The Real Impact Rail Could Have

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - August 23, 2006

Whenever I visit the continental 49, I feel more the anthropologist (which I’m not) than the tourist. It’s another country, another culture.

And it’s not - not at all.

I recently spent two weeks up there - in my usual haunts in the Great Midwest: Chicago, Michigan’s lower peninsula, northern Indiana. And I was reminded anew of the profound differences - and frightening similarities - between those continental 49 and Hawaii-nei.

Consider, for example, the confluence of race and wealth in Chicago. Try a long walk from the south end of Grant Park north to Lincoln Park. Do the Loop section on State Street, “that great street,” then jog a block North onto North Michigan Avenue.

At beginning end of the walk, the pedestrian traffic is roughly 70 percent black. As you move north through Chicago’s famed Loop, it grows whiter. But cross the Chicago River, enter North Michigan Avenue with its upscale shops and department stores, and the custom grows dear and the skin tones pale - rapidly and almost completely.

Pass the Drake Hotel at Oak Street and you’re walking the Chicago’s Gold Coast, exorbitantly expensive condos on your left, Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan itself on your right. The only color up here belongs to doormen and others of the servant class.

The stroll’s harsh lesson for the amateur anthropologist/sociologist is that race, class and wealth count mightily in this so-called egalitarian society.

And, of course, it does in Hawaii as well. We just hide it a little better and dilute the race factor.

Then there’s the small towns of the Great Midwest - my origins. Many of them, the majority of them, have been sucked dry. The small town’s Main Street that Sinclair Lewis and countless movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s made famous is no more.

That main street had a department store, a bank (maybe two), city hall, a grocery store, a 5-and-10-cent store, a dairy bar, two restaurants, four bars, a couple of hardware stores, five churches, two doctors’ offices, one dress store, three law offices (one too many; the third one was one of the town’s drunks), four saloons, a movie theater and the weekly newspaper office.

Now Main Street has virtually nothing; a real estate agent fills one storefront, an insurance man another. Someone tries a coffee shop and used book store, someone else antiques. Then there’s a tattoo parlor.

The villain of this piece? Listen to the conversation in a Main Street café in southwestern Michigan. It’s 8:15 a.m. on a summer’s day. Four men in overalls sit at a table sipping coffee over the remains of their breakfasts. None weighs less than 300 pounds. Two women and a man sit at a second table. All smoke. Neither of the gals weighs under 250.

The restaurant’s owner has apparently reconfigured the seating, going from booths to tables. “I want the booths back,” yells one of the customers to the owner - who’s busy preparing my breakfast. “Don’t bring the booths back and I’m going out by the Interstate and eat my breakfast at McDonald’s.”

He might as well. Everybody else has. The Interstate Highway System, whatever else it may have done to speed automobile traffic across the country, has sucked the life and commerce out of America’s small towns and cities.

The grocery chains are out by the freeway entrances, so too the big box stores - and every burger, taco, pizza and chicken chain. I don’t think President Dwight Eisenhower, a child of a Kansas small town, had the death of Main Street in mind when he signed the Interstate Highway Act in the mid-1950s, but that has surely been the result.

And it offers an important lesson to every Hawaii engineer who builds an additional lane of highway in Kona or Lihue or a rail system in Honolulu. Your lanes and tracks will have profound consequences, particularly in an age of diminishing oil supplies and rising gas prices.

Automobile traffic will decline. Huge warehouse stores with even larger parking lots out by the four- to six-lane freeway will disappear.

You can take that prediction - from an amateur anthropologist - to the bank.

Or back to Main Street.

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