Verbal Palimpsests

January 31, 2023 Blog, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 155

“The wrong side of the tracks.” This is an idiomatic phrase that most English speakers would recognize. It indicates something is lower in status, class, wealth and even safety. It refers of course to pre-20th century urbanism, where BIPOC and other communities were segregated, redlined and denied municipal services. It is somewhat surprising that the phrase survives, because much of its urbanism has been lost over the last century plus, when the truck and the automobile introduced radical uncertainty into the location equation, causing zoning, redlining and arguable public housing and highways to keep people apart through most of the 20th century.

The redevelopment of industrial districts and railroads in the last three or four decades has further eroded the clarity of “wrong side of the tracks” in the physical world, yet the verbal palimpsest persists. Old industrial districts served by often defunct railroads have become trendy neighborhoods, from SoHo to LoDo to Third Ward. Here in San Antonio, the West Side remains both physically separated by railroad tracks and underdeveloped, but it seems only a matter of time before that physical economy changes with the growth of downtown and especially the UTSA downtown campus.

The verbal palimpsest has also survived at least two rethinkings of the century-old mechanism that eliminated radical uncertainty by “zoning” various communities. The vast majority of the 591 communities that adopted zoning in its first decade were residential suburbs, and their goal was single-family zoning. Today that is being challenged in many cities with a push for more density to battle climate change (and that can help) and unaffordable housing (not so much). Accessory Dwelling Units, ADUs, are all the rage. Of course historic preservationists were touting those a quarter century ago.

Lotsa granny flats, mother-in-laws and rent houses

We also have an effort to preserve shotgun houses, because they are historic “small” houses and thety are affordable because they are already built. You can’t build new and rent cheap.

Interestingly, this row runs right up to the railroad tracks, which I live on the other side of. And while the tracks still have trains many times a day, the neighborhoods on both sides of the tracks are up and coming, despite the demise of the streetcars that created them a century ago. The verbal palimpsest persists, as does the physical, but both have lost their meaning in a 21st century regenerating city.

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