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A streetcar suburb is a community whose development was largely shaped by the advent of the electric streetcar or tram. Streetcar suburbs were, in many respects, the precursor to the contemporary suburb.
Streetcar suburbs in North America typically developed around specific stops along the line. They allowed its residents to live further from the urban core, and still maintain their jobs downtown. Streetcar access appealed to people of all economic backgrounds. Both the affluent and working class utilized streetcars as their primary means of transportation from the late 1800s through the 1920s, when automobiles gained popularity.
In a large sense, the streetcar suburbs of the early 1900s worked well for a variety of reasons.
- While most cities grew in a piecemeal fashion, without any real plan for future development, streetcar suburbs were highly planned communities that were organized under single ownership and control. Indeed, they would often be the first such developments in their respective cities.
- Most lots in streetcar suburbs were quite small by post-World War II suburban standards, allowing for a compact and walkable neighborhood, as well as convenient access to public transport (the streetcar line).
- While some streetcar suburbs were planned with a grid plan, designers of these suburbs often modified the grid pattern to suit the site context with curvilinear streets. Additionally, many of these pre-automobile suburbs included alleys with a noticeable absence of front-yard driveways and garages.
- In terms of transportation, the streetcar provided the primary means for residents to get to work, shopping, and social activities. Yet, at either end of the streetcar trip, walking remained as the primary means of getting around. As a result, even in these early suburbs, the overall city remained very pedestrian friendly. This was not always the case for other vehicles. It should be noted that, at the turn of the century, the bicycle was also a popular form of mobility for many urban dwellers of the era. (However, when the streetcar rail tracks were encased in the asphalt of a street the resulting trench, for the flanges of the steel wheels, created a dangerous hazard for cyclists, being big enough to trap bicycle wheels but not large enough to get out easily.)
- Because of the pedestrian-oriented nature of these communities, sidewalks were necessary in order to avoid an unacceptable and muddy walk to the streetcar on an unpaved street. Trees lining the streets were also seen as critical to a healthy and attractive neighborhood. While such developments often occurred on farmland or other cleared sites, the evidence of the street trees planted can be seen today in the large, overarching canopies found in these attractive post-turn-of-the-century communities.
- Most of the houses of the streetcar suburb era continued to utilize front porches as a fundamental architectural and social element of the home. While setbacks were increased modestly, there was still a strong link between the front door and porch of the home, and the sidewalk and street. Carriage houses , the precursor of the modern-day garage, were considered to be unsightly and were typically relegated to the rear of the property, fronting on an alley. Additionally, garbage and other utilitarian activities were geared towards rear alley access and service.
- These suburbs represented the early separation of single-family residential areas from other land uses. Nevertheless, the separation was not total due to the limited scale of these developments, multiple street connections to adjacent neighborhoods, and the generally compact nature of cities of the era. In addition, commercial activities were often centered around the streetcar stop, allowing residents to do their essential shopping on the way home from work.
- To an extent, these suburbs also facilitated segregation based on race, ethnicity, and social class. However, the separation was not complete due to the relative proximity of adjoining neighborhoods, the mix of housing types that was often seen in the suburbs of this era, and the sharing of public transport.
Streetcar suburbs in North America
The following communities are examples of streetcar suburbs in North America:
- Brookland and other neighborhoods of Washington, DC
- Morningside neighborhood of Sioux City, Iowa
- Mount Rainier, Maryland
- Roxbury, Massachusetts
- Morrisania and other neighborhoods of the Bronx, New York
- Cleveland Heights, Ohio
- Shaker Heights, Ohio
- Lakewood, Ohio
- North Toronto, Ontario
- Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania
- West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Highland Springs, Virginia
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