Arts Desk

Courier Culture Captures D.C.’s Shrinking Pool of Bike Messengers

Picture a typical block in downtown Washington. You probably see bike messengers darting between cars, rushing to deliver documents. And you probably see cameras sticking out of crevices, documenting that very scene. What cameras don't always capture, though, is the angst of an industry slowly decaying into an anachronism.

In the Corcoran School of Art+Design's New Media Photojournalism Masters Program, students Colby Waller, Maria Helena Carey, Dakota Fine, and Reyna Levine were assigned to create a film about a local subculture. They jumped on the subject of bike messengers. The filmmakers, who call themselves Fixed Focus Productions, made the eight-minute documentary Courier Culture for a final project in an advanced multimedia class. Waller is a bicyclist, but, aside from “seeing these guys darting in and out of traffic all the time,” he didn’t know much about the professionals with whom he shared the roads. He and his colleagues also didn’t know they would be exploring an industry facing prospects not too different from their own.

Couriers have long been a fixture of Washington business. People need their documents delivered; they send them on bikes. But computers are remarkably good at delivering documents, too. Same goes for print media: hello Internet, goodbye business model.

The thing is, not all the bike messengers in the film feel endangered, whereas paralyzing existential fear has been a trademark of the journalism business for years. When Bruce Baron started working as a courier in 1989, there were about 400 in the city, he said. Now, he guesses there are between 80 and 100. Richard Collins, another messenger in the documentary, puts that number at 35 or 40. The post-3 p.m. rush of legal filings has dwindled. Courier companies have had to move to cheaper areas. Lobbying firms have stopped using the service. Baron and Collins say they’re losing work, but, still, they are free, as they and other cyclists proudly proclaim in Fixed Focus’ video. They roam the streets and love it, and they don’t talk about the death of the industry. “We kind of just go day by day,” Collins said. “You can’t really stress about stuff like that.”

The Corcoran adopts a different sort of professional optimism, forcing its students to confront journalism's mortality. The graduate program, which is in its first year, teaches its students to branch in new directions, to focus on new media. “We spent the whole semester having it ingrained in us that the current profession of photojournalism is changing,” Waller said. “There’s a ton of uncertainty...but that’s something you can turn into an opportunity. You can sort of mold the profession.”

Waller began the Corcoran’s program as a still photographer. But in the advanced multimedia class, he realized that the iPhone will soon monopolize still photography, while video, insulated by technique and artistry, seems less likely to fall to the amateur. He's planning on sticking with video. As he puts it, the Corcoran teaches its students “to bet on what will be lucrative in the future.” People will always want to see pictures that tell stories. And the messengers in his documentary? Many are certain that people will continue to need their services. Especially in a town like D.C., some parcels need to travel fast, and others can't be trusted to e-mail.

But there’s no new courier class at the Corcoran, or probably anywhere else. “It’s really difficult for [couriers] to improvise or reinvent,” Waller said. “That industry is what it is. Journalists are able to continually readjust.” Yet some messengers aren’t agonizing over their future and wondering what they can do to save it. They’re just riding.

The film shows as part of New York's Bicycle Film Festival, June 27-July 1. No local screenings are currently scheduled.

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  • EP Sato

    What killed the courier industry in DC was 9/11 and the Anthrax attacks on the US Senate. After those incidents, House and Senate leadership turned to the police to ask them their advice on how to stay safe. The result? Fortress Capitol Hill. More street closures and a bigger ban on who, or what, could enter into Congressional and Senate buildings.

    In 2000, couriers were a common sight on the hill. They delivered free baseball tickets and invites to events for staff and Members. They delivered Newsweek every Monday and several print publications directly to the offices to ensure they got to the right person. The lack of couriers on the Hill reflected and continues to reflect a more isolated Congress. It's less a part of DC proper now, and more it's own entity. The whole area's closed off to traffic. For couriers, this closure meant the loss of one of their biggest customers.

    Clemenceau once argued that decisions about war should never be left to the generals, I believe that decisions about security should never be left to the police. The balance of freedom and security is delicate, and can be maintained by elected officials who want to maintain a balance. The police? As an entity they want total control and to eliminate any and all risk factors, as unrealistic as that goal may be. Yet House and Senate leadership handed the reins over, creating a Congress that's no longer physically accessible to the very people it's supposed to represent.

    Take a visit to the Capital now and spend some time in the "visitors center". 12 years ago, a staff tour (if Congress wasn't in session) meant a chance to sit on the couches on the floor of the House of representatives, and an opportunity to stand on the floor of the Senate. Now visitors barely see the inside of Capitol building itself!

    Couriers were once a very proud part of the city. While the culture has continued to flourish in other cities like NYC and Chicago, it's slowly dwindling down here. As a former hill staffer who had the fortune of befriending many couriers over the years, it's been sad to witness the decline of this industry.

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