A Blast To A Pre-War Past
July 16, 2014

I talk about Melbourne, Australia a lot because it is one of the most interesting cities I know. The city is a chaotic blend of suburban and hypertrophic design, with elements of a traditional city poping up here and there. The city centre is a wonderful lively place with plenty to do and explore. This time we will be ignoring the city centre and talking specifically about suburban Melbourne.

In studying American cities, we talk a lot about pre-World War 2 America. We know about the streetcar suburbs, and the highly gridded streets. Or at least we think we do.

Melbourne is really interesting. In the early days, Melbourne was (as most Australian cities were) planned and built in a similar fashion to American cities. What makes Melbourne interesting is that, unlike many American and Australian cities, it never ripped up its tram (Americans call them streetcars) network after World War 2. Melbourne runs one of the largest tram networks in the world.

While metropolitain Melbourne today has greatly outgrown the reach of the tram network, the original network and the suburbs that were built around them are still intact.

Today, you can still walk around the inner suburbs of Melbourne, and without walking too far towards your nearest main road, there's a high chance you will run into a tram line. (In modern Melbourne, trams are part of a much larger transit network. The 30 regular tram routes are complimented by 346 bus routes and 16 commuter train lines.)

I feel this is what many American cities used to be like before they systematically pulled up their streetcar networks. As an example, here is what Bufallo's network looked like in 1935;

If you look up historical maps, you will see that most American cities had similar networks. When we hear about today's streetcar renaissance, 2 brand new novelty lines for the tourists is nothing compared to the scale of the network that used to exist. When we look at the streetcar suburbs and pre-war neighbourhoods we try to imagine what life was like before the modern automobile era. But streetcars played a very important role in the daily life of the people that lived there - those neighbourhoods were built around streetcars (hence the name - 'streetcar suburb'). Because they were built around streetcars, it is very difficult for us to imagine daily life there, and the reasoning behind the pattern in which is was built, without the once extensive streetcar network that used to exit.

When you rip out the bones that a place was built upon, that place will struggle to exist. Some places have managed to rebuild themselves - around cars, busses, or subways, but many places have failed. When I see all of these places scattered throughout the United States that look as if they have seen decline or a lack of substantial investment since the 1940s, I feel that these places have simply failed to adapt and recover from their bones being ripped out. These are places that used to bustle with wealth and people, and now both have moved on.

What would these places look like today if their bones were never ripped up? Often we can only imagine. This is where I think Melbourne can help us. Melbourne never pulled out its bones. Some 182.7 million people still moved around Melbourne on trams in 2012. The architecture of Melbourne and layout of the early suburbs of Melbourne could easily pass as American, so it makes a great comparison of what could have been.

For example, here is a historic photo of Chester, PA complete with a streetcar like most American cities had a century ago;

Here is a the suburb of Prahran in Melbourne - a streetcar suburb that never lost its bones;

What would happen if we were to flip this image (so the cars are on the other-side) and convert it to black and white?

That could pass as any American city circa 1930s. If your city was around back then, that is probably what it looked like.

If you are ever on that side of the world and want to have a look at what could have been, then I encourage you to visit the suburbs of Melbourne for a blast to a pre-war past.