Philly’s Trolleys Live On

Philadelphia’s Route 11 first came into service on Christmas Eve of 1858, as a horsecar — an on-track tram with literal horsepower. Route 11 began as a link between the western suburb of Darby and West Philadelphia, depositing its most eastward riders at 49th and Woodland Ave. In 1896, it extended all the way east to the banks of the Delaware River. Today, it goes only so far east as to City Hall. I take it there now.

I climb aboard at 40th and Baltimore Avenue, amidst treelined streets of row homes built when the first horse and streetcars came here, and across from the great green expanse of the historic Woodlands Cemetery, once the estate of prominent Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton. This part of the city grew with, and due to, the arrival of the streetcar.

When they first came here, this part of West Philadelphia was a suburb for the wealthy; a respite from the hustle and bustle of their work in Center City. Much in West Philly has transformed since those earliest streetcars, but not everything — it depends on the trolley still.

Those first horse trams along Route 11 were segregated, relegating African Americans to standing on the front platform with the driver. That lasted until a citywide decree in 1867. Today, I look around and the car is mostly black riders, facing different forms of inequality — vitriolic remnants of antiquity and their modern mutations; the tragedies of righteous change resisted.

We lurch forwards, toward Center City. I put on my headphones as we head underground.

The fare for nearly all intra-city travel in Philadelphia, including trolley rides, was a flat $2.00 when I first moved to the city. Then, in 2013, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) shocked the world when it rose the fare to a nearly unpalatable $2.25, a jarring enough transition to make one want to sigh and bemoan the changing of the times.

That extra quarter dollar has not thrust SEPTA’s fleet of trolleys into modernity quite yet. The trolleys that run into Center City today are largely unmodified from when SEPTA purchased them from Kawasaki from 1980-1982. I don’t know if this longevity is a more testament to the quality of Kawasaki’s work, or to the tightness of SETPA’s checkbook, but in a world and life increasingly defined by ephemerality and planned obsolescence, they offer a modicum of stability to appreciate, for better or worse.

The trolley travels much slower than the Market Frankford Subway-Elevated Line, or the El, which hurdles east from Upper Darby along Market before curving north in service of Northeast Philadelphia. Its languid pace is one of the reasons I prefer the trolley to its faster, newer cousin on and under Market. With SEPTA, unpredictability of service is frustratingly common, but micro-unpredictabilities define a ride on the slower trolley — of traffic on the surface, of stops and starts at traffic lights in the tunnels underground, of the severity of screeching as we round a corner… but most of all, of the makeup, conversations, and inclinations of those aboard, whose similarities might regularly be obscured by the vastness of their differences, but for however briefly, their stories align as they share in the exact same journey. There’s solace in companionship with these strangers, and with the ghosts of the men and women who rode along these tracks before us. Together, these intangibles make it an experience embodying life in the city in general, where the diversity of experiences is extreme, coexisting everywhere, and built upon the great history of those who came before.

I used to take the trolley into Center City in order to connect to the Broad Street Line, which I would then ride north to my ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Now I ride into Center City just to do it, to walk around, to observe; or to transfer to the El, and take that towards beer, music, and friends in bars in neighborhoods that decades prior had been desolate. The evolution of this place is never-ending.

We screech to a halt under 15th street. I climb the stairs to the surface across from City Hall and walk onto Broad Street. The sidewalks overflow with Philadelphians hustling about their days. The taxis on the street compete for every inch, marking their territory with fierce battle cries. Skyscrapers tower overhead and reflect off of each other. The ride wasn’t longer than 15 minutes, and it’s left me in a different world from the sleepy West Philly street from which I came.

A century-old infrastructure and idea, modified with the times but with its core intact, ushers change into the lives of its riders daily. The trolley still moves people in Philadelphia.

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