Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of stories in celebration of the bicentennial of the invention of the bicycle.
Two underappreciated dates bracket, in a curious way, the grand sweep of Minneapolis bicycling history.
The first, Dec. 31, 1904. It was on this day that a gleeful superintendent of police for the city of Minneapolis declared the bicycle dead as a form of transportation, except as a desperate, last resort by the city’s “working” citizens. That assessment, from one Edward J. Conroy, came in the superintendent’s annual report to the City Council. He wrote:
“Bicycling in Minneapolis has ceased to be counted as one of the pastimes, and automobiling has been taken on by those who can afford the luxury. Now only workingmen and working women use the bicycle, and only as a means of carrying them to and from shop, factory, or their trades. … The long lines of bicycle stores that crowded the down town business streets is a scene of the past. They have been succeeded by large and spacious ‘auto’ ware rooms or the proprietors have gone out of business. The prices of bicycles have declined from $100 to $25, and the craze for wheeling has likewise relatively diminished.”
The superintendent added: “Bicycle paths, built and maintained by the city, have grown up with weeds, and progressive America now demands more modern means of locomotion or (to) satisfy such cravings for an ‘auto’ by patronizing streetcars.”
The second date is May 6, 2014. That was when humbled, grim-faced civic leaders in Portland, Ore., ordered the destruction of a prominent mural on a downtown building that read, “Welcome to America’s Bicycle Capital.”
City officials that day mumbled something about code variances and permit problems. But they knew they were fooling no one. The order came after a series of august national and international appraisals of municipal commitments to bicycle infrastructure, laws and culture. Those studies acknowledged Portland’s nifty little collection of bike lanes. But the magazines and advocacy groups were unanimous: If you really want to see a vibrant, inventive, globally significant biking city, you have to go to, ahem, Minneapolis.
Portland accepted these humiliations — but grudgingly. Media investigations of the order to remove the “Bicycle Capital” mural found subsequently that it was inspired, according to the city, by a mysterious, unnamed “anonymous complaint.” To that, the Portland Oregonian newspaper wrote, “We’re looking at you, Minneapolis.”
Superintendent Edward J. Conroy, turn over in your grave.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.