Tracking down the dream

November 16, 2006

It’s hard to know how to start an Op-Ed about streetcar tracks. With that first sentence alone I may have lost 50 percent of my readers. Trolley tracks are not what one might consider “timely.” They are not scandalous. They do not bring sexy back. The tracks that run along O and P St. between 37th St. and Wisconsin Avenue are an afterthought for most. They are a nuisance for drivers and a reminder of Georgetown’s quaint past. Why then, when the D.C. Department of Transportation announced that as part of a gas and water line project it would start to remove the track on P St., did I find myself appalled?

For a brief period of my life last year, I was obsessed with trolley tracks. I would like to put a disclaimer out there that I show no signs of being someone who you might think would care about electric conduit tracks, or know what that term means, for that matter. I was never that into Thomas the Tank Engine and tend to avoid transportation exhibits at museums in pursuit of more colorful ones like “Dresses of the First Ladies.” Last year, however, as part of a class for which I produced a 10-minute documentary on a topic concerning D.C., three other students and I found ourselves committed to a project examining the controversy surrounding the remaining trolley tracks in Georgetown. Not knowing anything about this alleged controversy except that it apparently existed and had pertinence to our lives as Georgetown residents, we embarked on one of those priceless academic forays in which you scroll through pages and pages of Lexis-Nexus searches in hopes that you’ll find something vaguely interesting.

Gradually, the sizeable history of the narrow metal bands that splice the cobblestones on O and P took shape. What we unearthed through a look at the history of the D.C. trolley system was the history of the American city. Horse-drawn trolleys were first implemented in urban centers in the mid-1800s, and by 1886, cities like D.C. had switched over to electric streetcars. With the development of trolley lines came the growth of suburbia and the beltway region. As trolleys pushed suburbanites away from the city, neighborhoods like Georgetown degenerated. In most urban areas, the streetcar remained the principal mode of public transportation until the 1950s and 60s, when, post-WWII, economically emboldened Americans stopped using mass transit. Streetcars were replaced by a bus system and the tracks in D.C. were torn up. By pure accident, the ones on O and P St. remained.

The mere existence of the tracks on O and P St. reveal a political dynamism at work in Georgetown. People are livid that they endure. They argue they are dangerous, unattractive and without historical importance. They’ve had meetings about them and drafted petitions for their removal. The more I spoke with people about what to do with the tracks, the more I found myself an unlikely participant in a local battle packed with all the scandal, hearsay and gossip of a controversy on the Hill. I sat in stuffy Georgetown living rooms with penny loafer-clad men who had made post-retirement careers out of a dedication to either the tracks’ preservation or their eradication. I endured the suspicious stares of the librarian as I excitedly dug through dusty documents at the Georgetown Public Library. I spent hours at the National Trolley Capital Museum in Colesville, Maryland, perfecting camera close-ups of trolley maps and photos. I interviewed grown men who still play with train sets and others who told me with straight-faces that these are the “last remaining conduit tracks in the world”, as if revealing the identity of Biggie Smalls’ assassin or the location of Holy Grail. I knew I had officially lost it when I experienced unparalleled happiness at the discovery that a local journalist had an audio recording of passengers on a D.C. trolley. “Cool,” my roommates responded when I told them the news. “Neat.”

Throughout the process, I went back and forth about where I stood on the issue. The tracks are a hindrance to drivers and bicyclists and require constant upkeep. They serve no practical function. But they are the last remaining electric conduit tracks in the world. Does that mean nothing?

This fall, the minute I heard about the decision to go ahead with the removal, I knew exactly where my loyalties lay. The news hit and my hidden trolley enthusiast, dormant for so long, reared up. In our documentary, one of our final quotations is from a passenger on the last trolley ride who says he’s “very much in favor of streetcars.” At the time we were making the film, I considered this comment hilarious. “In favor of streetcars” like some people are in “favor” of gun control, or in “favor” of establishments where it’s kosher to drink before 11 a.m. Now, however, the Department of Transportation is threatening to tear up the tracks and I find myself very much in favor of the streetcars. I’m in favor of streetcars and their legacy because I’m in favor of D.C. Of history. Of the importance of memory and nostalgia to a city’s identity. Of evidence reminding us that we exist in a continuum of change. Of a project and an issue that made me feel connected the Georgetown beyond the front gates.

The Department of Transportation will probably go through with the removal of the tracks on P St. And I would ask you to proceed with caution if you happen to see a girl chained to them in protest. They are, after all, the last remaining conduit tracks in the world. I have my principles.

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