didn't have to wait for the paper in the morning (poor darlings. Can you imagine?).

If Woodrow Wilson (D) was leading there would be a continuous white shaft encircling the heavens. If Charles Hughes (R) was leading there would be an intermittent shaft encircling the heavens. The light would be visible for a distance of 75 miles. If at any time the election was in doubt no light would appear.