Trolley invokes nostalgia, trivializes everything else

Clark Randall | Staff Writer

“F— this trolley,” a friend said as we turned onto Delmar from Skinker, passing cars practically scraping side mirrors. The five lanes of Delmar have been condensed to two as construction for the coming Loop trolley makes its way down the street. The trolley is planned to span a 2.2-mile route from the Missouri History Museum to the west end of the Loop. St. Louis is just one of over 70 cities exploring plans to bring back streetcars and trolleys.

This phenomenon is part of a larger postmodern wave of urban design. Proponents claim it brings historic flavor, attracts tourism and facilitates further development and as more urban areas like University City become revitalized, streetcars and trolleys are seen as a way to attract people back in from the county.

These historic relics construct a nostalgic image of the city that juxtaposes the culture-deprived suburbs. As Washington University continues to buy out the Loop and its surrounding neighborhoods, more idealistic urban design will likely follow. Rooms in the Lofts, for instance, make a similar attempt with an industrial interior, exposed piping and an unfinished essence. All co-opt an urban poverty aesthetic. And it’s not that the trolley and the Lofts are exactly comparable, but they both are symbols of culture used in a re-imagination of what city life could be—the culture without the conditions that gave rise to it. No one desires exposed pipes and poor public transportation, but the trolley and the Lofts romanticize it.

The trolley will be managed by the Transportation Development District (TDD), a group formed in 2008 to help finance the project. Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill, and Rose Windmiller, Washington University’s associate vice chancellor for government and community relations, are two of the 19 board members serving the TDD.

“We’re bridging the city-county border, joining east and west and also north and south,” Edwards said in an interview with the St. Louis Public Radio. To suggest a 2.2-mile trolley will solve any problems by running from one tourist attraction to the next is both disingenuous and a trivialization of the issue. In the context of St. Louis, it is both disappointing and not all that surprising to see a superfluous trolley receive funding over a MetroLink that has been in need of expansion for decades. Currently, a north/south line has been proposed to connect areas of divestment in North County with the city’s central corridor and growing south side. Ironically, it has struggled to receive funding while the trolley won a Federal Transit Administration grant for $25 million to aid its construction.

Washington University—and we are all largely complacent here—continues to play the role of the colonizer in the Loop by supporting the construction of the trolley. I’m scared to see what the Loop will look like in another decade. Will it be considered part of Wash. U.’s campus? How many more policemen can Wash. U. fit on the Loop? How many more families will Wash. U. housing have forced out, and how much higher will rent be for surrounding communities? How much longer until there are suburbs on both sides of the Delmar Divide?

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