Labor and food historian Harvey Levenstein writes in Revolution at the Table that “Stage star Lillian Russell, ‘airy, fairy, Lillian, the American beauty’ – after whom America’s favorite rose was named – whose hourglass (while corsetted) figure with its ample hips and very full bosom was the late nineteenth-century ideal, weighed about two hundred pounds.” Even better, “her enormous appetite was almost as legendary as her beauty.” (13) She apparently also created spectacles of the two-wheeled variety. Monroe, Some Like it Hot notwithstanding, apparently never topped 140. She produced spectacles no less beautiful, but of a smaller, more tragic sort.
We learn to ride a bicycle without a manual of physics; formal knowledge of the balance of forces may even be a handicap.
Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977, p 200.
There are illegibilities of the layered depths in a single place, of ruses in action and of historical accidents. The writing of these evocations is sketched out, ironically and fleetingly, in graffiti, as if the bicycle painted on a wall, the insignia of a common transit, detached itself and made itself available for indeterminate tours.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p 200
Once the holiday festivities, post-Christmas sale shopping, family fun and new year’s shenanigans quieted down, I snuck off to the MLK library down in Gallery Place in Washington, DC, to spend a few days digging around in their voluminous community archives collection. It was awesome. I’m working on a piece on DC’s anti-freeway movement, and hoo boy does the DC Public Library have a lot of great stuff! Not only do they have an incredible collection of photographs, DC City Council records, and DC-area newspapers large and small – they also have 42.5 linear feet worth of clippings, flyers, hearing transcripts, correspondence, maps, picket signs and all manner of other goodies donated by the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis (ECTC), an interracial anti-freeway group that leveraged the social upheavals of the 1960s to fight freeways in DC and to rewrite eminent domain legislation in the process. Needless to say, I was psyched.
The ECTC formed in the mid-1960s, when DC and Maryland attempted to build the ten-lane North Central Freeway right through the heart of DC’s Northeast quadrant. The Freeway was purportedly part of a much larger interstate project. Back in the mid-1950s, fueled by some alchemical combination of increased economic prosperity, a WWII-era “mega-project” mindset, and various automobile-oriented advocacy groups, Eisenhower’s “highwaymen” had begun to draw up and build what we know today as the National Interstate System – that vast network of highways that connects the nation and allows high-speed traffic to flow seamlessly from one city to the next nation-wide. By the early 1960s, many of the rural stretches had been completed, and some cities – like Austin – even featured highways cutting right through the center of town.
Not so in DC. By 1964, I-95, the major highway that runs the length of the East Coast, approached DC from both Virginia and Maryland, but on both sides it stopped abruptly ten miles outside of town at the newly completed Capital Beltway. Drivers wanting to enter the city itself had to leave the highway and navigate its surface streets, which, as DC’s burgeoning population began to spill out into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs and long-distance road travel to and from the city became more common, was causing more than a little congestion. And nothing makes a highway engineer more frustrated than congestion. So the District Highway Department began to plan a network of intra-city freeways. And, when the wealthy, white, well-connected residents of DC’s Northwest quadrant flat-out rejected any proposals to put freeways in their neck of the woods, highway planners slyly relocated freeway plans to Northeast, where the population was poorer, more diverse, less-connected to the usual channels, and thus supposedly less able to resist the overtures of the highwaymen. In late 1964, expecting an open-and-shut case, the Maryland and DC highway departments drew up plans for a ten-lane North Central Freeway through Northeast and hid a small announcement about a public hearing in the back pages of the Washington Post.
Thank god for all those crazy old people with nothing to do but sit around and read back pages of the Washington Post! That first public hearing drew more than 700 furious residents, nearly all of whom were vehemently opposed to the freeway – or any freeway, for that matter. As it turned out, it also kicked off a ten year long struggle to keep the freeway out and bring rapid transit in instead.
This is where the ECTC comes in. Building on pre-existing neighborhood organizations and leveraging national movements like black power and environmentalism, they mobilized DC residents to protest the freeway, to fight the highwaymen, to testify before congress and to harass the crap out of DC’s Mayor and City Council. They also had some pretty amazing graphic designers on their side. Check this out:
Pigs eating at a trough of highway-related exploitation! Downtown Progress was a business organization that supported building freeways in DC in hopes of bringing suburban dollars back to the city’s central business district:
Those same exploiters doing a number on “This Land is Your Land!” This one vents their frustration at the collusion between big business and politics and the expense of the lives of the people in the path of the highway. And yes, they had lyrics for the entire song.
And this one is one of the ECTC’s more famous posters, at least locally, featuring their slogan:
What’s particularly interesting about this last one is that the ECTC quickly grasped the racial implications of moving a freeway from Northwest to Northeast and made race a central part of its campaign against the freeway from the get-go, but it wasn’t until the 1968 riots that the Federal government was willing to admit that a) the ECTC was right and b) in the late 1960s, DC’s integrated neighborhoods had at least as much political clout as its white ones because they had the weight of the entire Civil Rights movement behind them. Really, a genius move on the part of the ECTC.
And, together with all of their other mobilization and communication tactics, an effective one: the North Central Freeway was never built, the Metro’s Red Line runs along the CSX tracks near where the freeway would have been, and the Federal government has long since stopped trying to build highways anywhere near our fine nation’s capital – or in any other major city, for that matter.
These days, it’s better to put those highway funds to good use in building a bicycle network, anyway.
Back in 2004, inspired by my friend Emily Wismer, I traded my car for a bicycle, and eight years, six cities, and thousands of miles later, I think it’s safe to say that I think riding a bike is pretty sweet. I’m rarely stuck in a traffic jam, I get front-row parking pretty much wherever I go, and hey, I get me some exercise and a little daily sunshine, too, especially here in Austin. In these enlightened times, it’s generally pretty awesome to be a lady cyclist, too, especially with more and more shops hiring female mechanics (thank you, Ozone and The Peddler!), more companies making women-specific gear, and folks like Mia Birk, Georgena Terry, and Shelley Jackson leading the charge in making cycling more accessible to everyone, including women.
But gender and bicycles can easily become complicated, too, and not just in a turn-of-the-century dress reform kind of way. Back in the 1980s and 90s, technophiles like Donna Haraway argued that technology was going to be the great equalizer, as though somehow the right combination of wheels and gears and metal tubing could erase centuries of gender inequality. As far as bikes go, that hasn’t happened – not yet, anyway. But, with more and more lady cyclists moving into what has so far been a male-dominated technological domain, the bicycle is beginning to raise some questions about gender, female sexuality, and what it means to be a lady on two wheels. Below, five very interesting answers to these questions.
1. Elly Blue, Taking the Lane
Elly Blue is a bike activist in Portland who writes about – and advocates for – the need for more bike-friendly (and less misogynistic) cities. Her zine, Taking the Lane, draws clear parallels between being a cyclist in a car’s world and being a woman in a man’s world. In its very first issue, Taking the Lane ranges from road rage and grassroots organizing to fat bias and the condescension women often have to endure from male bike shop employees. Blue argues that women cyclists as both women and cyclists are doubly discriminated against, and that only by working together can we end both gender and transportation inequality. I find her writing style intense and thought-provoking and her militancy refreshing – especially since so many of her examples hit very close to home.
2. Peter Zheutlin’s Around the World on Two Wheels and Gillian Klempner Willman’s The New Woman: Annie Londonderry
Gillian Willman’s film builds on Peter Zheutlin’s long-awaited Around the World on Two Wheels, which tells the story of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bike around the world. Back at the turn of the last century, Annie Londonderry (who was actually Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a 23-year old Jewish mother of 3 from Boston), rode a Columbia bicycle around the world in 15 months – and made $5000 in the process. The whole thing was a publicity stunt, but Willman and Zheutlin both focus less on that than on the impact Londonderry’s journey had on women’s rights. She left her home, husband, and kids. She wore pants. She sold pictures of herself. She rented space on her body and her bike to advertisers. She rode a bicycle, and she worked it. Capitalism, feminism, and bicycles all in one place. The horror!
3. Rebecca “Lambchop” Reilly
Portable Portrait: REBECCA REILLY (1995) from Rachel Strickland on Vimeo.
Rebecca Reilly is the stuff of legend. Not only was she a female courier in the 1990s when there were barely any female couriers to speak of, a badass fixed-gear rider by many (many) accounts, and a woman who insisted she only wanted to be treated the same as a man; she also spent eight years traveling around the United States, working as a courier in Chicago, Houston, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, DC, Boston, and New York, and collecting hundreds of oral histories from the couriers she met along the way. In 2000, she compiled many of these stories into Nerves of Steel, an incredible 300-page rollercoaster ride through the US bike messenger scene in the 90s. The above video is from Rachel Strickland’s Portable Effects project; I could talk for hours about the relationship between bicycles and femininity in it. (I’ve written a little more extensively about Reilly here.)
4. The Dropout‘s Bike Taxi Babes calendar
Back in January 2010, I managed to sneak into a photo shoot for The Dropout‘s first bike pin-up spread, and being a good (if idealistic) feminist, I spent the rest of that semester trying to fit that night – and the photographs that eventually made it into the magazine – into some semblance of third-wave feminism. It was Elly, actually, who pointed out that not every pin-up has to be feminist, and bikes don’t automatically lead to feminist liberation. (Thanks, Elly.) With that in mind, I’m fascinated by The Dropout‘s latest project, the Bike Taxi Babes. As far as I know, the ladies pictured are all pedicabbers, and the calendar has more of the flavor of burlesque than pornography; The Dropout is a pedicab-community organ, and the project is a resolutely for-profit venture. I can’t even begin to talk about how this complicates what it means to be a female cyclist.
5. Rick Darge’s Bike ❤
bike ♥ from Rick Darge on Vimeo.
Rick Darge is a cinematographer who has worked with, oh, I don’t know, LCD Soundsystem, Fritos, and Dell, and his video is pretty incredible in its ability to tell a story and capture complex emotions without the main character uttering a single word. The Robert Johnston is a nice touch, too. But while I love this video for its composition, the one thing that truly stands out to me is how adolescently girly it is: how young and innocent Dee looks, how much the camera loves her sweet eyes and hair, how her delicate lace and lingerie contrast with her black socks and Vans. Her love for her bicycle, like Dee herself, is stuck somewhere between childhood innocence and full-grown lady. So what, does she have to cast off all two-wheeled childish things to become a woman? I guess it is a bit tricky to ride a bike in heels…
… or is it?