Sunday, June 29, 2014

Examining Street Life Before the Automobile

Screen shot 2013-12-10 at 12.09From -- Exactly when I first stumbled upon I do not recall. It may have been due to StumbleUpon, actually. Once realizing the treasure I’d found, it also became apparent the vast hours of time that would be needed to properly peruse these thousands of extremely high resolution images documenting urban American life over the last 150 years or so.

Some of my favorites are of the bustling street scenes prior to the invasion of the automobile. As rapid urbanization was pushing the very beginning of the era of the skyscraper, new also was the evolving invention of photography. Yet it was during this experimental phase that pursuit of the sharpest, lushest images seemed to peak. Shorpy is dominated by photos shot on 8″x10″ plate glass negatives. They can literally be enlarged to the size of your average interior wall before they start to blur. Taken by numerous photographers, the majority of the images on the site were shot by the Detroit Publishing Company.

When scrutinizing these street scenes, a few things jump out right away. Of course there are no traffic signals, there’s clearly no need for them. Streetcars, bicycles, and horse drawn carriages are everywhere. Where there is high traffic, those on foot still enjoy sidewalks upwards of forty feet wide along store fronts nestled into human-scaled buildings rarely more than 5 stories high. But it’s also telling that there are no crosswalks for pedestrians. And why would there be? During this era – as it had been for thousands of years – you could safely cross wherever your heart desired and not have to watch for giant metal machines racing toward you. What’s more, the street here is not purely the thoroughfare – it is the essential common gathering place for demonstrations, for buying and selling food, for children to play in, for celebration, for lingering and people watching. [Full article ...]


Poster's Note: I was fascinated to read this article. It gave me a whole new perspective on street design. I was particularly struck by the wide sidewalks visible in some of the pictures. These beautiful pictures portray a precious way of life - they reflect an infrastructure designed around pedestrians, cyclists, and users of public transportation. The streets look friendlier, and much safer. The folks in these photos could not have envisioned, and would most likely be horrified, at the car centric society in which we live today.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to burst the bubble. We tend to see the past through rose colored glasses. People romanticize the world of their youth and before. I'm no fan of car centric designs or our affair with the automobile, and I mostly ride my bike or walk or take a bus. But let's face it, streets were not particularly safe back then. The roads a century or more ago are not a good model for progress (although the wide sidewalks, where they existed, were a good thing). Roads were used for transportation and commerce, not for play, although certainly socialization occurred in the marketplace. Think about it. Horses are unpredictable. A horse drawn carriage is heavy and dangerous. So is a streetcar. The constant bustle and crowds not infrequently resulted in a pedestrian falling in front of a streetcar or under a wagon. They didn't have crosswalks in those days because streets were not organized or even paved. And if they were paved, it was not in such a way as to permit crosswalks. Street cleaning was fairly frequent in some areas, but the amount of garbage and horse manure in the streets would be intolerable by today's standards. Today we would consider a person to be a fool to allow their child to cross one of those busier streets whenever or wherever. But children did cross them at will because society did not have the same expectation of safety that we have today. Daily life was considered to be a risk that everyone, especially the poor, simply had to accept. Kids died young of disease. Child labor was rampant. There was no disability or safety nets. The work week for everyone was 60 or 70 hours long, under hazardous conditions. OSHA didn't exist. Life expectancy was lower in 1900 (42) than in the Colonial Era. 11th Avenue in NYC was called Death Avenue because of the number of deaths and mutilations caused by a train that ran down the middle of the street beginning in the 1840's. It wasn't until the beginning of the 1900's that protests finally resulted in safety measures. With the advent of the Progressive Era, community activists slowly precipitated changes in many areas, from building codes to labor laws. History is complicated. . . . . I love history, and I also love biking, walking and mass transit. I would surely love to see our land use and urban planning become far less car centric. But romanticizing the past is simply not the way to go.


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