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The attack of the killer streetcar

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may 8, 2000. Many authors over the years have written credibly about what could have been a conspiracy by big companies like General Motors and Firestone to rid American cities of street cars and replace then with diesel buses ó an interim step towards the complete transformation into an auto nation. Toby Wiggin of the Castro Neighborhood Council has a new streetcar theory and chose to explain it in the last issue of the San Francisco Call. It turns out the colorful streetcars that roll up and down Market Street ó the same ones others say the huge corporations tried so hard to get rid of ó are an evil Trojan horse thatís convincing San Franciscans to sell out to the likes of Pottery Barn. The streetcars, itís claimed, are not for residents, rather for tourists who will use them to bring unwanted tourist dollars into the Castro. To bolster the position, Wiggin says rents and evictions are up and residents are moving away.

Make no mention that tourists by their nature have no need for housing.

But perhaps itís the commercial rents. With local stores, many of which verge on being porn shops, being replaced by Pottery Barn and Banana Republic, it could be the streetcars are giving tourists access to the same stores they find closer to home in Peoria or Pittsburgh.

Or could it be the huge market selling furniture and kitchen accessories to tourists?

I live in the Castro, where many neighbors who hadnít been to Fishermanís Wharf in decades say the streetcars made it accessible to them. The tracks go both ways.

The Pottery Barn that is moving in isnít the first line in an army of neighborhood-destroying chain stores opponents make it out to be. Like it or not, itís coming because people in the neighborhood, not tourists, like to shop there. And itís one of many chains that have moved in, and even back out, of the neighborhood.

But people in the neighborhood also use the streetcars to get to work. I often go on rides just to see the city, and meet the few tourists who actually ride past Powell Street ó few of whom have been seen carrying furniture back to their hotel rooms.

Every neighborhood in San Francisco is changing. The Castro is changing because the population is becoming older and more wealthy. Stores like Pottery Barn reflect that.

On one streetcar thereís a tale spelled out about a worker who a quarter-century ago persuaded his bosses not to scrap one of the last remaining wooden cars. He saved all the seats in his basement for twenty-five years. Today, thanks to him, the car has been restored and is running again. Is he part of this evil plot?

The streetcars are a wonderful and unique part of San Francisco put forth not by city politicos and bureaucrats, but by a dedicated group of individuals and volunteers ó long-time San Franciscans ó who saw potential in preserving and restoring what other cities discarded.

The streetcars are not the result of government officials chasing tourist dollars, but an uphill battle against the powers that be who wished to destroy what is unique and replace it with freeways and diesel buses.

No, theyíre not modern urban transportation. But the low-rise Victorians in the Castro are not modern high-rise apartment buildings. The streetcars are not noisy, smelly, jerking diesel buses, and theyíre not dark subways. They are a nice, clean, colorful, nostalgic and interesting way to get around. And most important, the streetcars work when everything else doesnít.

The streetcars are good for Castro residents and tourists.

Eric Miller is the editor of the New Colonist (www.newcolonist.com)