Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Streetcar Named Defunct

I came across this picture recently and it stopped me in my tracks. There is something about images like this that fill me with a sense of melancholy and nostalgia for a time I never even knew. This photo was taken in Los Angeles in 1956 as the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar line was being shut down and converted to buses. How ironic that a relatively clean mass transit technology was replaced by a highly polluting, fuel-consuming technology... in Los Angeles of all places!

Streetcars had been a major form of mass transit in most towns and cities since the late 1800’s. The perfecting of three things: the electric motor, the electric distribution grid, and the speed controller, made trolleys practical. The very word trolley as a synonym for streetcar comes from the system to connect the streetcar’s pole to the overhead power lines. Originally, on the end of the pole a small wheeled “troller” rode on the wire to make contact and transmit power to the streetcar. The troller frequently derailed from the overhead wire and it was time-consuming to reposition it again. The troller was soon replaced with a more reliable underwire system.

Streetcars were invented before the wide-spread availability of the automobile and the bus. Trollies changed the very nature of the city. It was now possible for people to live at a considerable distance from their jobs. The factories of the day were usually air polluters and most folks wanted to live in greener and quieter neighborhoods away from the noise and filth of the factories. In many ways, this was the precursor of the modern move to the suburbs. Residential areas began to be segregated from industrial areas. As more cities grew, more thoughtful planning became the norm.

While they were in the business of daily transportation, streetcar companies did all they could to increase ridership. This included building large amusement parks at the end of their lines to encourage people to ride their cars even on the weekends. Parks such as Palisades Park in New Jersey was built as a streetcar park in 1895 (you can see a long list of such parks on Wikipedia here). The trolley not only brought people to be amused, it became part of the cultural heritage in plays such as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

The streetcar faded during the forties and was all but gone by the mid-50’s. The demise of the trolley lines was brought on by the rapid rise in automobile ownership as well as the conversion of trolleys to bus lines. The success of converting cities from streetcars to buses was facilitated by the illegal consortium of General Motors, Firestone, Standard Oil, and others who worked through a front company called the National Car Lines to replace streetcars with buses. The consortium profited from the sales of their products to run the bus lines. But often, this changeover was welcomed by the locals because of the perception that the bus lines were more modern and convenient than the drafty old streetcars which had suffered from years of lack of maintenance. The streetcars were sent to the salvagers. A few streetcars were purchased by cities in other countries and continued to run successfully for many more years. You can still find streetcar tracks embedded in out-of-the-way roads in many cities.

But all of this is just background to my reactions to the photo. While this time the image was of streetcars, on another occasion it has been old cars rusting in a field or an abandoned canal or factory. What I think about is the pride of the builders when the technology was new. I can feel the pride of the community as it launched its new enterprise. I think about all that the technology promised for improving the future of the people of that day and age. And if often fulfilled those promises. But like everything else, the time for the technology came and went. All that was left were memories, old photos, and a feeling of being somehow diminished.

I wonder which technologies people will mourn fifty years from now? Will people think back nostalgically about their Blackberries or their iPods? Will people remember the Good Old Days of Web 2.0 and Twitter? I find it hard to believe but then I would guess my parents would never have thought anyone could miss the old streetcars. So it goes.

[Picture from the UCLA Archives. Taken at Terminal Island, Los Angeles on March 19, 1956 by the Los Angeles Times.]

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