Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Railway and Civil Society

Tony Judt's follow-up piece on trains is also worthy of comment as he posits some important further notions about trains, modernism and civil society.  Judt was a great humanist as well as historian - something that carried across in his final book Ill Fares the Land.   Judt's outlook as a historian was to try to exemplify those elements that advanced that humanism, the most important of these he felt was civil society.  Thus, in this peace on rails, Judt rightly equates the railway with civil society:

The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord (and, in recent times, common expenditure), and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something the market cannot accomplish—except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. Railways were not always environmentally sensitive—though in overall pollution costs it is not clear that the steam engine did more harm than its internally combusted competitor—but they were and had to be socially responsive. That is one reason why they were not very profitable.

Thus the classical railway stations, many of them the product of the City Beautiful movement, were designed as great public monuments that would dominate the built environment and uplift the civic spirit. This notion is carried out in all of the great classical stations: Orsay, Grand Central Station, Gare de L'est, Waterloo Station, etc. Additionally, Judt makes the very salient point that trains exemplify comprehensive, rational use of public space.  The notion of public space is rationalist and highly modernist.  Thus the betrayal of public space is a betrayal of modernity:

If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.

It has been the US alone among Western Countries that has truly eviscerated in rail lines and allowed them to fall into absolute disrepair.  Additionally, it has further been the United States that has most fully advanced the ideal of the singularity and triumph of the individual over the collective.  Thus, the decline of civil society and the destruction of the Art Deco styled monuments to civil society are linked.  Robert Putnam's work Bowling Alone continues to serve as the most important study on the decline of civil society and community within the United States, and while Putnam studied the decline of community bowling leagues, he could have just as easily studied the disappearance of trains and train stations from the American landscape. While others such as Richard Florida have attempted to refute Putnam by arguing civil society has merely morphed into new skills-based "creative" communities, this argument does not compel and rather speaks to an increasingly individualistic vision of self-edification rather than of a wider community.

Thus, rail, civil society and public space are all inextricably linked.  The return of rail to the American landscape should be made pre-eminent.  It represents a compelling use of public space and the reestablishment of civil society, and the good of society, versus that of the individual as cardinal.  The railway is a means of establishing urban aesthetics and form, equity, regional linkage and civics in a very palpable way.  As Judt notes, most of the the railway stations that survive retain the purposes and forms that they were built for.  The generational failure of the baby boomers has been the taking of services for granted, followed by the eventual dismantlement of infrastructure and services in order to serve short term individual gains.  Rail encourages, due to it's longevity in form, for us to think in terms of long-term outcomes.  For civil society to prosper, perhaps railways must again prosper.

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