The end of an era

Just about anyone who loves Richmond has heard a story about streetcars: Did you know Richmond invented streetcars? Did you know that Ginter Park was a streetcar suburb? Did you know they piled them up and burned them all in the 50s?

And so the stories go, a hint of nostalgia here and a tinge of sadness there.

If you don’t love cars and highways, odds are good that part of you longs for streetcars. You also might have loved Richmond in the early 1900s when the city was denser (16,000 residents per square mile), connected (more than 80 passenger trains arrived in Richmond daily) and dynamic (real estate values doubled on Grace St. in the 20s.) Yes, this was the time of crowded streets, industrial haze, and grand plans to make our cities beautiful. In many ways, streetcars have come to represent this era as a symbol of the public good and a physical commitment to the life of the city.

From 1888 to 1949, the streetcar reigned as the liberator of urban life. No more stench of horse manure! No more flies! No more walking for miles in the rain! Streetcars filled a need for transportation with incredible efficiency and in a matter of years became an integral part of this growing city. But just as streetcars have come to represent the dense, thriving city, their removal has become a symbol of mid-century American planning and desire for change. As streetcars were ascending to power, the wealthiest of Americans were already turning their attention to the unbounded freedom of the automobile. The military also took note during WWI and afterwards paraded trucks through cities across the entire nation. Compared to cars, streetcars were standing still. You know the rest of the story: highways, suburban sprawl, urban decay/destruction, new neighborhoods, new churches, new malls.

But that’s not really how I want this story to end. Rather than chase cars through the next 60 years of history, I want to remain in the moment that the streetcar era ended and the very memory of streetcars began to fade. The moment when the Richmond City Council passed ordinance No. 51-45 and decided to remove every last piece of streetcar infrastructure from Richmond’s “streets, alleys, bridges and public places therein.” When I found this page in the city council records, I was struck by the wording of the ordinance:

Everything removed

The process just seemed so easy and the change so vast. I pictured a huge eraser passing over the city, wiping away all of that clumsy streetcar infrastructure. The people of Richmond were changing, the city itself was changing, and transportation would never be the same. The streetcar, it seems, couldn’t leave fast enough.

For more artifacts from my research, check out my Archives page.

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