I’m writing to share a romantic vision. I’m telling you this right off the bat to so that you can take a hike if you’re the cold hearted, unsentimental type. If you don’t care about aesthetics, and if you don’t know where nostalgia lives, then get out and save yourself the grief of what’s to come…
I believe that the Penn State/Nittany Valley communities are among the most distinctive and special places in the country. I think there’s a genius loci to the place, a pervading spirit of at least practical relational and economic if not also spiritual magnetism. It’s one of my aims in life to do whatever I can to help cultivate an even more distinctive and romantic spirit in the place that more than a million living American college graduates will have called their home in this century.
It’s with this aim in mind of conserving the specialness of place in Happy Valley that I also consider what’s not special about the place. A thing that’s not special about Penn State and the region? These:
They’re just regular buses. They’re somewhat quiet. They’re not hideous. But they’re buses. And they’re big and formuliac. They are at war with an otherwise nostalgic aesthetic.
I understand that for most of CATA’s regional routes (the routes throughout the wider Centre County region) that these buses make the most practical and financial sense. But wait. Look again at that beautifully and legitimately arresting scene of that black and yellow San Francisco streetcar above. Now imagine that in navy blue and white, with elegant chimes at each stop, trundling its way along the Blue and White Loops that circle Penn State’s campus and State College’s downtown. Do you hear it? Listen…
And because even abstracted art is an attempt to speak to the essence and nature of its subject, imagine those blue and white streetcars, little bells chiming politely, as a part of Richard Greenleaf’s incomparable College Avenue watercolors:
Wouldn’t that be just one of the most unusual experiences of local and neighborhood travel you’ve ever had? And wouldn’t it be just one of the most beautiful things to see snaking itself through town and campus? Can’t you just see that blue and white streetcar there? Maybe it’s already there…
Think State College streetcars aren’t feasible? They’re uniquely feasible—even practical: “They work best in places with some fundamentals already in place, says Daniel Malouff, a Washington transportation expert. There are a few basic things he says a city needs for a streetcar to work: dense population, easy walkability, a line that moves relatively quickly and some frequency of service. ‘If you can get all four, you will have a smashing success,’ Malouff says.”
So a limited route like this is practical. It’s not grandiose, and it would still serve the needs of the Blue and White loops that are currently served by those unremarkable buses that are totally beneath the aesthetic of one of the most special places in the country. If nothing else, why not making this place more resilient by making it more distinctive from every other college town? It would be fun, and that used to be half the point to any public initiative.
(I stole the photo above from Julia Kern, who took it in San Francisco and was the inspiration for this post. I’ve had a vague feeling about this for years, but her photo was the spark for this post.)