Saturday, May 27, 2006

Streetcar Suburbs and Trolleytrack Towns

Author's Note: This is the first part of a series. The material here represents an excerpt from a longer work (in progress) to appear in print in late June. The material presented here may not appear in the final version in this form, and the formatting here has been optimised for online viewing.

Once upon a time, in a land not too far from here, the automobile was a decadent luxury item owned by a few, and most people rode streetcars. The streetcar was a piece of iconic Americana, inspiring, among other things, pop-culture references galore – from the hard-boiled gumshoe cadging a free ride on the back of a passing car, to A Streetcar Named Desire, to the Toonerville Trolley. Streetcar-centred life changed the way Americans acted, thought, and spoke. The streetcar even changed the urban American landscape.

People born in the latter half of the 20th Century, after the decline and fall of the streetcar, may have the idea that suburban development happened primarily because of the automobile. While what we stereotypically think of as "suburbia," that sprawling vista of single-family houses on neatly-manicured lots -- and other tropes from 1950s sitcoms -- did, in fact, originate with car culture, the first genuine suburbs were built because of, and adjunct to, streetcars. In fact, the modern shape of certain cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore and Chicago among them), are largely due to streetcars. (See a map of the LA Pacific Electric “Red Car” lines here, for example.)

A "streetcar suburb" was a planned community built around a streetcar line or a set of streetcar lines. They were often built by a single developer, and have some distinctive architectural and landscaping features that are still visible today in neighbourhoods where the original development is preserved. A streetcar suburb usually has small lots, a conspicuous absence of individual driveways (as in my neighbourhood, some houses may have no driveways at all, or may have "mutual drives" shared between two houses) with any garages present as outbuildings behind the houses. Front porches, as with most houses built between 1850 and 1920, were a prominent feature of the homes in streetcar suburbs, and were used in some areas for the dual purpose of providing outdoor social space and climate control for the house. (In my neighbourhood, one can find California-style bungalows built between 1900 and 1920, as well as typical Victorian, Queen Anne, and Regency houses of the period. Almost all of them have deep front porches to provide a windbreak and insulation in winter, and shade and cooling in summer -– very important in the extreme Southwestern Ontario climate, which features hot summers and cold winters. See for more details and a field guide to local building styles.)

Streetcar suburbs were built with sidewalks, on a scale that was also convenient for pedestrians and cyclists. The neighbourhoods themselves feature good soil and large trees, planted to create an attractive environment for residents and passers-by. Unlike modern "transit villages," which seem to be the reincarnation of the streetcar suburb idea, streetcar suburbs were primarily residential areas, with limited integrated commercial space. The idea was less to put commercial and residential spaces into one neighbourhood (as in modern transit villages), than to separate the busy commercial district from the quieter bedroom community while still keeping shopping and amenities an easy distance (by streetcar, bicycle, or even foot) away.

It’s also important to understand that many people’s lives meshed with the streetcar lines, in terms of their patterns and rhythms of living, and also that communities’ physical geographies reflected the streetcar (and other transit) lines. (Some of these systems had different names to differentiate them –- streetcars, light rail, and so on. For example, in Southwestern Ontario, an interurban streetcar system with dedicated trackage, similar to the Pacific Electric suburban lines, was called a "radial railway," and an intraurban streetcar system that ran on rails embedded in the road was called a "street railway." For the purposes of brevity, I’m going to use "streetcar" as the generic term, and "light rail" only where contextual specificity is important.)

Our current culture privileges cars over transit, and transit over cycling and walking, but this wasn't always so. Many of the urban development and lifestyle paradigms we take for granted didn't exist in the first half of the 20th Century. That sounds self-evident, but it isn’t, exactly.

For example, one area where the automobile has encouraged a significant and dramatic lifestyle change between the early years of the 20th Century and the mid-1950s is the way people buy food and other supplies. The change was undoubtedly helped along by other advances in technology, such as expanding refrigerators and chest freezers, but the switch from transit as a primary means of travel to the automobile provided the catalyst. In a transit-based lifestyle you are more likely to want to make more frequent trips, buying smaller amounts each time, to someplace that is convenient (ie. nearby someplace else you have to go), than to make one trip especially for the purpose, where you buy large amounts of supplies and bring them home and store them. We have an entire industry of "family packs," "club packs," Price Clubs, Costcos, and Sam's Clubs catering to this outgrowth of car culture. On the other hand, living a transit-centred lifestyle in a transit-centred environment (such as in early 20th Century US cities), encourages buying smaller quantities more frequently, at local shops, most probably near either one’s home or one’s workplace. This lifestyle is still evident today in Europe and Japan, both places where urban developments are generally amenable to pedestrian, transit, or bicycle travel.

Of course, you already know all about American streetcar culture. If you’re at all literate in 20th Century American popular culture, the iconography and landscape, the patterns of living in Streetcar America are already there, imprinted in your mind by everything from Sam Spade movies to Nick at Nite; novels, radio shows, and every other creative and popular artistic endeavour of the early 20th Century. A search of Project Gutenberg lists about 12 100 entries containing the terms "streetcar" or "trolley," which is impressive, considering that the first modern streetcar systems in the US appeared around 1850, and most of Project Gutenberg’s library predates the current copyright penumbra, which begins in 1911. Those myriad cultural references grew organically out of Americans’ experience with streetcars, and streetcar-centred urban spaces. In fact, although it seems counterintuitive, the relative unimportance of the streetcar in popular literature speaks volumes about its centrality to the American experience of the time.* The streetcar was a background fixture, something that everyone just expected to be there. The streetcar was also an integral part of the great American technological experiment. It even held a certain pride-of-place in the American self-image, as a crucial real-world demonstration of Americans’ underlying beliefs in American technological know-how, craftsmanship, and expertise, and their belief that, in America, Things Just Work.

The question is not whether the system that created this lifestyle worked; it did. The question is why it worked, especially why it worked as long and as successfully as it did.

Tune in next time for a look at one of those reasons.


* Similarly, there is a story of why there is no surviving medieval recipe for bread –- the knowledge was ubiquitous, bread recipes were learnt young and passed from parent to child (most likely mother to daughter), that nobody felt the need to commit them to print.


Blogger LeoPetr said...

Free Dictionary along with and a host of other sites borrow their text wholesale from Wikipedia and then add ads. They don't seem to do any editing or refinement themselves -- the spelling errors and the like are kept as is.:P

1:14 PM  
Blogger LeoPetr said...

Oh, and this is fascinating. Kudos.:)

1:16 PM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

Yes, I know that, but the Free Dictionary adds some cool features that Wikipedia doesn't have, such as an index at the bottom of nearby entries in alphabetical order (so you can, say, go from "streetcar" to "streetcar suburb"), and an automatic citation generator in MLA, APA, and Chicago formats. Considering that I'm probably going to have to do hundreds of footnotes for this project, I likes me some citation generators.

If you don't stop coming on my comments and telling me things I already know, that are obvious from reading the page, I'm going to ban you from my blog.

I'm not stupid, and I've been doing this research shit since before you left Latvia.

6:28 PM  
Blogger spocko said...

Interesting piece. Coming from a place where street cars had to be made into a historical landmark in order to keep them around, I appreciate the street car. (Or Cable Cars, as we have in SF. )

I'm also interested in the back story about getting rid of the street cars in LA. I read about the people behind it (and as you know it was even a subplot in Who Framed Roger Rabbit!)

Years later I read about how the new light rail in San Jose and LA haven't worked out very well because the communities that needed to serve them didn't exist (chicken and egg?)and haven't jelled. I don't know if that is still true, but a X Million dollar street car carrying 2 people to work is something that I dont' think the people in San Jose want to talk about.

I also think about the class issues of new "mass transportation" that impact or impacted street cars. Were their "upscale" street cars for rich people? Were the rich delighted not to have to interface with the "rabble"?

Another thing that I appreciate about the streetcars that I see in SF is their visual beauty. They have style. Now part of that is that SF only bought the ones from around the world that are cool, but was more "art" put into street cars because they were like the highclass automobiles of their day? Did people had a sense of pride in their city's steet car "look"?

I lament the ugliness of most mass transit today. It's like they don't even try.It's as if not worth it because only the poor ride it.

Transit designers save the elegant work for the expensive cars.

Nice piece, and you got me hooked for the next installment, good work!

P.S. I read a story in the Atlantic about 9 years ago that really blew me away it talked about all the things that we think of as an "ideal" place to live have been Zoned out and couldn't be recreated today. It talked about the big garages that dominate the houses, the inability to have living and work spaces together. It talked about the giant parking lots that sperate people from the buildings and the windswept concrete plazas that dominate our "public" space today. It discussed the "human" sized spaces that were designed out and then no one wanted to hang out in the space.

In San Jose I saw so much of that crappy design it really saddened me. I actually think I moved to SF because it was just esthetically prettier. Also I felt that there were places we could gather as a group, a center. Sadly I don't take advantage of that "center" too much anymore for a lot of reasons, but I miss it. I especially missed it in spread out suburbia in San Jose. The only place people gathered was a mall.
And then there isn't really a group of people gathering, but a lot of people in the same place doing similiar things.

1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spocko, was the Atlantic article excerpted from Suburban Nation? Interesting(/frustrating) book on the subject.

5:25 AM  
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