Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Which Decade(s) Should We Do Over?

by Tom Bozzo

(The current one excepted, I should say.)

Last night's "History Detectives" included a segment investigating the question of whether the automotive-oil-industrial complex did in Cleveland's electric streetcars, and by extension helped rid the country of the streetcar networks that some municipalities are now seeking to recreate at great expense. I don't know if it was routine legal department caution at work or the new era of the Private Broadcasting System needing to avoid annoying major potential underwriters, but Wes Cowan's answer was the most circumspect confirmation I've seen. (Recall, the basic idea was to replace the streetcars with buses, pull up the tracks, and make money on some combination of automobile and bus sales.) While the Cleveland system wasn't bought up by the GM-Firestone-Standard Oil National City Lines conspiracy, it was on the hit list; moreover, some key local politicians left public life to careers as GM dealers. All pure as the driven snow, I'm sure.

While the postwar era lately has been lauded as the zenith of American egalitarianism, nostalgia for the era must be strictly limited by recognition of what can most charitably be called massive failures of judgment. Not only abandoning but also totally destroying what now would be many billions of dollars worth of urban rail infrastructure certainly is high on the list, along with sowing the seeds of today's auto- and oil-dependence. In the fifties suburbia where I grew up — especially looking at it from the perspective of the thirties suburbia where I now live (now the model for the New Urbanism) — I can just about hear the "planners" (if there were any) saying, "Shoulders? Sidewalks? What, cars not good enough for you? Oh, and by the way nutrition in capsule form is so much more convenient than fragile, perishable, and above all inconvenient fresh food.

As a State Journal article on an effort to revise the city's building demolition ordinance shows, the era was also notable for knocking lots of other stuff down in the name of progress. While in some cases, the "progress" could be argued to be at least on par with the extent of the destruction, as with the Interstate highways driven through city centers, you can't help but feel a contempt for the old in plenty of cases. In Madison, for instance, the old City Hall on the Capitol Square was razed in to make way for a Woolworth's (whoop-de-do); the store's long-vacant home was in turn torn down to build the 100 Wisconsin Avenue condo.

That said, the theoretically more enlightened eighties and nineties took faceless suburbia and ran with it on all eight cylinders of the dying SUV market, to the extent that any city's exurbs are well on their way to being Stephensonian "burbclaves" (but without the cool VR internet). But since most real economic questions are counterfactuals, we might ask what we'd have seen if the concept of modern exurban sprawl had been around with postwar modernistic disdain for the old in full swing. Could small-m modernism hold a candle to the corporatist juggernaut?
Heh! None of the "History Detectives" are trained as historians. This is just a spinoff of Antiques Roadshow.

What does one expect? Certainly not any real historical analysis, just the value of a Cleveland trolly car at auction.
Anon, bzzt. The segment in question had nothing to do with the value of the trolley car. And while the main value of "Detectives" may be as a smarter "Roadshow" without the price tag, two of the hosts are real academics. Just saying.
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