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A streetcar suburb is a community whose growth and development was strongly shaped by the use of streetcar lines as a primary means of transportation. The earliest suburbs were served by horsecars, but by the late 1800s cable cars and electric streetcars, or trams, were used, allowing residences to be built further away from the urban core of a city. Streetcar suburbs, usually called additions or extensions at the time, were the forerunner of today's suburbs in the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker.

Although most closely associated with the electric streetcar, the term can be used for any suburb originally built with streetcar-based transit in mind, meaning some streetcar suburbs date from the early 19th century. As such, the term is very general and one development called a streetcar suburb may vary greatly from others. However, some concepts are generally present in streetcar suburbs, such as straight (often gridiron) street plans and relatively narrow lots.

Pre-electric streetcar suburbs

The streetcar suburb refers to a general type of development, mixed residential and commercial areas built near streetcar lines on the edge of the cities in land that had likely once been undeveloped land or agricultural areas. Although electric streetcars were not introduced until 1887, suburbs did exist earlier based on animal-drawn cars, but the distance they could be from a city core (where most jobs were located) was more limited. A cartoon in Harper's Weekly of September 2, 1871 depicts a man commuting to work from a suburb via steam railroad.

By the 1860s, many cities throughout America and Canada were connected to once distant outlying towns and communities, allowing wealthy and upper-middle class residents to work in the center city but live in what historian Robert Fishman called a "bourgeois utopia". Outside of Philadelphia, suburbs like Radnormarker, Swarthmoremarker, Villanovamarker developed along the Pennsylvania Main Line. As early as 1850, 83 commuter stations had been built within a 15-mile radius of Bostonmarker. Chicago saw similar developments, with 11 separate lines serving over 100 communities by 1873. A famous community served was Riversidemarker, arguably one of the first planned communities in the United States, designed in 1869 by Frederick Law Olmsted.

However, the suburbs closest to the city were based on horsecars and eventually cable cars. First introduced to America around 1830, the horse-drawn omnibus was revolutionary because it was the first mass transit system, offering regularly scheduled stops along a fixed route, allowing passengers to travel three miles sitting down in the time it would take them to walk two miles. Later more efficient horse-drawn streetcars allowed cities to expand to areas that previously had been even more distant. By 1860, they operated in most major American and Canadian cities, including New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Montreal, and Boston.

Horsecar suburbs emanated from the city center towards the more distant railroad suburbs. For the first time, transportation began to create a divide between social and economic classes in cities, as the working and middle class continued to live in areas closer to the city center, while the rich could afford to live further out.

Development of streetcar suburbs

New York Citymarker led the way in early suburbanization. By 1830 commuters were going to work in Manhattanmarker on board ferries from the first commuter suburb, Brooklyn Heightsmarker. In 1852 architect Andrew Jackson Davis designed Llewellyn Park in New Jerseymarker, a planned suburb served by both ferry and steam railroad. In the 1840s and 1850s the steam locomotive fostered the development of such New York suburbs as Tarrytown and New Rochellemarker. Rampant growth created the country's first large suburban area in Westchester Countymarker, which doubled in size from 1850 to 1870, from 1870 to 1890, and yet again from 1890 to 1910.

The introduction of the electrical streetcar in Richmond, Virginiamarker in 1887 by Frank J. Sprague marked the start of a new era of transportation-influenced suburbanization through the birth of the "streetcar suburb". The early trolley allowed people to effortlessly travel in 10 minutes what they could walk in 30, and was rapidly introduced in cities like Boston and Los Angelesmarker, and eventually to all larger American and Canadian cities. There were 5,783 miles of streetcar track serving American cities in 1890; this grew to 22,000 by 1902 and 34,404 by 1907.

By 1890, electric streetcar lines were replacing horse-drawn ones in cities of all sizes, allowing the lines to be extended and fostering a tremendous amount of suburban development. They were often extended out to formerly rural communities, which experienced an initial surge of development, and then new residential corridors were created along the newly built lines leading to what had sometimes been separate communities. On side streets, the houses closest to the original streetcar line are often as much as ten to twenty years older than houses built further down the street, reflecting the initial surge and slow completion of a development.

Because streetcar operators offered low fares and free transfers, commuting was finally affordable to nearly everyone. Combined with the relatively cheap cost of land further from the city, streetcar suburbs were able to attract a broad mix of people from all socioeconomic classes, although they were most popular by far with the middle class.

The houses in a streetcar suburb were generally narrow in width compared to later homes, and Arts and Crafts movement styles like the California Bungalow and American Foursquare were most popular. These houses were typically purchased by catalog and many of the materials arrived by railcar, with some local touches added as the house was assembled. The earliest streetcar suburbs sometimes had more ornate styles, including late Victorian and Stick. The houses of streetcar suburbs, whatever the style, tended to have prominent front porches, while driveways and built-in garages were rare, reflecting the pedestrian-focused nature of the streets when the houses were initially built. Setbacks between houses were not nearly as small as in older neighborhoods (where they were sometimes nonexistent), but houses were still typically built on lots no wider than 30 to 40 feet.

Shops such as groceries, bakeries and drug stores were usually built near the intersection of streetcar lines or directly along more heavily traveled routes (otherwise, routes would simply be lined with houses similar to those found in the surrounding neighborhoods). These shops would sometimes be multi-story buildings, with apartments on the upper floors. These provided convenient shopping for household supplies for the surrounding neighborhoods, that could potentially be visited on ones way to or from work. While there were stores near houses, they were not quite as close as in older parts of cities, and they were usually confined to specific streets, representing the beginning of a complete separation between residential and commercial areas in cities.

Unlike railroad suburbs, which tended to form in pockets around stations along the interurban line, streetcar suburbs formed continuous corridors stretching outwards from city cores. The streetcar lines themselves were either built on roads that conformed to the grid, or on former turnpikes radiating in all directs from the city, sometimes giving such cities a roughly star-like appearance on maps. Along the lines, developers built rectangular "additions" with homes, usually on small lots, within a five to ten minute walk of the streetcar. These were essentially built on the grid plan of the older central cities, and typically spread out in between streetcar lines throughout a city.

Streetcar use continued to increase until 1923 when patronage reached 15.7 billion, but it declined in every year after that as automobile use increased amongst the middle and upper classes. By the 1930s, the once-profitable streetcar companies were diversifying by adding motorized buses and trackless trolleys to their fleets. By the 1940s, streetcar ridership had dropped dramatically, and few subdivisions were being built with streetcars or mass transit in general in mind. By the 1950s, nearly all streetcar lines had stopped running, and were instead served by buses.

Modern streetcar suburbs

Now somewhat urban in appearance, former streetcar suburbs are readily recognizable by the neighborhood structure along and near the route. Every few blocks, or along the entire route in well-preserved neighborhoods, there are small commercial structures, storefronts usually flush with the sidewalk; these were small stores—often groceries—operated by "mom and pop" operators who lived in quarters behind or above the establishment. Off-street parking, if it exists at all, is in the rear of the building.

Because stores were originally built along streetcar lines, a person could exit the transport near their home, do some light shopping for dinner items, and continue by walking to their residence. These buildings also provided shopping for a non-employed spouse. Very few small groceries remain, though the space is often now used for non-foodstuff retail, capable of drawing clients from outside of the immediate neighborhood.

Modern streetcar suburbs are usually served by buses which run roughly the original streetcar routes, and may offer highly reasonable mass transit commute times to downtowns and other business areas, especially compared to later automobile suburbs. Torontomarker, Canadamarker is an example of a city in which most streetcar suburbs are still served by streetcars.

House prices in streetcar suburbs vary by neighborhood and city. Lots left empty in these areas during initial development, or where the initial houses have burned or been torn down, are usually too narrow for modern residential zoning regulations, meaning that it is difficult to infill housing in well-preserved street suburbs. Occasionally two lots are combined into one for a wide enough lot, or many houses are torn down for a new use as needed.

Features of streetcar suburbs

In a greater sense, the streetcar suburbs of the early 1900s worked well for a variety of reasons.

  • While most cities grew in a piecemeal fashion, without any real plan for future development, streetcar suburbs were highly planned communities that were organized under single ownership and control. Indeed, they would often be the first such developments in their respective cities.


  • Most lots in streetcar suburbs were quite small by post-World War II suburban standards, allowing for a compact and walkable neighborhood, as well as convenient access to public transport (the streetcar line).


  • Most streetcar suburbs were laid out in a grid plan, although designers of these suburbs often modified the grid pattern to suit the site context with curvilinear streets. Additionally, most of these pre-automobile suburbs included alleys with a noticeable absence of front-yard driveways.


  • In terms of transportation, the streetcar provided the primary means for residents to get to work, shopping, and social activities. Yet, at either end of the streetcar trip, walking remained as the primary means of getting around. As a result, even in these early suburbs, the overall city remained very pedestrian friendly. This was not always the case for other vehicles. It should be noted that, at the turn of the century, the bicycle was also a popular form of mobility for many urban dwellers of the era. (However, when the streetcar rail tracks were encased in the asphalt of a street the resulting trench, for the flanges of the steel wheels, created a dangerous hazard for cyclists, being big enough to trap bicycle wheels but not large enough to get out easily.)


  • Because of the pedestrian-oriented nature of these communities, sidewalks were necessary in order to avoid an unacceptable and muddy walk to the streetcar on an unpaved street. Trees lining the streets were also seen as critical to a healthy and attractive neighborhood. While such developments often occurred on farmland or other cleared sites, the evidence of the street trees planted can be seen today in the large, overarching canopies found in these attractive post-turn-of-the-century communities.


Some Examples of streetcar suburbs in North America

Boston



Cleveland



Edmonton

  • The Glenora neighbourhood waited for 10 years before it developed, because it was waiting for the street car tracks to come to the area. Instead of the edges of many cities at this time having infrequent streetcar service, Glenora was easily accessible via streetcar.


Houston

  • The Houston Heights neighborhood was created in 1891 by millionaire Oscar Martin Carter and a group of investors who established the Omaha and South Texas Land Company. It was its own municipality until the City of Houston annexed the Heights in 1919.
  • Montrose was originally envisioned as a planned community and streetcar suburb dating back to the early 20th century before the development of River Oaksmarker by developer J. W. Link and his Houston Land Corporation. Link built his own home in Montrose, known as the Link-Lee Mansion, which is now part of the University of St. Thomas campus.


Knoxville

  • Oakwood, Knoxville, Tennesseemarker, was studied as an example of a working-class, as opposed to middle-class, streetcar suburb.


Los Angeles

  • Angelino Heightsmarker, built around the Temple Street horsecar (later upgraded to electric streetcar as part of the Los Angeles Railway Yellow Car system), was the first suburban development outside of downtown Los Angeles.
  • Highland Park developed along the Figueroa Street trolley lines and railroads linking downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena. The old right-of-way was reopened in 2003 as part of the Gold Line light rail.
  • Leimert Park, a later streetcar suburb planned by the Olmsted Brothers firm, touted both its automobile accessibility and location along the 6 line of the Yellow Car.
  • Much of South Central Los Angelesmarker first developed as streetcar suburbia, served by the Yellow Car's Vermont Avenue, Broadway, and Central Avenue lines.
  • West Hollywood, Californiamarker was marketed by developers in the late 19th and early 20th century for its proximity, by streetcar, both to Downtown Los Angeles and Pacific Oceanmarker beaches.


Ottawa



Philadelphia



Other countries

Karorimarker and Kelburnmarker in New Zealandmarker are served by the iconic Wellington Cable Car

The inner suburbs of many Australian cities were planned around tram lines. Melbournemarker's existing extensive tram network includes some examples of existing tram suburbs where tram was the dominant form of early transportation and still a major form of transport include Carltonmarker, Fitzroymarker, St Kildamarker, Albert Parkmarker, South Melbournemarker and Brunswickmarker.

See also



References


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