Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Forgotten History of Traffic

Previously posted on Rootsweb's APG [Association of Professional Genealogists] mailing list:

My day job doesn't usually offer much food for genealogical thought, but today's a good day. These sentences from Peter D. Norton's new book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), seem appropriate to the never-ending quest for good historical context:

"Success in . . . historical investigations requires not merely looking back from where we stand today at the actors of times past, but getting back to them, so we can stand next to them and adopt their perspective." In particular,

"Today we tend to regard streets as motor thoroughfares, and we tend to project this construction back to pre-automotive streets. In retrospect, therefore, the use of streets for children's play (for example) can seem obviously wrong, and thus the departure of children from streets with the arrival of automobiles can seem an obvious and simple necessity. Only when we can see the prevailing social construction of the street from the perspective of its own time can we also see the car as the intruder. Until we do, not only will we fail to understand the violent revolution in street use circa 1915-1930, we will not even see it. This is why the full scale of the wave of blood, grief and anger in American city streets in the 1920s has eluded notice." (page 2)

If you're skeptical of his substantive thesis, or prefer factual details to theory talk, I recommend the whole book as a meticulously detailed and thoroughly documented account of how "common sense" reversed itself within a few decades.

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