Saturday, June 6, 2009

Front Porch Cycle Chic: The revolt against lifestyle

[Welcome, visitors from Carbon Trace(!) and Copenhagen Cycle Chic(!)--and thanks to Mikael for his kind mention of this post. I hope you enjoy your visit.]

Two people converse next to a high-wheel bicycle at the fence of the first home of Alfred W. Bitting, 259 North Emporia Avenue, Wichita, c. 1882. Unknown photographer. Click image to enlarge. Repository: Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. Image found here.

I don't know whether the bicycle in the picture belonged to the Bitting family or to their visitor. But it doesn't matter. What matters for purposes of this (very long) piece is what that bicycle suggests to me and, indeed, what cycling has come to embody for me: an easy, practical means for its owner to maintain a connection with others who don't live within its owner's immediate vicinity.

Something I'd never before imagined myself seeing was a philosophical kinship of any sort between Copenhagen Cycle Chic and Front Porch Republic. But that was before this morning. As strange a confluence as this is, though, it matters to you--or should--if you share my interest in trying to shift the conceptual frame cycling gets placed in by Wichitans--even by most cyclists--known by the insidious term "lifestyle." Until that shift occurs, we'll continue to see really, really nice bike paths built that don't really go to places where people live, work and shop and, at the same time, a continued lack of on-street infrastructure for cyclists that would facilitate their getting to places where they do live, work and shop.

As recent visitors to this blog know, I've written approvingly in a couple of posts over the past few days about the Cycle Chic movement. The idea, despite the name, is really very simple: You don't need a fancy bike or clothes; ideally, you don't even need a helmet. Just put on the clothes and shoes you'd usually wear for work or shopping, dust off your one-speed cruiser, and go. The coolness of Cycle Chic is precisely that the rider wears what s/he usually wears, goes where s/he usually goes and does what s/he usually does--just on a bicycle. There's absolutely no affectation involved with Cycle Chic, no "in" crowd, no special gear; the entire point is not muss and fuss, but the absence of it. Or, as Henry David Thoreau memorably put the matter regarding the general affairs of one's life, "Simplify, simplify!"

But as many of you know, in-town cycling is now, well, chic. Those of us who want to cycle as a practical and inexpensive means of getting around town to do what needs to be done are now a Market: a group of people who need Stuff, whether or not they in fact need that Stuff. And yesterday Mikael of Copenhagen Cycle Chic put up a lengthy post identifying a couple of the more disturbing manifestations of this fact that have recently appeared: Shimano (the company that almost certainly manufactured your 21-speed bike's shifters and derailleurs) is now apparently marketing "'Cycling shoes' that were completely normal shoes, just with a Shimano logo." Or this passage from a recent Reuters story:
In keeping with the city's efforts to promote cycling, luxury apparel maker LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton asked students at the Fashion Institute of Technology to create chic yet affordable cycling gear.

"We want to do everything we can to raise the profile of biking in New York," Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, said at the news conference to announce the winning design.

"Having functioning, attractive gear so you can arrive at work looking stylish should be very encouraging," she said. "No one wants to show up at work looking like bike messengers."
To which Mikael replies, "Unbelievable. '...functioning, attractive gear'? Open your closets. Buy a chainguard. Fenders. Off you go."

In the face of market capitalism, Mikael concludes, "Let's sell bicycles and bicycle culture. Let's make our cities nicer places to live": activities not usually thought of as being among the contributive causes of the wealth of nations. In other words: the buying and selling of bicycles aside, Cycle Chic is very much about its participants' extricating themselves, if only a little, from the consumerist dynamic.

This idea has been one of this blog's central assumptions almost from its very beginnings:
Because Nature matters to cyclists, they become different sorts of consumers of their world. Topography and weather and their bodies' and bicycles' needs, not fantasy, shape their choices--indeed, those factors reacquire an immediacy that, [Fredric] Jameson argues, postmodern culture had assumed for them. The local and immediate are what catch and hold their attention. Theirs are pragmatic sorts of choices, and being compelled to make such choices has a way of revealing just how superfluous and self-indulgent most people's choices are. This, of course, is something the vast majority of manufacturers, marketers and merchants would prefer we not dwell on too thoughtfully or for too long.

I'm not arguing that serious cycling is at its heart anti-capitalist but, rather, that it goes against the grain of how consumerism has come to shape our thinking about wants and needs and how to meet them. It thus opens up a space for the individual to see him- or herself relative to those dynamics and respond with a bit more autonomy than s/he might otherwise have.
It's here that we perhaps can begin to see why the term "lifestyle" is so unhelpful as a frame for contextualizing cycling. Within the context of economics, that term has the effect of re-inserting cyclists back into the very dynamic that we're trying to remove ourselves from; within the context of debates about city infrastructure, that term makes it all the easier for the skeptical to respond, "No one's making you ride your bikes" or "Get on the sidewalks, then, if the streets are too unsafe."

A quick perusal of the OED is very instructive here: "Lifestyle" first appeared in the 1920s as a term from psychotherapy "to denote a person's basic character as established early in childhood which governs his reactions and behaviour." It was only in the 1970s, though, that the word acquired its current, more familiar meaning, "A way or style of living." Though it's true that, strictly speaking, there's nary a whiff of consumerism in that latter definition, the mere existence of "Christian Lifestyle" stores--I mean, really: ponder the implications of such a concept--is all you need to know about the extent to which consumerism pervades our thinking about how we live: we live as we do because we choose that manner of living; it is our "style." An entire economy has thus emerged whose purpose is to produce and market items that will outwardly mark for others the style we've chosen.

How we live is sold to us rather than constructed by us; "lifestyle" is designed more to say something to impress others than to say something essential about us as individuals.

Front Porch Republic's "About" statement in effect makes these same arguments about consumerism and/but also identifies Big Government as complicit with corporations: an aiding, abetting co-conspirator eating away at the vitality of what, in this blog, I've been calling communities:
The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.
Yes indeed. To link these sentiments more directly to the concerns of this blog: It is a sad irony that our cities, entities deliberately planned by and for human beings, in fact more often than not feel denuded of their humanity--assuming they had any humanity to be denuded of in the first place. This has happened because, too often for the past 100 years, city planning plans not with human beings but with automobiles in mind.

Another essay at Front Porch Republic, Patrick Deneen's "A Republic of Front Porches," examines what it takes to be the signs and symptoms of the dissolution of community (broadly defined) in the U.S. via Richard Thomas's 1975 essay, "From Porch to Patio." In the italicized passage below, Deneen quotes Thomas directly, then comments afterward:
When a family member was on the porch it was possible to invite the passerby to stop and come onto the porch for extended conversation. The person on the porch was very much in control of this interaction, as the porch was seen as an extension of the living quarters of the family. Often, a hedge or fence separated the porch from the street or board sidewalk, providing a physical barrier for privacy, yet low enough to permit conversation. The porch served many important social functions in addition to advertising the availability of its inhabitants. A well-shaded porch provided a cool place in the heat of the day for the women to enjoy a rest from household chores. They could exchange gossip or share problems without having to arrange a “neighborhood coffee” or a “bridge party.” The porch also provided a courting space within earshot of protective parents. A boy and a girl could be close on a porch swing, yet still observed, and many a proposal of marriage was made on a porch swing. Older persons derived great pleasure from sitting on the porch, watching the world go by, or seeing the neighborhood children at play.

By contrast, the patio reflected both new settlement patterns and the increasing desire for privacy and withdrawal from interaction with one’s neighbors. “In communities with high rates of mobility, one did not often want to know his neighbor. The constant turn-over of neighbors worked against the long-term relationships which are essential to a sense of belonging.” The patio, it was believed, was a symbol and practical expression of our independence, our liberation from the niggling demands of neighbor and community. Yet, Thomas insightfully notes that it was just as much a symbol and reality of a new kind of bondage, the bondage especially to the automobile and to the grim necessities of mobility, including long commutes and increasing isolation from a wide variety of bonds.
At the end of his essay, Deneen challenges us "to revive our tradition of building and owning homes with front porches, and to be upon them where we can both see our neighbors and be seen by them, speak and listen to one another, and, above all, be in a place between, but firmly in place." I would like to suggest, in keeping with my sense of the picture that begins this post, that bicycles can play a significant role in that revival by in effect serving as a kind of virtual extension of our individual front porches: as we cycle through our communities, we have an intimacy with them simply not possible when in our cars--and those neighborhoods through which we commute become, if not our own, then certainly something more than some streets with houses on them that automobile travel converts them into. Indeed, I have come to feel an emotional tie to that part of south Wichita I regularly ride through that, I feel certain, simply would not have occurred had I driven that same route. Yet, bicycles' practicality and portability create that version of independence that arises not from mere mobility but from self-reliance in all its senses.

Bicycle-riding thus, to my mind, has a significant role to play in the reviving of the importance of place as envisioned by the writers of Front Porch Republic--and the Cycle Chic movement is, to my mind a version of that role--assuming, that is, that it not be co-opted by consumer capitalism. Far from being merely a "lifestyle," cycling is, in the deepest senses of the phrases, life-enhancing and life-affirming in ways no lifestyle ever could be.

If you've read this far, you probably wouldn't mind reading some more about the self-sufficiency of Cycle Chic. Here you go. Andrew's own gloss on these ideas is not only also worth your time, it's a whole lot shorter than what you just read.


Kent Peterson said...

You wrote: 'Or, as Henry David Thoreau memorably put the matter regarding the general affairs of one's life, "Simplify, simplify!" (Would not the Concord Curmudgeon have been a cyclist, had they been invented in the mid-19th century?)'

Actually, Thoreau wrote, "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" Bob Newhart observed that it would have been simpler if he'd written it only once!

And while I certainly agree with the gist of your essay, I think you're off-base on Thoreau. Re-read his "Walking" essay and his train to Fitchburg argument and I think it's pretty clear that he'd see no need to own a bicycle.

John B. said...

Thanks for coming by and commenting. It's an honor to be visited by one of this country's prominent bike-bloggers.

A small point of order regarding the Thoreau quote: in the very same paragraph in Walden (specifically, that paragraph in "Where I Lived, What I Lived For" that begins, "Still we live meanly, like ants . . ."), Thoreau says both "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" and "Simplify, simplify." Admittedly, that has no effect on the larger point either of us is making.

As to your larger point, though: In his day, yes, had bicycles been around, Thoreau would still have preferred to walk. Off to edit. I don't think, though, he would have objected as vociferously to cycling as he does to railroads.

Erik Sandblom said...

Hey, Shimano makes three-speeds with coaster brakes too. I bet Mikael's three-speed is a Shimano!

Anonymous said...

Thoreau lectured (what did he lecture for, I wonder?). The lecture form has three parts. First you tell them what you are going to say, then you say it, then you tell them what you said.

"Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" is a lecture in its most simplified form, so Newhart was wrong (but still funny enough that I've always remembered that bit).

I am not so sure that Thoreau would not have bicycled, given his argument. The bicycle can be obtained at a reasonable price and works by one's one muscle thereafter and small cost of maintenance.

Taking into account the cost of shoes (yes, I know he had some words to say about those as well) and the lifespan of the bicycle over the course of time I would hazard the bicycle might win that race against the walker if the trip to Fitchburg were made a few times.

And they're quiet.

And he would have ridden fixed.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Eric, you lose.

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.