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Lost Tracks

April 2024
2min read

A streetcar fan’s photo album is a window opening on the vanished workaday beauty of Downtown

HOW ODD THAT THE STREETCAR, THANKS TO STAGE and song, should be associated with woozy precincts of Desire and the romantic coup de foudre, that moment when it’s grand just to stand with your hand holding that of your just met hut consenting fellow passenger. A second’s thought makes you realize that your imagination has boarded the wrong vehicle. To travel with Blanche DuBois, one might more appropriately book passage on a bathysphere sinking into Atlantis, and anyone who’s ever heard Judy Garland’s voice reach the end of the line about the end of the line has felt more like a passenger on the Concorde as it broke the sound barrier than a humble fare-payer on the trolley.

The streetcar was never about emotional transport. In fact it was hardly about transportation at all. Every trip you took on it was a roundtrip, one that always ended safely at home. Even now the streetcar doesn’t make one think of the railroad so much as the model railroad, on its circular track. There’s an element of the toy world to any trolley line: the brightly colored cars; the cat’s cradle of overhead wires. It’s the mode of travel through Toonerville. The streetcar shrank even the real world into a kind of diorama.

Its tangle of track belongs to a time, the era of Downtown, when the sprawl of development was inward and upward. There was nothing highfalutin or mysterious about Lehigh Valley Transit and Johnstown Traction, nothing elevated or underground like what you would find in the biggest cities. The streetcar did just fine for any mid-sized metropolis, the sort of place where, for a very long time, most Americans lived, but since that time a place so transformed that its imaginary analogues—Sinclair Eewis’s Zenith, John O’Hara’s Gibbsville, and John Updike’s Brewer—now seem more real than their actual wellsprings.

The roaring locomotives in O. Winston Link’s famous nighttime photographs are always bigger than the burgs they’re tearing through: behemoths trying to devour everything in their path. But the streetcars in Ed Miller’s pictures, taken at roughly the same mid-century moment when Link did his work, appear less like iron monsters than friendly terriers and beagles, eager to please by getting the job done, their reward being the chance to do it again and again and again. Still, for all their seeming gaiety in these color photos, one realizes that these conveyances are really horses on their way to the knacker, stoically tormented by those automobiles swarming around them like flies. Miller captured his streetcars on, sometimes literally, their final runs, just before they disappeared with all the movie palaces and department stores and cafeterias and vertical signage that they passed day after American day.

Those overhead wires, clicking and whizzing, always suggested the conversation on a telephone party line. The passengers, like the sidewalk pedestrians, sweated in tailored clothes and hats and heavy shoes, everyone keeping up appearances. Miller’s photographs remind us of a very long-ago time before we put on our drawstringed tracksuits and Velcro-fastened sneakers to drive the endless suburban plain in solitary airconditioned comfort, a time when American life was a little more about one another than it is today.

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