walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Down the Asphalt Path_, Clay McShane

Subtitled The Automobile and the American City

"Clay McShane is Associate Professor at Northeastern University in Boston", well, he was, now he is "Emeritus" and while he used to do lots of car stuff this says he's into horses in cities now:


This book was published 1994 by Columbia University Press, however, it reprints part of "the author's May 1979 essay, "Transforming the Use of Urban Space: A Look at the Revolution in Street Pavements, 1880-1924"

It is the nature of this sort of book that it's going to be a bit of reuse, recycle (hence, two of the chapters spend a lot of time on the interaction of horses, rail, autos and pavements, and parts of other ones spend a lesser amount of time on the same thing -- a large chunk of the book, in other words), it is the nature of the topic that a good chunk of it is going to be reporting contemporary sources of variable reliability about what was actually happening, er, on the ground.

I found it frustrating, however, for two main reasons. First, there's a lot of scattershot facting: little details that struck the author as interesting or odd that he encountered in his research and serves up here. A lot of them _are_ interesting or odd, altho some of them I can't figure out why the author found that interesting or odd. I resorted, as I am wont to do, to the notes, where I discovered that quite often he was relying upon a quotation in a source unavailable to me. For example, he says that some sect banned cars, or specifically Buicks but not Model Ts because of exalting the heart. In both references (I've merged two), the source is a 1928 doctoral thesis that I cannot find a copy of (want to help? It's John Henry Mueller's _The Automobile: A Sociological Study_, 1928, University of Chicago). It's a maddening references in so many ways, because McShane calls the sect in question Dunkards (in one of the references, and I'm convinced if it isn't Dunkards in both, it's some related anabaptist group in the other and I'd like to know which) so naturally it is interesting to me. And he treats them as a "traditional" group which isn't really a fair way to characterize Anabaptists, altho I don't doubt that they'd like it.

Second, his gender analysis is relentlessly ... second wave feminist? would be the most optimistic interpretation, but honestly that's not particularly fair to second wave. He finds all kinds of reasons why women might not want to drive cars in the time frame he is discussing: they are dirty, unreliable, prone to breakdown, likely to be attacked by pedestrians, physically exhausting to start and operate, not to mention expensive. Sounds like _just_ the sort of thing a typical woman in any time and place might want to participate in, doesn't it? But instead, he dives into some weird analysis of power relations and threatened masculinity, when it is extremely apparent that even as the automobile became more widespread and accessible to less monied group (and thus a family could afford at most one, vs. earlier adopters who collected them in stables and thus had one or an entire category -- electrics, devoted to use by women and/or those who drove them about), women were never legally restricted in the United States from ownership, registration or operation, and while the first (only) car in a family was often registered in the man's name, equally it was often driven by the woman as well.

He does demonstrate that many women in the very narrow cohort that interests him (women who reached driving age before 1916, IIRC) were likely to drive than later cohorts, which is, I suppose, something, but I'm not sure what. We often tend to keep doing whatever we were doing when we matured: we adopt a pattern of life and are more likely to stay within it than engage in dramatic change. The pattern of life typical of the time period he is interested in involved a huge fraction of the population not ever moving very far in the course of their lives -- or making one big move and then never moving again, type of thing. I think that's a better explanation of that female cohort never-driving (in conjunction with how awful the cars and roads were when they might have been young and foolish enough to learn to drive) than the threatened masculinity and blah blah bleeping blah which he repeatedly invokes.

McShane also mentions children in the context of cars only rarely, and yet this was the last cohort that had large families as a matter of course. While he mentions the monied car owners complaining about the availability and reliability of chauffeurs, he completely ignores the issues associated with other kinds of domestic help, which continued to be an issue through this time frame. That only comes up when he talks about the move to the suburbs and home automation (and there, I feel like he's violating his time frame more often than not). Women who were having and caring for 5 or 6 or 7 children weren't really in a position to be learning to drive a car, much less engaging in extended road trips. While auto makers showed women with children in cars (and a few people were driving their kids around as a reward or a leisure activity and he mentions this in passing), they didn't show women and children in cars in line drawings with slashes to show them speeding down the road. I'm fairly certain everyone knew that if kids got hurt getting thrown when a horse ran away with the wagon (surrey, curricle wtf), kids got dead in autos pretty easily, too. McShane talks about kids in streets being killed (it's _really_ obvious McShane is writing through a Jane Jacobs lens), but he doesn't talk about kids in cars. It's a lapse that was an error, because therein lies most of the explanation for the paucity of women drivers. Women who were not elite enough to have an army of child care were spending all of their time in the company of and responsible for small children, which was wildly incompatible with automobility during his chosen time frame and a good while thereafter.

Far and away the biggest problem with the book, however, is its failure to even mention the development of rapid transit, particularly in NYC, during the time frame he covers. That's such a problem that it renders everything about the rest of his discussion of the evolution and revolution in urban space irretrievably suspect.

Don't waste your time. You'll learn things you can't trust, and can't check.

But if anyone can find that Mueller thesis for me, I'll pay to have it copied if I can't pay to buy it.

I bought my copy of McShane's work used in paper. It'll head out to the donation bin within the month.
Tags: book review
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