- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

Gridlock on Washington-area roads drives commuters crazy, and also to think there must be better ways to get around.

The National Building Museum's exhibit "On Track: Transit and the American City" demonstrates alternatives, from both today and yesteryear.

"On Track" also illustrates how transit shapes urban and suburban development, from cities to shopping centers. The exhibit runs through Oct. 27.

The exhibit divides cities into major historical periods: the Expanding City (1880 to 1920s), the Suburban City (1920s to 1960s) and the Regional City (1960s to the present).

Co-curator Mary Konsoulis of the Building Museum mixes vintage photos of horse-drawn carts fighting it out with streetcars on city roads, with such items as the re-creation of a 1910 "street railway" (streetcar). The 1910 front part of the streetcar was borrowed from the Baltimore Streetcar Museum and the wooden-and-iron seats from the National Capital Trolley Museum.

The exhibit also includes a Book of Contracts the motormen signed; a photo of Francis G. Newlands, who developed Chevy Chase by running a trolley there; and a simulated local Metro car.

Jazz Age ragtime music circulates through the show, giving it an upbeat tone.

The Expanding City section shows how cities encouraged commuters and shoppers to take off their muddy boots and hop on supposedly clean and comfortable street railways in the 1880s. The 19th-century "walking city" was an area that residents could cover by foot in half an hour.

Streetcars proved to be popular when introduced, despite their many drawbacks. The 1901 song "Hold Fast" described streetcar travel: "The car was over crowded, folks were hanging on the straps/Girls had bundles in their laps, came from Macy's store perhaps /There wasn't room for breathing and you couldn't turn your head/For fear you'd bump it into someone's face "

Overcrowding and discomfort were only part of the problem. Open-air electric-powered rail systems encouraged discrimination. Not-so-subtle signs warned Jewish people against trying to ride. Blacks faced outright bans, and women and children had a hard time.

Still, the Saturday Review on Jan. 8, 1887 ran this comment, "Everyone, whatever his trade, feels at home in the tram: It is a democratic vehicle; it is certainly a leveller, and perhaps republican."

Some entrepreneurs, such as the owners of Safe Bus Co. in Winston-Salem, N.C., created their own means of transportation.

Motormen and conductors said their jobs were stressful, and they staged demonstrations and formed unions. The exhibit includes buttons, ribbons, badges, certificates of union membership and photos of union meetings.

Streetcar owners feared their employees would steal the fares, which usually were a nickel. The curators include two fare counters, one that the conductors rang up, and a later, more mechanized example.

Motormen needed physical strength to steer the cars. They and the conductors worked 12-hour shifts. They also wore handsome uniforms, one of which is displayed in the show.

What the curator calls the Suburban City satisfied several needs. Americans wanted a clean environment. They also wished to own their homes. The automobile came in after World War I and was affordable. Cars were handsome, and a 1929 Ford Model A is on view.

There were protests, such as Lewis Mumford's . "The motor car shapes and forms. Mutilates and deforms might be better words. We are exchanging the meaningful and varied life of the city for an increasingly monotonous life on wheels," he wrote in 1960.

Issues of pollution and crowding returned in the 1960s and the concept of the Regional City emerged. The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 facilitated the now-desirable mix of heavy and light rail transit systems with the automobile. Exhibits of cities such as Dallas and Silver Spring show the advantages of mixed systems in developing cities and providing transportation, putting rail back "On Track."


WHAT: "On Track: Transit and the American City"

WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 27

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/272-2448


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