Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Streetcars and Reopening of streets

The other day I posted about the St James Ct area in Louisville and the beauty as compared to Woodland Park. What I did not consider at the time was the idea of what their personal vehicles would have been.

The Woodland subdivision was created in 1887 from the 110 acre James Erwin farm and the park of 19 acres was preserved right in the middle. This development pre-dated the Aylesford area and straddled the existing city limit line, generally set by state law at 1 mile radius of the county court house. Woodland Park for years had served as a relaxing respite from the heat and noise of the downtown for all of Lexington’s social strata. The Agricultural and Mechanical College of the Kentucky University (Transylvania University) had been using the property before being given their own land and it is easy to understand why a large number of professors bought or had built new homes in Woodland. Other well heeled and educated professionals in Lexington quickly settled in the suburban area and made their way to town to work.

Now, in the late 19th century there was no such thing as an automobile so one either, walked, rode a horse or drove a carriage for personal transportation. The other option was the mass transit of the day, the streetcar or formerly mule cars. Then, as today, people desired a commute of about 25-30 minutes and the streetcar extended the distance from town that one could live and still commute. The streetcars were extended into the Woodland subdivision as an economic development stimulus tool in that they would allow residents to live further from their job and still hold down the commute time. Since the affluent were the ones who could afford mortgages and then automobiles, the streetcars evolved to be for the working, servile laborers who made their way to clean and cook and staff the houses of those who could employ others while they, the aristocracy, led society.

In the 1880s-90s even the most forward thinking of these intellectuals would not be dreaming of a self-powered vehicle to carry him and his family to town or for a trip into the country. I, as familiar as I am with the area, cannot fathom where or how these people sheltered or maintained a horse and carriage on the properties there. Then, in less than one generation, the horses are gone. And in less than two generations so are the streetcars. Fast forward a handful of generations and we still have the automobile. Fossil fueled autos that have passed through stylish, powerful, fast, compact, SUV and ostentatious, and yet there has been no paradigm shift like we saw at the turn of the previous century. At mid-century the visionaries predicted flying cars and vehicles powered by exotic fuels or power sources yet to be defined and we are still plodding along with the same old internal combustion engine of the original autos.

What is most striking about the preceding is that it, for the largest part, is an American scenario. The rest of the world continued with mass transit from residential areas to the town centers and intercity rail to move around the countryside. London and Paris dismantled their streetcars near the mid-century, most likely from the American influence, but large swaths of Eastern Europe have maintained and expanded their systems to this day. Everywhere that America has spread her influence and lifestyle the automobile has cast its ominous shadow.

It may be time for us as Lexingtonians to take back the streets, to use the streets as a social interaction venue. To that end I support the Second Sunday event scheduled for October 12.

Lexington will make a bold statement by shutting down a major roadway in downtown for 4 hours. Four hours, is that enough? Limestone St in downtown, is this not just for show? Won’t all the major cross streets remain open so that one can’t really walk, ride, run, skate or congregate from one end to the other. This is a big splash visual event that will probably aggravate more motorists than enthuse those who wish to actually make the streets a people place.

It did not happen overnight, the abandonment of the streets to the automobile. It was a gradual thing. And taking them back will also be gradual. Why not start a little smaller, with maybe a few streets in a cluster totaling 1 mile in length. A few residential blocks and just let the people use them as they wish. A block party, a street circus, a community-wide yard sale, no structured activities unless designed by the neighbors. Don’t do it once a year, do it every month on the second Sunday. Have 1 cluster in each council district just to spread it around a little. Have the neighborhood associations compete for the privilege of hosting a Second Sunday event.

To quote Rob Bregoff, a poster on, “My main issue, though, is labeling these events as street "closures" when they are really "openings" for people to use and enjoy the public space as it is meant to be used.

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