200 Years of Controversy and Joy

Bicycles are controversial! They’re good. No, they’re bad. They’re a savior. They’re the devil’s handiwork.

No. That’s all irrelevant. A sideshow. Bikes are fun.

All portrayals are on display at the Museum of the City of New York. Their exhibit Cycling In The City: A 200-Year History runs through October 6.

Apparently egged on by the head of Bike New York and the 200th anniversary of the first appearance of a Velocipede (or Draisene) in New York City, the show tries to shoehorn a rich and complex history into a single wing of the museum, with both the in-house curator and a historian co-creator putting it all together. The historian, Evan Friss, has just published a book about the same subject, On Bicycles: A 200-year history of cycling in New York City. (We obtained a copy of the book from the museum. It will be reviewed soon.)

The entry to the exhibit uses emotional newspaper and magazine headlines as wallpaper to set the tone. Bikes can be controversial, and that was as true when the first Velocipede showed up in 1819, in the 1880s, when bikes were banned from Central and Prospect Parks, as it was this week.

“Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York; Photograph by Rob Stephenson”

The controversy largely fades away in the main room, as you get to glimpse bikes from the 1860s through today, as well as photos, newspaper articles, films and other documentary evidence of how the bike has been used and appreciated in NYC over the last 200 years. It closes with a small room that has Citibikes hooked up to Zwift’s virtual Central Park course, a video loop of people discussing bike activism in New York City and a live feed of #BikeNYC tweets.

Controversy is an easy way to get people invested in something. It certainly sells news and tickets. I did it with the image at the top (It’s a great pic about the protest to the banning of bikes from certain midtown avenues, which essentially amounted to a messenger ban). But the exhibit isn’t mainly about disputes, though most of the stories about the exhibit thusfar have focused on that. Yes, political foment is an important story and a thread that can stitch together cycling’s history, but the frame doesn’t define what’s in it any more than a picture frame defines the painting held inside it. For better or worse, the exhibit is largely a safe ride trying to show the breadth of two-wheeled experiences in the last 200 years.

In many respects, the ride seems too safe. The social changes that bikes caused at the end of the 19th century were huge, arguably

Portrait of Violet Ward and Daisy Elliot, c. 1895, photograph by Alice Austen, Alice Austen House, Collection of Historic Richmond Town

hastening the end of the Victorian era and, to a degree, helping women gain some independence. The mechanical advances the bike brought led to the development of cars, motorcycles and airplanes, and advanced assembly processes. The sport of bike racing was more popular and lucrative than other professional sports for at least a generation, particularly in the opening years of the 20th century. Not that any of these concepts should be controversial, but the show seemed to almost soft-pedal the importance of cycling. Bicycles have had a far more profound impact on the world than the exhibit suggests. Maybe as a “new” topic for this museum to exhibit, gentle is best.

If you know little cycling history, or only a bit about cycling in NYC, the show should be new and exciting and enlightening. But its limitation is that it’s not enough. Yes, cycling has had a status problem for all of its history and it’s great that there is a museum exhibit that confers further legitimacy on a conveyance/sport/culture/mechanical object that still gets irrational hate from some segments of the population. But it’s not enough.

“New York Awheel”―On the Riverside Drive, Near the Great Monument, Munsey’s Magazine, May 1896, Illustrator: J.M. Gleeson, Private collection

There is so much more to show and say. As someone else pointed out, just messengers in NYC could merit its own room. The mechanical marvel of the bicycle and its impact likewise, though outside of the Copake Bicycle Auction or the Pryor Dodge Collection, it’s hard to find early bikes anywhere. I’d also argue that the bike boom of the 1890s might even be more important from all angles than everything since. The museum hints at this with a drawing of Upper Broadway at night and claims that on a single night 16,000 people were counted riding bicycles past a single point, and most of them were doing it for social reasons. Considering the population of New York City has more than doubled since then, that would be the equivalent of nearly 41,000 cyclists passing a single spot today.





For those riding to the museum, there are bike racks in front of the museum on 5th avenue as well as on 103rd and 104th streets. There’s a Citibike stand at 5th and 103rd.  Better still, bring your helmet in and get 50% off admission and 10% off at the gift shop.

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