Kansas City once had more than 300 miles of streetcar track, one of the largest systems in America, but the city eventually tore up the tracks or, in some cases, paved over them. In a city with serious mass transportation issues, many people yearn for the return of a serious streetcar system. Millennials are changing the demography of our metropolitan area and are flocking back to the urban core, along with a desire for increased transportation options. This phenomenon has businesses looking more at locating in the center city in order to attract the young population of workers, some of whom do not want to own a car.
As an alternative to cabs, Uber, buses or shanks’ mare, streetcars have re-emerged as a darling of the inner city. In 2010, the city fueled this movement by creating a 2.2 mile-long starter line, which runs between the Missouri River and Union Station. Commercial development along the line has been very encouraging. The fleet of four modern cars has been very popular, with excellent ridership. This free ride has evoked memories of those days gone by when the streetcars traversed much of the city.
In 1922, the system recorded nearly 137 Million riders. Again, in the years immediately following WWII, utilization neared that high water mark. Alas, ridership steadily declined from that point, until 1959, when, after eight decades, the last trolleys ceased and the lines became bus lines. The backbone of the system ran from downtown, south, along Troost and Main streets, with connectors between the two lines and branches along Swope Parkway and Rockhill Road. The Troost line closed in 1956, but the “Club Line”, which ran from Westport to Waldo and beyond, through the Country Club Plaza and Brookside, remained a viable route until the end. Ten years earlier, the last streetcars became trolleys, although no one seemed to care about the difference. The renowned “Trolley Barn” at 48th & Harrison once had space for 200 streetcars, in addition to its loop to go back downtown, but stood empty a long time until its demise around 1970. It is now the sight of the fabulous Missouri Conservation Department’s Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center.
The trolleys were part of the fabric of Kansas City and many folks have fond memories of them. In 1991, C.W. Gusewelle wrote for the Kansas City Star, “I remember the interminable hot Saturdays onboard, a prisoner bound for downtown with my mother to stores that smelled of cotton fabric and pink talcum which numbed the boy less that a shopping mall chills the sole of the man.” Those stores are largely gone, the streetcars are long gone, and the shopping malls are on the way out. Tennessee Williams classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, from 1948, which took its title from a New Orleans car line, with Marlon Brando starring in the movie version, is still a classic, but the eponymous restaurant located in an old streetcar along Main Street in Kansas City for decades, has closed for good.
They say, “What goes around comes around.” Maybe the time for a streetcar has returned with a push to extend the current line south to the Country Club Plaza. I, personally, hope it all develops, along with a reincarnation of the Blue Cheeseburger from that old restaurant located in the shell of a trolley car.
As Brando might have proclaimed, “Stella….”
I have a desire for a streetcar.