As I lurched down Broad Street on Friday, my Indego bike seat sliding inexorably downward, my knees at my ears, drivers behind me honking to raise the dead, and drivers in front of me deploying the one-finger salute, it occurred to me that following a bike route recommended by my own paper in 1897 might not have been the wisest choice.
Still, I felt that Alphonse Estoclet, the Gilded Age Inquirer columnist who came up with the route, would have sympathized with my plight. The paper's first bicycle columnist, "The Inquirer Roadster," started riding bikes at a time when people would throw tacks in the road to deter speed demons like Alphonse on their newfangled cycling machines.
I came across Alphonse and his bike routes in an article by Rutgers University librarian Julie Still on the blog Hidden City, about her project to digitize 46 of Alphonse's old columns, called "Trips Awheel."
Alphonse, a French immigrant, moved here in 1850 and threw himself into Philly's history, its biking scene, and, naturally, its hatred of New York. He carefully worked insults against our neighbors to the north into as many of his local biking columns as he could.
Such as in a column on a ride down Broad Street, where he made fun of a New York newspaper's gushing about Fifth Avenue, and defended Philadelphia's superior thoroughfare and modest citizenry. "We are not the least little bit inclined to emulate such hyperbolical phraseology (not to use a shorter and blunter expression)," he wrote, "and we prefer to let facts speak for themselves."
More than a century later, I am still not allowed, in these pages, to use the short and blunt expression that I'm sure Alphonse was thinking of. Plus ça change, as Alphonse would say.
For Still, who is 57 and lives in Glenside, digitizing the columns has been a love labor — mostly because Alphonse's delight in his adopted city is so palpable.
"It's sort of a condensed history of Philadelphia till 1897," Still said.
Alphonse told stories about George Washington and William Penn, but he reveled in the little things: A row of exquisite doorknockers on Germantown Avenue. The precise color of the curtains at the Walnut Street Theatre.
And he was a newspaper curmudgeon in the truest form. In one column, he complained about an overpriced breakfast in Conwingo, Md. On a route through Glassboro, he wrote about filling up his flask for the next leg of the journey, but wouldn't tell his readers what was in it: engaging in a time-honored tradition of trying to expense hooch without his Inquirer bosses finding out.
His columns are a real-time record of a changing city: He recorded notable new buildings — like the beautiful, public school at Fifth and Wharton Streets, now gone, and the shiny new Lorraine Apartments, which would one day become the Divine Lorraine Hotel.
His column tackled the same challenges that today's bikers face.
He told his readers to avoid getting stuck in the trolley tracks that still dot South Philly's streets. And, just as now, there was a glaring shortage of bike lanes: "As soon as [the Reading Railroad subway] is completed," Alphonse sniffed in his column on Broad Street, "we shall have the whole width of the street asphalted, instead of the narrow strip now provided on each side (nominally) for our use."
Randy LoBasso, the communications manager for Philly's Bicycle Coalition, recognizes in Alphonse the zeal of a fellow biker, constantly on the hunt for the perfect route and the city's hidden beauties. And in the cycling clubs of the Gilded Age, and their failure to integrate, LoBasso sees a continued necessity for Philly's largely white biking advocacy community to draw in bikers of color.
LoBasso is all too familiar with the public attitudes that have dogged bikers through the century: Cyclists then, as now, were seen by some as a disruption. "A lot of people were saying, 'Horse and carriages, that's how we get around. What is this thing speeding around my neighborhood?' " he said, laughing.
Still hopes that the routes will eventually be turned into interactive maps that museums and historical societies could put to use. (With the caveat that, with many parts of the routes no longer active, buried under centuries' worth of construction, the collection is more of a historical resource than a Saturday afternoon guide.)
For now, it was just me on Alphonse's old "circuitous city ramble," huffing down Broad Street, realizing that I had broken one of the columnist's golden rules: Never "sally forth unprepared on a hot and dusty day." Still, I powered up Passyunk Avenue. Past the singing fountain, at the intersection where Alphonse once closed his eyes and longed for the pleasure garden that once sat there. Down blistering Washington Avenue, once, according to Alphonse, a shady paradise known as a lovers' lane.
I finally cooled my heels in St. Peter's Cemetery on Pine Street, one of the only places on my route that hadn't changed at all since Alphonse's time. I'd spent all day shutting my eyes and imagining what had once been. Here at St. Peter's, I didn't have to imagine anything. My view and Alphonse's were, at last, the same.