Older New Orleanians may remember a time when the city was criss-crossed by active streetcar tracks. Largely demolished in the post-World War II freeway and bus service boom, streetcar lines have regained traction nationwide as a viable, environmentally friendly mode of mass transit. New Orleans now has five streetcar lines, all operated by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority—but in the late 1800s, the Crescent City had 28 lines operated by six companies, according to New York-based artist Jake Berman.
Berman has re-envisioned and recreated public transmit maps from the streetcar era for cities including Los Angeles, Miami, Washington D.C., and Boston and is compiling them into a book. Read on for his thoughts about what these maps tell urbanites regarding the past, present, and future of their city and its mass transit needs.
How did you get the idea for this project?
I was sitting on the 101 freeway behind a guy with ugly bumper stickers on a miserably hot day in L.A. I thought, “Why am I stuck in traffic? Why doesn’t L.A. have better public transit?” After some research at the public library, I found out that L.A. had an enormous streetcar system in the early 1920s. It was four times longer than the London Tube. All that was demolished after World War II and replaced with freeways.
Most cities in the U.S. had some version of that story play out. ... But even though the themes are similar, the stories the cities tell are very different.
What was unique about New Orleans’ story?
In L.A., city fathers wanted to show the world that L.A. was the city of the future, and the thing to do to attract people was to build freeways.
In New Orleans, that same expressway-building thing happened, but played out in a different fashion because an alliance of historic preservationists saved the St. Charles Avenue streetcar after World War II, when the rest were getting pulled out.
(In New Orleans), it’s also unique that the expressways go straight through downtown and the CBD.
How did you go about your research?
I started in 2018 with the cities I had lived in: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. ... The most useful things are not old maps, but old tour guide books, because they provide detailed info on where streetcars ran, which company ran them, and all these granular-level details so I can make it true to to life.
Once you’ve done your research, what’s the creation process like?
I’ll prepare a sketch with pen and paper. I use Adobe Illustrator to put it all together. I did a lot of research on which fonts were available and popular at that time in history and merge that with the design language of today’s mass transmit maps. I’m trying to put myself in the mind of a graphic designer from 1875 and do what they might have done if they had modern printing technology available.
What do you learn from this unique method of using 21st-century tools to recreate a 19th- or 20th-century city’s view of itself and its future?
You can capture a lot of the essence of each city from these contemporaneous snapshots. New Orleans in 1875 is recognizably New Orleans, not just in terms of its battle with water. The three defining features of New Orleans are the swamp, the Mississippi River, and the former Confederate.
(For example), General P.G.T. Beauregard was one of the most prominent real estate developers in New Orleans, and he was also president of the St. Charles streetcar company. Marketing copy from the 1870s tour guide book treats it as a point of pride that a Confederate general was building all this new real estate. ... At the time, there were street battles going on between federal troops and ex-Confederate militia men calling themselves the White League, because it was still the height of Reconstruction.
How did segregation play out in the streetcars in 1875?
It’s very interesting the way money can collide with race in that the streetcar companies in 1875 weren’t segregated. Right after the Civil War ended, the Louisiana legislature had a decree that streetcars wouldn’t be segregated ... because the streetcar companies wouldn’t allow it. (The companies) said, “We’d have to run twice as many trains if we’re going to run black and white trains.” Until 1905, Louisiana legislature was OK with that.
Is there anything else you’d want reader to know?
The decisions that your city makes about transportation don’t happen in a vacuum. In some ways, gridlock is a choice. The most common response I’ve gotten to these new maps of old streetcar systems has been, “Wow, I wish we had this again today.”
It’s not like this infrastructure appeared out of nowhere. It appeared because there was a demand for it. The next time you’re stuck in traffic, ask, “What decisions did we as a society make to get to this point?”
View more of Berman’s work at www.lostsubways.com.