Is New York City the Car Culture Capital of America?

When you hear the words "car culture," what — or where — do you think of? The freeways of Los Angeles? The factories of Detroit? With its new show, "Cars, Culture and the City," the Museum of the City of New York attempts to retell the history of the automobile with New York City at the very center. 

The curators make a convincing case. Even if New York never let itself be quite as dominated by the car as other American cities, much of the intellectual firepower that created car culture originated here. New York’s "great mistake" of surrendering to the automobile reverberated across the country, making an outsize impact on our shared understanding of how to get around. While the exhibit is sponsored by the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, it provides a value-neutral assessment and closes with a hint that, perhaps, a turn toward livable streets in New York could similarly reshape the nation. 

I put together this photo essay based on the exhibit to give a sense of how New York City has been an ideological staging ground for car companies, car advertisers, and car-centric planners. (Some of the images here are not the same as those on display at MCNY.)

25chry_slide06.jpgThe showroom on the ground floor of the Chrysler Building, in the 1930s. Image: skyscrapercity.com.

The exhibit’s most effective pieces are those which allow New Yorkers to see familiar places and objects in a new light. The iconic spire of the Chrysler Building may still catch our eye, but how often do we think about its name, much less the fact that the ground floor was once the brand’s flagship showroom?

clinton_park_manhattan_sgla220309_3.jpgA rendering of the new Mercedes-Benz dealership slated for 11th Ave. and 53rd St. The design will become the template for dealerships across the country: Image: e-architect.

Since New York remains the cultural capital of the country, car companies continue to flock here to burnish their image. In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art became the first museum in the world to display automobiles as art. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a Jaguar dealership for New York City with a spiral center explicitly echoing his Guggenheim Museum. Today, high-design showrooms continue to pop up in chic Manhattan neighborhoods as companies attempt to brand their cars as personal identities rather than products. 

think_small.jpgThis Volkswagen ad, by NYC firm Doyle Dane Bernbach, was voted the top advertising campaign of all time by Advertising Age magazine. Image: Ad Age.

New York City firms have played a huge role pitching cars to the rest of the nation. Madison Avenue advertisers built the image of the automobile, sending car culture across the country and the world. 

futurama_img_1.pngThe Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Futurama was sponsored by General Motors and proved one of the most influential pieces of the fair. Image: morrischia.com
Cars19_1.jpgThe 1964 World’s Fair — less high modern and more Las Vegas kitsch — featured a tire ferris wheel, a Dodge-sponsored rocket ship, and a giant car. An updated Futurama, not shown here, was again sponsored by General Motors and was the most well-attended exhibit at the Fair. Image courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art, via the Museum of the City of New York.

New York was where the vision for a national car-based infrastructure first took root. At the World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964, Americans flocked to see displays of megalithic towers connected by super-highways to the horizon: Le Corbusier and Robert Moses meet the Jetsons. 

Cars__Culture_and_the_City_Exhibit_0.JPGNew York’s 1909 traffic code, on display at MCNY. Image: Noah Kazis.

New York has played a pivotal role in almost every step of the technical development of our car-dependent transportation system. The first multiple-lane, limited-access roads (a.k.a. highways)? The Bronx River Parkway and the Long Island Motor Parkway. The first traffic code in the world? William Phelps Eno’s 1903 code, written for New York City. 

"Cars, Culture and the City" challenges our popular understanding of the automobile. It’s not that we don’t know about each of these examples of New York City’s history with the automobile, but our imaginations still drift westward when asked to place car culture’s origins. This exhibit — well worth a trip — forcefully argues that the story begins in New York. 

And how does it end? Well, the exhibit closes by showing that what’s coming out of New York City these days isn’t quite car culture:

In addition to Madison Avenue car commercials, New York City is now sending Streetfilms to the rest of the country. This one and four others were playing on a loop. Next to them was a glass case containing a copy of PlaNYC. If New York’s livable streets advocates shape the national transportation discussion half as much as their auto-centric predecessors did, America could look very different a generation from now. 

  • What an unbelievable coup to have Streetfilms at the end of this exhibit!

  • Let me add one more piece of New York history: automobile riots. I have not seen it in any history of city planning, but John Dos Passos describes one in his novel Manhattan Transfer, which I quote:

    At the next corner, a crowd was collecting round a highslung white automobile. Clouds of steam poured out of its rear end. A policeman was holding up a small boy by the armpits. From the car a redfaced man with white walrus whiskers was talking angrily.

    “I tell you officer he threw a stone. . . . This sort of thing has got to stop. For an officer to countenance hoodlums and rowdies. . . .”

    A woman with her hair done up in a tight bunch on top of her head was screaming, shaking her fist at the man in the car, “Officer he near run me down he did, he near run me down.”

    Bud edged up next to a young man in a butcher’s apron who had a baseball cap on backwards.

    “Wassa matter?”

    “Hell I dunno. . . . One o them automoebile riots I guess. Aint you read the paper? I dont blame em do you? What right have those golblamed automoebiles got racin round the city knockin down wimen and children?”

    “Gosh do they do that?”

    “Sure they do.”

    Apparently automobile riots were common, judging from the question “Aint you read the paper?”

  • This thread is already the top Google hit for “automobile riots”.

  • Nicely put together review, Noah. Regarding your opinion of it being “value- neutral” I can mostly only speculate as I have no chance of viewing the show in person.

    The imagery of automobilism does indeed start in New York City, led by “Madison Avenue”. With this in mind, I checked out the website of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association (GNYADA) and specifically the page about the show, about which it says “This exhibition showcases how important the automobile industry has been in the economic and social fabric of New York City.”

    If we can take that at face value, i.e. the mission statement of the show, then is it value-neutral? I am not sure, but clearly an anti-pedestrian thing would not work in NYC, since it would get flamed by Streetsblog among others. That amimation by Elizabeth Press is indeed lovely but nevertheless highlights a place where sold automobiles can still be driven.

    Giving some tasty crumbs to wonderful and hardworking better street advocates is not quite a coup. Having these films at the end makes linear sense, but they are intended mainly as a release valve. (I cannot tell from your review so am curious if the timeline starts with a carfree NYC!). These car folks can create amazing meals with a fresh 30 second spot, a generous pinch of peer pressure (and wars for resources out of sight – and out of your wallet – in the kitchen).

    The GNYADA has a couple other tasty morsels on their website, such as “Breathing Life into the Community” on their “Human Impact” page.

    So… as far as I can tell this is just another commercial for private automobilism. Its style is simply reflecting modern sensibility, and there is nothing new about that. The substance remains virtually the same (you refer to any difference as “… a hint that, perhaps…”).

    For an international example of what the automobile advertising industrial complex is up to, check out “Movimentos – The Autostadt Festival Weeks 2010”. Autostadt is a 25 hectare permanent exhibition by Volkswagen, in Wolfsburg, Germany. The theme of Movimentos for this year is „Mut und Demut“ (“Courage and Humility“).

    Pleasant driving!

  • Back when the government was just starting to build highways, New York had one of the highest car ownership rates in the US, not one of the lowest. It had the first gas station, in 1901; it was one of the first states to have formal driver licensing; and it had a large upper class that could afford cars.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I wonder how much the tendency of the early drivers to run into the ubiquitous trolleys, and the press coverage of the same, had to do with the demise of surface rail in NYC.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I was once given a bunch of old Life magazines from the late 1940s and early 1950s, but had no place to put them and eventually got rid of them.

    There were many multi-page picture ads by Ford, showing the new world made possible by the automobile. And that world was not in New York City.

    One I remember was “Escape to the Greenbelt.” In one they showed a city neighborhood, where kids had no place to play, and “maybe got in trouble.” But the automobile was changing all that, and the next pages saw a wholesome Levittown-type suburb, accessible by auto.

    I think the New York idea was automobiles driven by the rich, a golden age that ended when enough non-rich people had them, and there wasn’t (and could never be) enough street space to go around.

  • Larry Littlefield
  • JamesR

    I went and saw this on Sunday. My take is that there was probably a lot of give and take with the museum curators and the GNYADA over the exhibititon’s content. It did touch upon all of the major forces at work over the course of the last century, with requisite attention paid to Moses, Madison Avenue, the advent of auto parkways, and cars as fetish objects and as chariots to the American Dream. I would say that an implicit assumption of the exhibition was that cars will always play a role in the affairs of city residents in one form or another.

    However, IMO, the Livable Streets-related initiatives over the last 5 or so years were given somewhat of a short shrift. You just didn’t get the impression that we’ve turned a corner when it comes to the debate around the allocation of street space to cars versus cyclists and pedestrians. There was a photo or two showing the post-pedestrianized Times Square toward the end of the exhibit, but that was really it. Transportation Alternatives didn’t even get a mention – it was just lumped into a paragraph on “nonprofits and citizen advocates” and the like without being mentioned by name. All in all, it wasn’t bad, but I would they could have done a little more to flesh out the critically important recent initiatives.

  • Larry, a lot of things in the US were envisioned as being just for the rich, and then changed once the middle class could afford them. For example, the early conservationists envisioned National Parks as being a reclusive ground for upper-class recreation; John Muir was aghast at middle-class tourists taking photos at Yosemite.

    Niccolo, I don’t know if car-trolley accidents were responsible for the demise of streetcars, but cities definitely thought of making things easier for drivers as they replaced streetcars with buses. Even in Germany, part of the impetus for replacing trams with subways was that they wouldn’t interfere with cars as much.

  • JW

    what about the park avenue widening that wiped out most of the park? that occured i believe in 1909

    the PBS Burns NYC series talks a bit about the struggle in NYC in the early auto era between streets for people and streets for cars

  • JW, aerial photos from 1924 show the Park Avenue Malls at twice the size they are today. You can compare the overlay to the maps of today as shown in contemporary aerial photos by clicking on the blue plus sign icon on the right side of the frame.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I encourage everyone to look at that two-page “Escape to the Greenbelt” ad I linked above.

    On the first, “city” page” there are twelve kids together on the sidewalk, three mothers/grandmothers looking down on them, and a firefighter coming by to provide them with a sprinkle. There is no traffic on the street. This is what people were escaping from.

    On the second, suburban page there is grass and trees, but almost no one is outside on a beautiful day. They are all inside watching TV. There is no traffic here either, as there is plenty of pavement for the number of residences. That is probably not the case down on the arterial all the subdivisions empty on to.

    In the city “Trouble breeds easily in slums and other let down neighborhoods — wherever children are bored or walled in. Then trouble comes as sure as Saturday Night, when the patrol wagon parks waiting for its first load.”

    Ha! In the suburbs in reality, the kids are having their parents drive them to the parking lot of the 7-11 so they can hang out together and avoid boredom, and when the drink, they get behind the wheel.

  • Mister Bad Example

    Of COURSE NYC was a pre-eminent locus for car ownership up through the 1920’s. It was one of the few places in the country where all the streets were paved. That wasn’t true in the hinterlands–there were very few paved roads in much of the South, for example. Cars weren’t amenable to places without paved roads–too many broken axles and bent wheels.

    Of course, once car ownership reached critical mass, nobody could move on the streets. That’s when companies like GM started their campaigns for National Highway construction–it does no good to own a car if traffic is too congested.