a black and white drawing of a Curtiss Jenny Biplane

How the Biplane Gave Americans a First Look At Urban Expansion 

Poet and urban historian Dolores Hayden reflects on how the dramatic spectacle of early aviation provided a bird’s eye view of 20th-century urban expansion.

Long before it became safe transportation, aviation thrilled Americans as entertainment. I created the persona poems in Exuberance around the voices of daring young fliers. 

Beginning around 1910, Lincoln Beachey, Betty Scott, Harriet Quimby, Ormer Locklear, Clyde Pangborn, and Ruth Law made headlines as they performed aerial stunts in fragile biplanes made of wood, cloth, and wire. The flying fields the pilots established outside major cities drew crowds for air circuses, and fliers often sold tickets for airplane rides after the show. 

Americans could glimpse urban expansion from ferryboats, trains, streetcars, and automobiles, but a ride in a two-seat biplane like the Curtiss Jenny dazzled: Unlike other modes of transportation, a passenger could eye a metropolitan region all the way from the city center to the rural edge.

a black and white portrait of urban historian Dolores Hayden
Urban historian and poet Dolores Hayden was awarded the 2022 Vincent Scully Prize by the National Building Museum. Professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale University, now emerita, she is the author of Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth (Pantheon, 2003) and Exuberance: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2019). PORTRAIT COURTESY BARBARA MARKS

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]