A lot of my mental energy is taken up thinking about transportation. Specifically, about how the shift from dense, urban living in the first half of the 20th century gave way to sprawled out, distant living in the second half of the century that resulted in a wide array of social and physical ills, such as the soul-deadening sameness of the suburbs that so many people my age are currently turning away from. So it’s fascinating, and a bit depressing, to look at artifacts from the time in the state when our old downtowns were thriving and we weren’t yet obsessed with car-dependent sprawl. This map of the old Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, active from about 1933 to 1976, is one such artifact.
As you can read about in such works as Leigh Gallagher’s excellent post-mortem The End of the Suburbs, the radical transformation of the American landscape was facilitated by a post-war housing boom that coincided with the mass production and affordability of the automobile. People were escaping dense, dirty cities in search of cleaner pastures. While the urge was understandable, the result is that we went from one extreme to the other without stopping to figure out if there was a happy medium in the process. As a result, our cities decayed as we built highways, strip malls, and massive sprawling developments. (It would be inappropriate to not point out that the decline of American cities was also intensified by the resulting negative stigma that the city-leavers held for their old residences and those who stayed, as can be seen by the widespread practice of redlining and, even now, the efforts of states like ours to keep the rich people in rich towns and poor people in poor towns.)
In the process of this outward expansion, we decided we no longer had use of passenger rail and massively scaled back its offerings, if not wiped it out completely. My parents fondly remember taking the Seashore Lines train down to Cape May for the weekend; my memories involve being incredibly bored stuck in traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway and the New Jersey Parkway going to and from the shore. What hand-wringing we perform to this day whenever we go to Ocean City, Wildwood, or Cape May, all stuck on highways in our SUVs, those supposed vessels of freedom.
Which brings me back to this image in the context of our present-day world. It’s incredibly vexing to see what used to exist as local governments are trying to bring their downtowns back and plans abound to bring back passenger rail service along those old freight lines in South Jersey. As the baby boomers who so bought into suburbia leave the state for greener pastures and thought leaders in the state work to retain and attract millennials, I can’t help but think that we had this all figured out for several decades before we went to the extreme and abandoned the old world for the new in our own state. As property taxes continually rise to support the sprawl and all of the functionally unsustainable infrastructure that goes with it, we could do with some retrospection into our past to see what worked and why for so many New Jerseyans for so long.