Klang Klang Klang, Gone’s our Trolley: The Loss of Newark’s Transit Autonomy

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Meet Me In St Louis 1
Judy Garland in one of her most iconic musical sequences in MGM’s ‘Meet me in St. Louis’. The bizarre thing about this beloved musical number is that it plays on the Silent Generation’s nostalgia for the time when you had to ride the trolley to get around… The same generation whose automobile mania brainwashed the Baby Boomers and preceded the fall of the trolley in American Cities. Image from Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Guest Post by R. Ballantine


Like many other Newarkers, I head out to my local bus stop to go to work every day. And what arrives at my local stop leaves a lot to be desired. A decades-old bus, with dirty and sometimes ripped seats, with a ride as bouncy and rough as a ship in a tempest. The schedule inconsistent and random, with buses either packed to the brim or completely empty.

Outside of rush hour, I find myself waiting 30 to 45 minutes for the next bus. Sometimes I miss it entirely, because the Transit app doesn’t show the bus approaching as it darts away from the corner of my eye. So, as I stand there in the pouring rain, scanning the horizon for a bus that never seems to come, I ask myself… This is awful, why does the largest city in the state have to contend with public transit as lousy as this?

Newark Public Bus 2
Isn’t it nice that after having waited in the wind and rain underneath a rusted-out bus stop, you get to sit in this veritable throne? The only thing more unpleasant was the general odor, rendered more fragrant by having the bus packed beyond capacity from being half an hour late. Photo by Author.

With the growth of Newark accelerated after the end of the Civil War, our city leaders had to rationalize, and think about how to get its citizens moving. No longer were we a town of craftsmen living above their shops, but a city of factory workers, clerks, and merchants who crowded along the Passaic River and in offices high above the Four Corners.

The future of Newark lay in its ability to absorb the ebbs and flows of an urban populace that did not have the means to live near their job. The common people needed easy and cheap access to the jobs, goods, and services that kept this city humming. And in this age of industry, Newarkers began to rely on one innovation that made the horse and carriage a relic of the past: The Trolley Car.

The Trolley Car Newark 3
For most of human civilization, the streets were the domain of the people. The Trolley helped extend the footprint of Newarkers by broadening their access to goods and services that for generations prior had only been a luxury. Image from the Newark Public Library.

Here was a clean, fast, and efficient means from which you could commute from your house in Vailsburg to Newark Port, from Clinton Hill to the Tiffany Glassworks, and from Downtown to the distant boroughs of Bloomfield and Kearny. You would equally find lawyers and doctors sharing seats and grip handles with janitors and teachers. Newark’s system connected Paterson, Hoboken, and Jersey City together, creating a transit cluster whose combined labor pool competed with its rival across the Hudson.

Public Service Corporation Of New Jersey 4
This diagrammatic map shows the extent to which our trolley network interconnected our region. It is no coincidence that the rise of our city, benefitted the growth of our neighbors. To compete, we had to come together as a unified front consolidating labor and resources. Image from Newark Public Library.

Newark’s wealth grew from a transit system that centralized and interconnected its neighborhoods, allowing its citizens access to a plethora of local services and goods. And at its center was a temple to public transit. The Public Service Terminal, built in 1916, was comprised of platforms stacked 3 stories high, and connected an entire region to what had become our State’s great center of finance, industry, and entertainment.

Newark Sunday Call 5
A cutaway of the Public Service Terminal showing its three levels of trolley platforms. The Public Service Terminal may not have been a great beauty like New York’s Grand Central, but it did not need to be an architectural masterpiece to have an enormous impact. The Public Service Corporation (now PSE&G) was making the architectural statement of “putting your money where your mouth is” by having its headquarters sit above this metaphorical transit heart, pumping the life force from which our city thrived upon. Image from Newark Public Library.
Njtransit Newark 6
Meanwwhile… NJTransit; the heir to Newark’s public transit legacy, sits in the middle of a wasteland of asphalt, atop of a multi-level parking deck, evoking the “best” of Newark’s post-riot Modernism. Make no mistake, the building a company resides in is as much a reflection of its tenants as a house is of its owners. If this building doesn’t tell you whose sympathies NJTransit belongs to, then you’re probably not a public transit rider to begin with. Photo by Author.

But soon enough, this great triumph in public mobility would be buried under asphalt. By the early 1910s, the automobile grew cheaper to manufacture, and more of them began to crowd our streets. The trolley, whose strength came from its speed and timely service was now fighting for space with Henry Ford’s rolling abstraction of “freedom”.

The emerging congestion created by the automobile resulted in a negative feedback loop, where people fed up with the slow and inflexible trolley chose to pay extra to ride in buses owned by private companies or purchase their own cars outright, creating even more gridlock. No concessions were made to regulate the impact of these cars on our streets, the more cars there were, the more we surrendered our public needs to private convenience.

Historic Newark Photo 7
In the 1920s, Newark was at the peak of its urban fervor, the streets were bursting with people making their way through our downtown. Cars may have been gaining popularity around this era, but the pedestrian and trolley rider were still in charge, Newarkers didn’t need to wait by the side of the road while Suburbanites used Broad Street as an extension of I-95. Image from Newark Public Library.
Newark Subway 8
What has disappeared from collective memory is that the Newark Subway was not just one solitary trolley running on one line, it was multiple lines that branched off a central trunk, meaning that stations like Military Park and Penn Station had to be built to a scale much larger than utility demanded. If you ever wondered why these stations are so large, it is because they are the Art-Deco ghosts of a public transit network that was far more ambitious than what we have now. Photo by Author.

But by the end of World War 2, the trolleys were replaced with electric trolleybuses, and soon enough with noxious diesel. Each devolution to Newark’s public transit was made to benefit the throttle-hungry decadence of ever-more distant suburbs. We ripped apart our vast network of trolley cars for the same reason we ripped apart our neighborhoods for highways, to make Newark an easier place for suburbanites to speed past and never stop.

Public transit is the only effective means for Newarkers to get around our city, and at one time, it was a fast, efficient, and timely endeavor. So, remember this… the reason that you and I must contend with dirty old buses that are always late, and overcrowded with people, is because our urban autonomy was surrendered to the white picket fence and the 3-car garage.

Newark Light Rail 9
Our light-rail network can be best described as a gentrifier’s carnival ride. Unlike the Newark Subway, the Penn to Broad Street Station loop is a farce that hides behind utility. Its meandering route passing by NJPAC and the former Bears Stadium was designed to ease squeamish investors to build in downtown during the 2000s. The most recent proposal to build a line running from Newark to Paterson is also a gentrified charade. Its proposed route along the Passaic River is designed to copy the success of the Jersey City light rail, the success of a rapidly unaffordable enclave of apartment towers that caters to displaced New Yorkers, while Newarkers would continue to ride a dingy old bus. Photo by Author.
Newark Trolley Car 10
Image from PSE&G.
Newark Penn Station 11
From a time when you could actually go to the suburbs from Newark Penn Station. Photo by Author.
Public Service Terminal Newark 12
As if from a Greek tragedy, the site of the Public Service Terminal is now a fenced-off hole in the ground. It is a literal and metaphorical void to Newark’s public transit needs and former glories. Photo by Author.

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