New Documentary about Car-Free Visionary Could Earn You a New Bicycle

Reader Contribution by Staff

Truth be told, I had no earthly idea who Paul Goodman was.

So, when Jonathan Lee first contacted us at the Alliance for Biking & Walking, it was the title of his upcoming documentary, Paul Goodman Changed My Life, that made me curious.

With just a few clicks on the internet, I soon discovered this Goodman guy was a car-free visionary. A philosopher, author and poet, Goodman proposed banning private automobiles from Manhattan way back in 1961. “Important and immediate are the relief of tension, noise, and anxiety; purifying the air of fumes and smog; alleviating the crowding of pedestrians; providing safety for children,” Goodman wrote in his proposal published in Dissent magazine. “Subsequently, and not less importantly, we gain the opportunity of diversifying the gridiron, beautifying the city, and designing a more integrated community life.”

For those of us who consider ourselves part of the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy movement his arguments sound familiar. But consider the time.

Goodman’s “Banning Cars from Manhattan” was before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring or activists rallied for the first Earth Day. It came a full decade before local bicycle advocates coalesced into New York’s Transportation Alternatives. It was a good half-century before Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed charging motorists to drive into the heart of the city — and the concept was still so controversial it couldn’t get past the city council.

So I quickly came to an obvious conclusion. If the bicycle and pedestrian movement has a family tree, Goodman is weaved into our roots. But, at least to me, he was a long-lost relative.

Well, filmmaker Jonathan Lee is trying to bring Goodman back into the cultural fold. Beyond educating residents of this forgotten radical, though, he’s challenging us all to follow Goodman’s lead. To help do that, JSL Films is partnering with the Alliance for a contest that could earn you a brand new bicycle.

But back to Goodman for a moment. Why did he catch Lee’s attention?

“I got the idea in 1988 after talking with his literary executor, Taylor Stoehr, who had been researching a biography on Goodman,” Lee tells me. “He told me that again and again, people would say to him, ‘Paul Goodman changed my life’ and he suggested that it could be fascinating to do a film on some of these people to find out how and why Goodman so influenced them and how his influence had played out in their lives 10, 20, 30 years later.”

We’re not just talking about Jane Doe Academic, either. Goodman made an impression on icons like Allen Ginsberg and Woody Allen. “His impact is all around us,” Noam Chomsky says of Goodman.

“As I worked on the film, I began to realize that Paul Goodman had pretty much disappeared since his death in 1972, and I began to feel that my film’s mission was to introduce him to younger generations,” Lee continues. “And because the issues Goodman addressed are still very much with us, I think that he still has much to offer — his way of thinking about political issues and life, as well as some of his specific ‘utopian-practical’ proposals.”

One of those utopian practical proposals: making Manhattan car-free. A growing number of people around the world are beginning to recognize the absurdity of creating communities that revolve around moving and storing fast-moving metal boxes. Just last month, countless individuals and organizations, plenty of whom do not consider themselves transportation reform advocates, participated in Park(ing) Day — rolling out sod and setting up hammocks in metered parking spaces to reclaim for creative and vibrant purposes small patches of pavement.

Goodman planted the seeds of that movement before the originators of Park(ing) Day were even born. In “Banning Cars from Manhattan,” he proposed cities should be a patchwork of vibrant, self-directed communities with plenty of space for play and recreation. Reducing the footprint of cars, he argued, would be more than a practical solution; it would teach us to think differently. “It does not merely remedy an evil or provide a way to do the same things more efficiently,” Goodman wrote, “It opens the possibility to think about ideal solutions, human values, and new ways to do basic things.”

Now, in honor of Goodman’s work, JSL Films wants you to come up with new ways to deal with transportation challenges in your community. To participate in the Paul Goodman Changed My Life Bicycle Contest all you have to do is write your local government — your mayor, or city council — with five ideas that could be implemented in your area to promote forms of transportation that reduce global warming. Then, send a copy of that letter to the folks at JSL Films. At the end of the month, they’ll randomly draw one person from North America to win a new bike donated by Breezer.

“The bike contest is designed to encourage people to think and act locally on reducing greenhouse gas-emitting forms of transportation — something Paul Goodman was addressing before we even knew about greenhouse gases,” Lee explains.

But priming the pump for innovative ideas and political engagement across the country isn’t Lee’s only goal in producing the upcoming documentary. It’s more personal than that. He wants people like me to recognize Goodman’s name. He wants my generation to reflect on his groundbreaking ideas. And he hopes that adding Goodman’s page to our collective history will make the bicycle and pedestrian movement stronger.

“It’s empowering to discover that one has political-intellectual ancestors who were addressing the same issues you care about,” Lee says. “Restoring some of the now semi-forgotten history of the 1950s and ’60s can help bike advocates today learn about and connect to a heritage from which they can draw inspiration.”

Click here to learn more about the film and bicycle contest.

Photo courtesy of JSL Films