My family and I are in the process of moving to a small town in northwest Ohio called Fostoria. We are here for practical reasons—it is the town closest to where I work that has a good Catholic school. That said, I have found the people, on the whole, to be quite charming and welcoming. They are in a bit of a tough spot, the town having seen a decline in finances and population in recent decades, but many of them clearly are determined to maintain and improve their community.
One circumstance I’m getting used to is the train traffic. It seems like there are train tracks everywhere you go in Fostoria. At first a Philistine such as me finds them a terrible nuisance. One can end up late for a meeting, or simply frustrated and impatient, because one has been stuck in the car for 5 or 10 minutes waiting for a train to go by. Then there was the recent train tragedy in Quebec, a sign, surely, that trains pose real dangers to people and should be planned for and built with an emphasis on what’s good for the people who live around them, as well as those who use them. And, of course, trains make noise. Lots of noise. Including in the middle of the night.
Surprisingly, I’ve already gotten used to the noise. What’s more, it doesn’t take much investigation to see what used to be the up-side of a train town. Fostoria’s downtown is not in terrific shape—too many closed stores. But it not only has at least one terrific restaurant, it also has a beautiful old building that used to be a genuine opera house.
As many people are aware, the United States used to be filled with small and medium-sized towns that had their own opera houses. My 45-minute commute takes me from one small town with an opera house, through another (Findlay) and into a village (Ada) that at one time hosted its own opera house. Of course, this does not mean that the good farmers and mechanics of America’s heartland used to make nightly pilgrimages to watch the local production of La Traviata. I doubt Verdi’s operas were often performed in Ada or Fostoria. But many of his arias were.
For all the talk of how isolated small towns used to be, it seems clear to me that a larger percentage of people more regularly availed themselves of more opportunities to experience genuine performing arts in the era of the train than do so today in the era of the automobile and, of course, the television. Great and famous singers of the day would stop off at places like Fostoria and Ada to give performances on their way to larger venues like Chicago. The performance might have been in the middle of the day, and it might have been shorter and less grand than in Chicago, but high art was performed as well as low and middle art in these trackside houses. The locals often came from miles around, but didn’t have to make the long, expensive, and time-consuming trip to the big city to enjoy genuine public entertainment—be it Shakespeare, Verdi, or a Vaudeville Show—with their neighbors.
The opera houses were not for out-of-town or traveling entertainment only. They also were used for local community meetings, dances, and other activities. They were integrated parts of the town (often upstairs from a hardware store or other merchant) that served to integrate the community.
And train culture itself helped integrate communities into the larger, state and national society in a way that left local autonomy intact. The nice thing about trains is that they bring people and things to your community and take them from your community to the wider world without erasing your actual community. Trains come in at one or two points, and leave by those same points, on a more or less regular, but distinctly limited schedule. Even the train suburbs of our cities, when they existed, had an actual character of their own that is not duplicated by suburbs on the beltway (just compare Philadelphia—a tough town with vibrant suburbs, to Los Angeles, an extremely pleasant collection of communities in the early twentieth century that has been transformed into a literal concrete jungle).
Transportation by train is a distinct event, or series of events, rather than the constant flow that automobile traffic tends to be. Of course, change was a constant on and near the frontier as people passed through on their way West. But the train had a more direct, concentrated, and so geographically limited impact than our current web of “free”ways. This is not to say that roads don’t both integrate and exclude communities. When Eisenhower insisted on that massive public works and nationalization program that became our freeway system, his engineers made a number of towns into large cities by putting them on the main freeway route—and destroyed many more by bypassing them.
Technology is not destiny, of course. European countries have shown that trains can be part of a dehumanizing mass culture where personal space and independent action are so scarce as to hardly be missed. And American railroads were built more than anything from government subsidies extracted by massive graft and often were used for destructive purposes. It is sad, nonetheless, to contemplate what was lost when the federal government decided to pour trillions of dollars into paving America. One wonders whether some, at least, of our train culture might have survived if train graft had not been followed by road graft.
As with most forms of industry, we have taken the natural desire to insulate ourselves from what is loud and potentially dangerous to an unfortunate extreme that allows other, more widespread dangers (such as automobile accidents, the debilitating effects of too much driving, and the destruction of real, compact communities) to escape our notice even as they effect our lives.
Such considerations are not irrelevant today, as our national government pursues its new graft-centered transportation model. The massive subsidies being thrown at car companies, big and small, promising to solve the world’s problems with electricity confront numerous unadvertised problems—from the diversion of needed monies to special interests, to the huge, inevitable costs of building a new infrastructure once (if) electric cars become mass produced consumers of electricity, to the currently outsourced problems of toxic battery waste. Even if electric cars are the wave of the future, an approach that allows people and their communities to adapt and integrate the new technology would seem culturally as well as economically and environmentally imperative. Our “practical” national government wants to change the world through the latest technology. But, while technology is not destiny, forcing new technology on people comes at the expense of a way, not just of transporting things, but of living our lives together. A little less pride in government programs and a little more care for actual people and their ways of life, might help keep our culture from being damaged more than it already has.
This column first appeared July 27, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.