by Tim Gilmore, 7/1/2012
Only brick street Molly had seen in Riverside, though an old man who lived next door told her they all were once brick or even dirt.
Where the streetcar line curved is still patterned in the bricks.
Here the line ended, the seats were reversed, and the conductor started the streetcar back toward “town.”
So said the old man next door. Molly didn’t know if she believed him. She couldn’t believe streetcars had zipped up and down lines in this town. She couldn’t believe this town’s residents would ride them.
This weekend, routes of ingress and egress were cordoned off downtown with cops up and down the streets directing traffic at the city’s biggest February event, the “monster-truck rally” in the football stadium, where pickup trucks with tires the size of cars drove over wrecked cars and a number of men who drove pickups with Confederate flag bumper stickers roared and put their fists in the air.
In the 21st century, the city’s mass transit rail system was something once called the Skyway Express, then just the Skyway, a very small monorail car that ran on a massive and oversized concrete arc on great-girthed concrete pylons and circuited from one empty parking lot in an often-empty downtown to another empty station downtown. Most residents never met anyone who had ever ridden the Skyway. Jacksonville magazine once editorialized that one of the best things about Jacksonville was there were always plenty of seats on the Skyway.
The old man next door told her about the streetcar patterns and where in the city you could still spot them, and that was before she had ever heard of the so-called Great American Streetcar Scandal. How unlikely the idea that urban rail had not always been confined to a few iconic American cities—New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Philadelphia—but that most every small and medium population center that dared call itself a city had once run streetcars!
Then Molly read books and U.S. Senate counsel reports about how the burgeoning automobile industry bought up streetcar lines all over the country in the first half of the 20th century, purchasing and dismantling any competition. She read about court rulings that General Motors itself had orchestrated the elimination of more than 100 electric trolley or streetcar systems in half as many cities.
And then she walked down Aberdeen and she saw it. She saw women in cloches and men in fedoras and overcoats stepping up onto an elegant and efficient trolley car that pulled them quietly through the decades-new Avondale streets so promising then to upstanding religious white folks toward the shops and restaurants in Riverside and Springfield and “town” itself. She saw mixed-up possibilities on early Aberdeen, a population blatantly racist and sexist who yet took for granted sophistications their city would not know how to, or expect to, or think itself capable or deserving or responsible enough to reach almost a century later.
And then sometime after World War I, the line extended from Aberdeen toward the wealthy peninsula, residents of which liked to call an island, of Ortega, residents of which liked to believe mobster Machine Gun Kelly and his wife were the strangers who rented a house there on Grant Avenue in 1933, disappearing hours before the house was raided by the cops in the middle of the night. Maybe they were. Couldn’t be proven otherwise.