Thursday, March 04, 2010


On a bright sunny day in 1905, a man set up a movie camera on the front of a trolley car and ran it for several minutes as the car crawled down Market Street in San Francisco. A little over a century later, digitised and refreshed with a sountrack, it appears on YouTube.

It's an evocative glimpse of urban life from the dawn of the modern age. Even though it's just a long, single shot, there's so much to draw from it:

- The people in this film are completely engaged with their environment in a way that doesn't happen any more. They skip through the traffic, within a hair's breadth of collision but never having one. The motorists, cyclists and pedestrians all seem to know exactly what's going on around them. Contrast that with modern urban dwellers - people lost in mobile conversations or iPod playlists, and motorists insulated from the outside world by idiot-proof cars.

- This street is in chaos. People stand idly in the middle of the road. One car drives up the the wrong side. There are no lanes and there's little distinction between the footpath and the roadway. Compare that with the neatly regimented lines of cars, the walk/don't walk signs, the endless safety laws that are in place and rigorously policed in modern cities.

- At one point a man on a horse gallops up the left side. You never see horses galloping up urban streets in period movies, but presumably it happened all the time.

- We usually affect not to notice movie cameras, because we don't want to be caught on film staring like an imbecile. In 1905 people apparently hadn't learnt that yet.

- I wonder if these people ever complained that they were late for work because they missed their tram? Unlikely, given that these things seem to be running at eight second intervals.

- Women were obviously a new invention in 1905. The men outnumber them by at least ten to one.

- Less than a year later, most of this was gone. 1906 was the year of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, which killed thousands and reduced these buildings to rubble.


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