Bicycle Diaries: Two Centuries of New York City History

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On a May day in 1884, Samuel Clemens — better known as Mark Twain — took a break from writing in his Hartford home to do something that, at 48 years old, he had never done before: ride a bicycle.

Twain wrote about mounting the four-foot-tall penny-farthing bike for the first time — and of subsequently flying over the handlebars and landing in the hospital — in “Taming the Bicycle,” an essay published seven years after his death in 1910. Despite the difficulties Twain faced on his inaugural ride, the author ended the piece by encouraging readers to buy a two-wheeler for themselves.

“You will not regret it, if you live,” he wrote.

In New York City, where a cycling boom was underway, several thousand riders pedaled through the city’s streets, according to Evan Friss, author of “On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York City.” But the undercurrent of uncertainty in Twain’s command — about whether mounting a bike meant risking one’s life — was increasingly a concern in New York: in 1880, officials voted to ban bicycles and tricycles from the city’s parks in a bid to protect pedestrians from what parks commissioners said were the threats posed by pedalers.

The belief that cyclists endanger other New Yorkers persists among some, but bikers are overwhelmingly victims of collisions rather than the perpetrators of them: only one cyclist has killed a pedestrian since 2017, according to Gothamist, and 10 cyclists have died on New York City streets so far this year — double the amount killed by this time last year, according to a Police Department spokeswoman, Sgt. Jessica McRorie. (Sergeant McRorie couldn’t immediately say how many cyclists had killed pedestrians in recent years.)

The complex past, present and future roles of the bicycle as a vehicle for both social progress and strife are explored in “Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York through Oct. 6. With more than 150 objects — including 14 bicycles and vintage cycling apparel — the exhibition traces the transformation of cycling’s significance from a form of democratized transportation that gave women, immigrants and minorities a sense of freedom beginning when the first bike arrived in New York City in 1819, to a political football that continues to pit the city’s more than 800,000 cyclists against their detractors today.

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Mr. Friss, an associate professor of history at James Madison University who organized the exhibition with Donald Albrecht, a curator at the museum, said, “The bicycle can be used as a symbol for change, for invaders coming into a neighborhood, for shaking things up.” Here are some of the exhibition’s themes.


The biking boom in late-19th-century New York offered the mainly white, upper-middle-class women who could afford to buy them a way to eschew the stringent Victorian era expectations of “true womanhood.” They instead became “New Women” who challenged gendered norms by using bicycles to claim space on the streets and control over their own lives. The suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were among the women who championed cycling as a path to freedom for women, with Anthony telling the journalist Nellie Bly in an 1896 interview that it “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Outside feminist circles, traditionalists charged that the 20 percent of New York women who Mr. Friss estimates rode would upend society as they knew it: an 1895 print in the exhibition shows a posse of “New Women” entirely reliant on their two wheels, cycling to do laundry, run errands and visit the graves of their dead husbands. But pioneering female cyclists insisted that such a reality wouldn’t be so bad: Violet Ward of Staten Island started a bike club for women — with her friend, the renowned photographer Alice Austen — and wrote “Bicycling for Ladies,” a 200-page book advising women on how to become serious cyclists.

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White women weren’t the only New Yorkers using bicycles to assert the validity of their identities in public space: immigrants and minorities formed (predominantly male) cycling clubs of their own at the turn of the 20th century.

“They served two functions: to promote ethnic pride and solidarity, but at the same time, to promote their American identity, because the bicycle fad was sweeping the nation,” Mr. Friss said.

German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Danish, Mexican and Mongolian immigrants created their own riding groups, and black cyclists formed the Alpha Wheelmen to counter the idea that the new national past time was only for privileged white men. Marshall Taylor, known as Major, was a member of the South Brooklyn Wheelmen club and gained national fame as the first African-American cyclist to become a world champion and only the second black athlete to win the title in any sport. (The Canadian boxer George Dixon was the first.)

Cycling has also dredged up heated and deep-seated debates about who deserves space on New York’s streets.

“It’s fascinating the degree to which the bicycle is a politically charged object, in the way in which politicians use it and the kind of animus it creates, and the way it becomes a symbol for all sorts of other political debates about who belongs where,” Mr. Friss said.

A short film — “A Winter With Delivery Workers,” directed by Jing Wang — delves into one of the more recent disputes, between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the many immigrant delivery workers who rely on throttle-assisted electric bicycles, known as e-bikes, to do their jobs. A clip from the film shows Mr. de Blasio praising police officers in October 2017 for confiscating more than 900 e-bikes so far that year — a more than 170 percent increase from the previous year.

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“We have to go after anyone who creates a threat to neighborhood residents,” Mr. de Blasio says in the film. (The mayor later announced a plan to clarify the city’s vague law that bans “motorized scooters” and explicitly allow pedal-assisted e-bikes, which typically do not exceed speeds of 20 miles per hour. But a package of bills proposed in the City Council that would also legalize electric scooters and throttle-assisted e-bikes remains in limbo.)

Bikers have battled politicians for decades: a photograph in the exhibition from 1980 shows cyclists staging a sit-in along a bike lane on the Avenue of the Americas after critics demanded that Mayor Edward I. Koch remove the lanes. Mr. Koch ordered the bike lanes gone, but eight years later bikers led by bicycle messengers emerged victorious in another fight, after they pressured Mr. Koch to drop his proposed plan to ban bikes from three Midtown avenues. Nearly 20 years later, in 2007, the city saw its first iteration of the modern protected bike lane, along a stretch of Ninth Avenue. Since then, officials have added 120 miles of protected bike lanes, according to the Department of Transportation.

The exhibition begins and ends with a wall of front pages from newspapers and magazines spanning the 19th century to this year. All of the headlines make reference to the bike battles of the day. They highlight the enduring legacy of the bicycle in a city that is constantly in flux, which calls to mind a line from Mr. Friss’s book: “After two hundred years, and in a city known for change, New Yorkers are still pedaling.”


Cycling in the City: A 200-Year History

Through Oct. 6 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-534-1672, mcny.org.





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