Photo Credit: Pattie McCarthy
Note: In 1912, Philadelphia’s transit commissioner, A. Merritt Taylor, proposed a comprehensive subway plan to serve the transit needs of the entire city of Philadelphia. Only two of the proposed subway lines were ever completed: the Market-Frankford line (1922) and the Broad Street line (1938; extended slightly in 1956 & 1973). Plans for other lines were revised/revived over the years but ultimately abandoned.
There was a plan for a Germantown spur off the Broad Street line that would take off from Erie Station in North Philly and run northwest under Germantown Ave. Germantown was once German Township, two words, a distant suburb where textile mills lined Wissahickon Creek. In the 19th century it was pulled into Philly by the railroad as the city pushed outward as if trying to escape itself.
Germantown is many histories of escape, of refuge and flight. There was a station on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s, right on Germantown Ave, known as the Johnson House. It still stands, now a museum.
Museum means “shrine of the muses,” an attempt at making a house of mind, a station for thinking. So it can’t work the way you want it to. Muses move, pass through. A station wants you to stay, to stand like a steed in a stable.
“A museum is a curious graveyard of thinking,” wrote Amiri Baraka in his essay “Hunting is not those heads on the wall”.
In the 1790s, George Washington whose head is on the quarter and one-dollar bill escaped Philly’s yellow fever epidemic by hiding in Germantown, along with other rich people, 6 miles away from the city. Horses and boats took them there. Horses were status symbols.
Imagine the man on the one-dollar bill petting his favorite horse. This one’s my favorite, he says. Imagine him, with that one-dollar expression, naming his horse. This is Mary Ball, he says, I love her. Imagine the man on the one-dollar bill talking to his horse. It’s all right, baby, we’re almost there.
Money turns you into a cartoon, a rubber band that can be shot across the room, bounced into other forms. Time does this too. So does speed and the desire for speed—that you must be traffic to escape traffic. No one thinks of themselves as traffic, even while they’re in traffic.
As traffic, you’re part of your vehicle and part of everyone else’s. As you speed up, you embody the freedom you desire, escape itself, the pleasure of animation, wind blowing in your face, and you become more elastic, more fluid, like Tom or Jerry, like the Road Runner, like Wile E. Coyote, and you begin to feel more and more invincible. You fly on I-95 as pure spirit until traffic slows, and then slows, and then comes to a standstill, and you want to pull your hair out, because you’re a cartoon just like everyone else, in your private car, melting into the public roads, which will never be yours.
Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.
Fuck me and the Ford Focus I broke down in.
We gotta get out of this place. If it’s the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place. Girl, there’s a better life for me and you.
That’s the Animals, 1965. Bruce Springsteen, “the Boss”, has said, “that’s every song I’ve ever written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either. That’s ‘Born to Run’, ‘Born in the USA’.”
It’s a song born of working-class frustration. It’s not a song about overthrowing capitalism but of escaping it. It’s a song you turn up in traffic, where solidarity is impossible. You are stuck in the hellish city. Stuck in your job. Stuck in your body, slaving away just like your mother and father, just like your neighbor. Nothing but traffic. Animals in need of animation.
The words “animal” and “animation” share the word “anima”, which means “soul.” The Indo-European root, anə, means “to breathe.”
In the film noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), humans and cartoons co-exist. It’s the 1940s, and in contrast to the humans, cartoons are playful, imaginative beings—artists—who live more or less peacefully with one another in a completely animated part of Los Angeles called Toontown. They are also immortal unless erased by a special “dip.” All of Toontown is under threat of erasure because of a plot to build a freeway through it. To make it happen, Judge Doom has purchased LA’s public streetcar system in order to destroy it.
Judge Doom’s dream is our reality: “I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off. All day, all night. Soon where Toontown once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly-prepared food, tire salons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.”
Fortunately, the good guys win. The human protagonist, detective Eddie Valiant, saves the animated protagonist, Roger Rabbit, and in doing so he helps save Toontown. He also regains his lost sense of humor and breaks his own depression. He gives Roger a big funny kiss and all the toons cheer as they’ve won collective ownership of Toontown. In the end, Valiant finds his anima. The movie, ultimately, is about fending off spiritual death. Implicit is a critique of Jim Crow-era racism—toons, who are drawings of animals, including people, are discriminated against, seen as less than human, and are segregated from humans, who believe they themselves are not-animals.
In real life, Judge Doom was General Motors, which along with Standard Oil, Firestone Tires, Mack, and Philips Petroleum, conspired to dismantle streetcar systems across the USA in the 1930s and 40s. They succeeded by using a front company called National City Lines. I learned this on 11th St. one day waiting for the 23 bus, which takes you to Germantown. The bus was late and the man next to me, who was complaining about SEPTA, started musing about the long-gone wonderful days of streetcars, how they ran up every street before we had buses. He told me to look up National City Lines. I did.
A hundred years ago, Philly had 550 miles of track and a fleet of 2,000 trolleys. Then came the rise of the car, which is an eraser. Then came the Great Depression. Then National City Lines: most trolley routes were converted to buses. And subway development slowed. Then came World War 2 and highways and suburbs, blockbusting and white flight.
In real life, Eddie Valiant and Roger Rabbit were people who drove cars, listening to Bruce Springsteen songs before Bruce Springsteen was born.
There were people in Germantown like Samuel West, my great-grandfather who made a living at the BUDD factory, which manufactured train and car bodies. His father, Thomas West, had drunk himself to death after the Great Depression sunk his textile mill and lightning killed his eldest son on the roof of their house. The rest of the family fought over the scraps and Samuel wanted nothing to do with it. He eloped with a poor girl from Scranton, moved to another neighborhood. He never talked to his siblings again.
For Samuel, love was an escape. His granddaughter, Dorothy, is my mother. She said Samuel loved his new family but was close-minded and racist. He told her once, whichever political party is in power, join that party—that way, you know someone’s got your back when things get bad. To him, all politicians were crooks. Their ideas didn’t matter. What mattered was self-preservation.
Having escaped, Samuel found himself preserved, happy with where he was, sitting on his small piece of land in North Philly, believing perhaps that he was his own boss, pretending perhaps not to be erasing anything. But the world began to swirl around him again, and he started to feel that he couldn’t move, that he was stuck as if he were in a museum, and people were looking in but could not see him. And he began to panic.
There was a plan for a Northeast spur off the Broad Street line that would take off from Erie Avenue and run under Roosevelt Boulevard to the end of the city. In 1912, when a citywide subway system was originally proposed, Bustleton, where I grew up, was still farmland and the Boulevard was still being built. The Boulevard would become part of the Lincoln Highway, also conceived of in 1912, a transcontinental highway running from Times Square in NYC to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, warping time and place.
When I was a kid, the Boulevard seemed to go on forever. In my recurring dream the Boulevard took us to the end of the world. There was a grayish-pink sky where cars dropped off the edge of the world like a waterfall. What I remember of the dream’s feeling is fear that my father had taken us too far as we struggled to turn around against the tide of traffic.
My father started working for SEPTA when he was 19. “I can’t keep doing this, this bullshit,” he would say to himself again and again over the years. He always intended to quit, find something better. He used to say, “A monkey could do my job.” He took the Boulevard to work every day. He never quit.
SEPTA’s slogan for decades has been “WE’RE GETTING THERE.”
Plans for a Boulevard subway were revived in the 1960s, and Sears dug a tunnel for a station at Adams Avenue, where their catalog warehouse and a shopping center were located. But the city was denied federal funds and the project was abandoned.
Peggy West, my grandmother, remembers when the subway tunnel was being dug. She lived in Tacony, a neighborhood close by, along the river. Peggy loved public transportation. She was a country girl who fell in love with the city after falling in love with Chauncey West in the Navy.
Peggy was planning to go to Paris before Chauncey proposed to her. She was surprised—had figured she was already too old to get married—because she was 20. A far cry from Nebraska, Philadelphia seemed as good a future as any. “If I had gone to Paris,” she told me, “you wouldn’t be here.”
In Chauncey’s family, the dinner talk was a mix of worry, excitement and relief, propelled by continuous job insecurity—“did we get this contract, did we get that contract—they were neat but not happy stories,” said Peggy.
The thing to do, Chauncey believed, having dropped out of high school and left the Navy, was to fall in love and move your family from North Philadelphia to Northeast Philadelphia—which is what hordes of white people were doing in the 1950s as more black people moved to the city.
Chauncey landed a union job with the Quaker Rubber company, which manufactured all kinds of hoses and things like escalator handrails for companies like Otis. And he got a house in Tacony, just north of the factory. He and Peggy raised their four daughters there. The eldest was Dorothy, my mother.
People in Tacony and Wissinoming were soon called “river rats” by people in Mayfair and neighborhoods developing farther north along the Boulevard. These white people, including the Italian and German immigrants of my father’s family, took pride in having more income and a slightly larger patch of grass in front of their slightly larger house that was closer to a slightly nicer school and slightly more homogenous shopping center in a slightly more homogenous neighborhood that was slightly more distant from North Philly, where black people lived. They were more American, they thought, meaning better than everyone who lived south of them, while at the same time they worried that their own neighborhood was “changing” and would talk to each other quietly about moving to the next neighborhood north—“for the kids.”
And so these white people were constantly abandoning what they said they believed in, which was their own superiority for having achieved middle-class status in their white skin in the country that had won World War II and created freedom for all—the freedom to fall in love and get a house with some grass in front of it and have kids you’ll support by working a job that helps make the whole system go, a system that tells you and your kids in school that hard work will make you a good person, that you will get there.
I’m no river rat, Chauncey thought. But H.K. Porter, the giant train-maker, bought the rubber company and laid everyone off. And then Chauncey couldn’t find a job, and he drank and drank and screamed at his daughters. Peggy went to work downtown as a secretary, typing a hundred words a minute. When she came home from work, Chauncey screamed at her, too. Dorothy took care of her younger sisters. Peggy and Chauncey divorced and a few years later, Chauncey died of aplastic anemia from exposure to chemicals in the factory.
Most people are horrified when they first encounter Roosevelt Boulevard, the spine of Northeast Philadelphia. It’s a total free-for-all, a violent expression of 20th century masculine self-abandonment. Named after Theodore, it consists of twelve lanes, six up, six down, divided by two grass medians, some lined with trees, which open periodically for you to cross over at any speed you like—you can yield, sure, but it’s not required. Your best bet, if the Boulevard is new to you, is to stay in a center lane so you can remain aware of drivers going 90 and 30 miles an hour. If you need to make a left turn, godspeed.
If you want to feel like the frog in Frogger, try crossing the Boulevard on foot. As a kid, I enjoyed the challenge. It’s how I got to Tower Records. It’s safer to jaywalk, using the medians to wait for cars to pass in either direction, rather than crossing at an intersection, where a car’s quick left turn could end your life. It has in fact ended many lives.
The second- and third-most dangerous intersections in the United States are on the Boulevard. I grew up around the corner from the latter, Grant Ave and the Boulevard. Sometimes I heard accidents, and sometimes I heard stories of poor old ladies flying through the air. Up and down the Boulevard, year-round, the medians are decorated with flowers and crosses.
To reduce the number of accidents, the Philadelphia Parking Authority started a “Red Light Camera Program” that issues $100-tickets for blowing a red light. The program has resulted in huge profits for a private camera company in Arizona. It has not made the city safer.
The American solution to a public problem, created by private industry, is usually to find a new way to steal from the public. Robbing your neighbor, in other words, is an American tradition, and it thrives in Northeast Philly, where people live as if their neighbors do not really exist. Believing in the American dream is a way to deny your own existence.
Northeast residents actually saw themselves as so American that in the 1980s a state senator, Frank Salvatore, led a movement to secede the Northeast from Philadelphia. The Northeast was being robbed by the city, he believed. Our taxes are too high, he argued, for the paltry services we receive—not enough police, not enough trash collection, not enough street cleaning, not enough public transit. He proposed a bill that would make the Northeast, which was half-Republican, its own township: “Liberty Township”. The dull, racist landscape would become all its own. The secessionist movement died, however, because it was unclear how Liberty Township would afford itself. The Northeast remains dependent on the rest of the city.
Not long before I moved out of the Northeast, I met the poet Gil Ott, who asked me about my life, what I wanted to do. He told me a story about getting lost once in the Northeast. “How does one get out of Northeast Philadelphia?” he asked. I said, “Do you mean if you’re in a car or bus, or do you mean like culturally?” “Both,” he said.
Ryan Eckes is a poet from Philadelphia. He recently finished writing a book called General Motors about labor and the influence of public and private transportation on city life. Other books include Valu-Plus and Old News (Furniture Press 2014, 2011). His poetry can be found in Tripwire, Slow Poetry in America Newsletter, Public Pool, Sundog Lit and elsewhere. He has worked as an adjunct professor at numerous colleges and in recent years as a labor organizer in education. He won a Pew Fellowship in 2016.