Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's Old, Not Worthless

Back in 1951, when the last Hamilton streetcar ran for the last time, it was decorated with a sign saying, in part, "goodbye for ever." Depending on the actions of the provincial government in the immediate future, that claim may soon be exposed for the horrible, horrible lie that I wish it to be. Still, I thought it really marks something out, something that was absolutely dominant in the wake of the Second World War - the tide of neophilia in Western society, and the unshakeable belief that if something was new, it was automatically superior to older things by simple dint of being new. While this wasn't a universal opinion - Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 short story "Superiority" takes a look at some of the consequences of this line of thinking - it was certainly common enough that society was greatly shaped by it.

The problem is that it's absolutely bunk - and, in fact, in some respects is the opposite of what you would be best off doing. Old methods are, by their very nature, reliable and predictable as generations of technicians, mechanics, and thinkers have had the opportunity to polish them to a shine. It's the same way in culture - some traditions exist for good reasons. While a new thing isn't necessarily unreliable, it is far more likely to surprise the people using it, if only because the problems haven't been worked out yet.

This view, I believe, was one of the major factors in the streetcar abandonment policies practiced by cities worldwide. While the Great American streetcar scandal had influence in some cities, it couldn't have reached them all. Across the Anglosphere, the only two cities I can think of that retained more than a shadow of their streetcar networks were Toronto and Melbourne, Australia. They are the outliers, the cities that for whatever reason didn't step into what everyone else thought of as "the future." Today, enough time has passed that the view is shifting. Though Portland and Seattle have recently begun rebuilding traditional streetcar systems, the old is coming back now in the form of light rail. Much of Los Angeles' light rail infrastructure runs along the rights-of-way of the Pacific Electric Railway, for example, and even Hamilton is taking strides toward again running rails through its downtown. The idea of streetcars may be a hundred and fifty years old, but it's an idea that still works.

Ultimately, I think it goes back to the rather erratic manner in which human psychology works. When cities were tearing up their streetcar rails because buses were cheaper or because they'd lost too many riders to private automobiles, no one (or, charitably, hardly anyone) was sparing a thought about the future - except to think that whatever problems arose from the choices they were making, SCIENCE! would inevitably solve. We're wired to prioritize today over tomorrow. The implications of automobile reliance and the attendant explosive suburbanization, destruction of agricultural land, atomization of society, and urban decay seem to have been hardly thought of. I'd imagine there is a deep, rich well of anti-urban sentiment throughout the science fiction of the 1950s - it'd be something worth looking into, if only I had more of a 1950s library.

It's for reasons like this that societies need to pay attention to their history. Aside from the obvious need to avoid continuous repetition of the past, we may well find that in looking into history, we may find that keys to solving the problems we face today were smithed generations ago.

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