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Urban Flow

Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City

Jeffrey L. Kidder
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Urban Flow
    Book Description:

    Bike messengers are familiar figures in the downtown cores of major cities. Tasked with delivering time-sensitive materials within, at most, a few hours-and sometimes in as little as fifteen minutes-these couriers ride in all types of weather, weave in and out of dense traffic, dodging (or sometimes failing to dodge) taxis and pedestrians alike in order to meet their clients' tight deadlines. Riding through midtown traffic at breakneck speeds is dangerous work, and most riders do it for very little pay and few benefits. As the courier industry has felt the pressures of first fax machines, then e-mails, and finally increased opportunities for electronic filing of legal "paperwork," many of those who remain in the business are devoted to their job. For these couriers, messengering is the foundation for an all-encompassing lifestyle, an essential part of their identity. In Urban Flow, Jeffrey L. Kidder (a sociologist who spent several years working as a bike messenger) introduces readers to this fascinating subculture, exploring its appeal as well as its uncertainties and dangers.

    Through interviews with and observation of messengers at work and play, Kidder shows how many become acclimated to the fast-paced, death-defying nature of the job, often continuing to ride with the same sense of purpose off the clock. In chaotic bike races called alleycats, messengers careen through the city in hopes of beating their peers to the finish line. Some messengers travel the world to take part in these events, and the top prizes are often little more than bragging rights. Taken together, the occupation and the messengers' after-hours pursuits highlight a creative subculture inextricably linked to the urban environment. The work of bike messengers is intense and physically difficult. It requires split-second reflexes, an intimate knowledge of street maps and traffic patterns, and a significant measure of courage in the face of both bodily harm and job insecurity. In Urban Flow, Kidder gives readers a rare opportunity to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of these habitués of city streets.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6291-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Lure of Delivery
    (pp. 1-16)

    It was just after dark in Claremont Park, in the Bronx, on Saturday, August 24, 2002. I was dressed in a mock-up of a New York Yankees baseball jersey, with my face painted yellow and red. Five other guys were dressed just like me. We were a comic-book caricature of a street gang, and we called ourselves the Furies. Standing around us were eighty-four other equally fictional gangs: the Bloody Marys, the Cutters, the Electric Vikings, the South Side Slashers, and more. In total, almost six hundred oddly dressed men and women were in Claremont Park that night. We all...

  5. 1 THE JOB
    (pp. 17-41)

    Bike messengers provide on-demand delivery. During normal business hours (usually eight in the morning to six at night), messengers will deliver any item (with obvious limits to physical size) anywhere within the downtown core of a city and its surrounding area in a short span of time. Many companies offer early-morning and late-night service, and many even provide longer-distance delivery. Some Seattle messengers, for example, make regular runs to Bellevue, Washington (over ten miles from downtown Seattle). Size and weight are also negotiable. Although it is rare, some companies use cargo bikes that allow them to deliver hundreds of pounds...

    (pp. 42-64)

    Fannin and I started working in Seattle on the same day. Fannin got the job because his friend already worked at the company (and Fannin’s friend had gotten the job from another friend already working there). Fannin applied for the job because he needed work, and it turned out to be a perfect fit. Over the many months we worked together his enthusiasm never seemed to wane. In fact, more than once he seemed dumbfounded as to why he had not started working as a bike courier sooner. Remarkably, he felt this way even after the sun and warmth of...

    (pp. 65-73)

    Without a doubt, bike messengering is a masculine occupation. Not only is it a job overwhelmingly performed by men, but many of the skills it requires exemplify a certain type of machismo. It is a job that involves an athletic negotiation of danger and the management of interpersonal hostility. Moreover, the courier subculture exaggerates the stereotypically male aspects of the job by turning workday practices into even more dangerous competitions.

    Many researchers have shown that men use the difficulties of manual labor as a prop for greater self-esteem over and against women.¹ It is, perhaps, tempting to explain messengering the...

    (pp. 74-97)

    As we saw in the introduction, people (at least in the Western world) increasingly draw boundaries between their work selves and their real selves. Even before Marx, social critics and theorists emphasized the monotony of paid labor. Today, perhaps more than any other company, Mc- Donald’s epitomizes such de-skilling, and in many ways McDonald’s has become a model for other facets of Western society.¹ Through semiautomated food preparation and computerized cash registers, nonscripted encounters with customers are not possible.² Which is to say, workers at McDonald’s are shielded from nearly every possible contingency. There are no problems left for employees...

    (pp. 98-122)

    We have seen how the flow of urban cycling reduces reflexivity and results in “instinctual” actions that are enjoyable, at times even giving riders feelings of omnipotence. Compounding this individual experience are the social interactions in which they are produced. In alleycats, flow does not occur in isolation. It takes place within a group of one’s peers. And, even for those not racing, alleycats are still part of a collective gathering focused on racing. As Émile Durkheim notes, “It is by shouting the same cry, saying the same words, and performing the same action in regard to the same object...

    (pp. 123-143)

    Having discussed affect-meaning, we must now move to the physical context in which it occurs; we must emplace the lived experience of flow. Ultimately, the argument I am building in this book is about space, not place. Space is an abstract dimension of the physical world. That is, space involves direction, distance, shape, size, and volume. Place, on the other hand, is about the meanings attached to specific spaces.¹ We make use of space as we move through our environment, but the unique attributes of our environment are what conform them into actual places. Thus action is always emplaced, but...

    (pp. 144-165)

    The year 2000 saw the release of fashion photographer Philippe Bialobos’s Messengers Style. In its oversize, glossy pages, New York bike couriers, poised in perfect lighting, stand against blank white backgrounds. It is a scenario intended to bring the color and personality of each of the featured messengers into central focus. Three years before Bialobos’s photographs were published, one journalist noted: “It was only a matter of time before the fashion world got hip to bike-messenger chic, a distinctive style that is equal parts hip-hop, skateboarder, and punk.”¹ Indeed, in her introduction to Messengers Style, fashion historian Valerie Steele proclaims...

  12. CONCLUSION: The Politics of Appropriation
    (pp. 166-182)

    This book has addressed the question, “What’s the lure of delivering packages?” On the surface this question is pretty simple to answer. Messengering work is, as Fannin put it, “the biggest non-job I’ve ever had”; or, as Jordan described it, “the most fun job I will ever have in my life, without a doubt.” Such replies, however, do little more than fashion the question into a statement.

    What I have attempted to do throughout this book, is answer the question of “the lure of delivering packages” from a sociological perspective. I have explained why messengers have such affective ties to...

  13. APPENDIX A: Theoretical Outline
    (pp. 183-196)
  14. APPENDIX B: Expanded Discussion of Method
    (pp. 197-204)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 205-224)
    (pp. 225-234)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 235-240)