The development of a new home for the Phoenix Trolley Museum makes sense in so many ways
By Bob Graham
Near downtown Phoenix, two streetcars wait in a nondescript corrugated metal warehouse. They last rolled on tracks in city streets in 1948, just seven decades past. That’s really not all that long ago. If you are in your 80s or 90s and lived in Phoenix then, you probably remember them. If you are younger, your parents or grandparents may have ridden on them to get to school or work. They were an integral part of the fabric of the city for sixty years.
So how come you see no evidence of them as you drive around town today? Are streetcars even relevant anymore? Why should anyone care?
I grew up in Phoenix in the 1970s. By then the city, and more specifically downtown, had already been largely transformed into a modern metropolis, lacking focus and enabled by the dominance of automobiles. Many seemingly small individual decisions had eroded away the city of yesteryear; even the trolley system, once a critical part of our urban infrastructure, had been completely forgotten in the span of twenty or thirty years. The disappearance of historic Phoenix also meant that recent immigrants from around the country, who have always outnumbered natives, had no idea that Phoenix didn’t always look like it did then, or that anything of value might have been lost.
But much of value has been lost. The small town that became a city was, before World War II, a place that was close-knit, friendly, efficient, and human. A place where you worked and played within walking distance of where you lived. A place where the community banded together to build prominent, well designed civic buildings, as a statement of who we were. Sidewalks downtown bustled with people. All of this was embodied in the urban form itself, which was made possible by streetcars.
In the 21st Century, there is a growing awareness that the city of the past might have been a better place to live than what it has become: anonymous, disjointed, inconvenient, and ugly – inhuman rather than human. But what can be done? How can some of that past quality of life be recovered when so few recognize its benefits? When each day brings busloads of new residents from somewhere else, oblivious to the history of the place they have come to, or that it could be any different?
History education is key. Much has been written about the historically-ignorant being doomed to repeat their mistakes; that the lessons of the past can inform our decisions about the future. Unfortunately, historical institutions have taken some serious hits in Phoenix since the recession of 2008. With the closure of the Phoenix Museum of History, Phoenix is the only US city in the top 20 that does not have a museum dedicated to its history. And the Phoenix Trolley Museum (PTM) lost its home of 40 years in 2016, forcing its major assets into indefinite storage.
Since losing their lease, PTM, owner of the two cars in question, has been busily working to re-establish their streetcar museum on historic Grand Avenue, locus of one of Phoenix’s earliest streetcar lines. In the span of three years, the group has relocated its assets, developed a basic indoor museum exhibit, collected one additional unrestored streetcar, and most recently, purchased the property. This last accomplishment is a landmark for PTM: for the first time, they own their property and can’t be evicted, giving them a permanent home and a solid financial base of equity. But their work has just begun. The new site does not have the facilities to store, protect, and exhibit the fragile museum pieces that are at the core of its collection. For that, they need to develop a “real” museum facility, and all that goes with it both physically and organizationally.
What the New Phoenix Trolley Museum would bring to Phoenix
- Connect people with the Phoenix streetcar story and its relationship to the history and development of Phoenix. This is, of course, the core mission of the museum, but the benefits of his particular piece of historical education are manifest. For the reasons set out above, PTM could tie together issues of urban growth and development, walkability, sustainability, transportation planning, and the physical layout of historic Phoenix in a single appealing narrative.
- Create a new tourism and entertainment cultural destination for the city. Museums and similar venues have positive economic effects on their communities that far outweigh their costs. Streetcar and rail buffs make a point of visiting rail museums in each place they visit, and often plan trips around them; likewise for historical fans. These visitors spend money locally on food, lodging, and shopping.
- Promote the revitalization of historic Grand Avenue and the west end of the central city. Grand Avenue was in deep decline between 1970 and 1990, after its use as a state highway was bypassed. This decline was worsened by the location of homeless services on the west side of downtown. More recently the area has been colonized by artists and small local businesses and is now an up-and-coming neighborhood. PTM’s location on Grand helps to solidify this progress, and if it can eventually get tracks back in the street, can help tie the area together as a people-mover with heritage streetcar service.
- Serve as a bridge to a future downtown circulator, likely a streetcar loop. It’s a little-known fact that the transportation bond passed several years ago to expand the light rail system also included funding for construction and operation of a “downtown circulator,” which most likely would be a streetcar loop around downtown. The planning and construction of such a loop has not been made a high priority, so the idea remains unrealized. A trolley museum would re-familiarize people as to the difference between streetcars and light rail vehicles and their differing purposes, and with the people-mover described above, would give people a taste of how that could work, building community support and demand to build that system.
What you can do to help make this happen
- Become a museum member. This is not about money. Or at least, not about YOUR money. The political strength of the museum is measured by its membership. How many people are considered constituents? How many people feel strongly enough to plunk down $20 a year, today a nominal amount? If the museum has 500 members, it will be treated completely differently by our city government and by grant sources than a museum of 50 members.
- Donate. OK, in this case it’s about the money. Because the “real” museum has not yet been built, PTM’s only source of unrestricted income comes from donations, sponsorships, and membership dues. PTM owns its site, but land ownership continues to have a cost (there is a small mortgage) and they need to keep the wheels on while the bigger plans come to fruition.
- Volunteer. PTM has no paid staff. All the museum has accomplished has been through the hard work of volunteers on their own time; most of them have families and jobs also clamoring for their attention. While people with certain talents are more urgently needed, anyone with a spare hour or two a week can help out. There are a lot of side benefits to volunteering, including gaining museum experience, expanding networks, fellowship with like-minded Phoenicians, and the satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment of helping create the new PTM.
- Serve on the Board of Directors. Board members are also volunteers, but with more responsibilities and authority. Each Board member is expected to help ensure the financial success of the museum (in one of various ways) and participate in committee work. But this is where you can make the most impact. There are several openings, and PTM is looking to expand its diversity in terms of age, gender, race, and knowledge.
Building this trolley museum will bring richness to our quality of life in Phoenix in so many ways. If you agree, and really want to see this vision realized, I hope you’ll be able to help in one of the ways outlined here. Together, we can make it happen.
Visit the Trolley Museum website at https://www.phxtrolley.org/.