August 15, 2013


Finding and Losing Train Culture (Bruce Frohnen, 7/26/13, Imaginative Conservative)

For all the talk of how isolated small towns used to be, it seems clear to me that a larger percentage of people more regularly availed themselves of more opportunities to experience genuine performing arts in the era of the train than do so today in the era of the automobile and, of course, the television. Great and famous singers of the day would stop off at places like Fostoria and Ada to give performances on their way to larger venues like Chicago. The performance might have been in the middle of the day, and it might have been shorter and less grand than in Chicago, but high art was performed as well as low and middle art in these trackside houses. The locals often came from miles around, but didn't have to make the long, expensive, and time-consuming trip to the big city to enjoy genuine public entertainment--be it Shakespeare, Verdi, or a Vaudeville Show--with their neighbors.

The opera houses were not for out-of-town or travelling entertainment only. They also were used for local community meetings, dances, and other activities. They were integrated parts of the town (often upstairs from a hardware store or other merchant) that served to integrate the community.

And train culture itself helped integrate communities into the larger, state and national society in a way that left local autonomy intact. The nice thing about trains is that they bring people and things to your community and take them from your community to the wider world without erasing your actual community. Trains come in at one or two points, and leave by those same points, on a more or less regular, but distinctly limited schedule. Even the train suburbs of our cities, when they existed, had an actual character of their own that is not duplicated by suburbs on the beltway (just compare Philadelphia--a tough town with vibrant suburbs, to Los Angeles, an extremely pleasant collection of communities in the early twentieth century that has been transformed into a literal concrete jungle).

Transportation by train is a distinct event, or series of events, rather than the constant flow that automobile traffic tends to be. Of course, change was a constant on and near the frontier as people passed through on their way West. But the train had a more direct, concentrated, and so geographically limited impact than our current web of "free"ways. This is not to say that roads don't both integrate and exclude communities. When Eisenhower insisted on that massive public works and nationalization program that became our freeway system, his engineers made a number of towns into large cities by putting them on the main freeway route--and destroyed many more by bypassing them.

Posted by at August 15, 2013 1:53 AM

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