Streetcar Desires: The Death of the Arlington Streetcar and the Cultural Politics of Smart Growth Development

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


In 2014, Arlington County—an affluent suburb of Washington, DC—became embroiled in a bitter political debate over a proposed streetcar line on Columbia Pike, a street that traverses some of the County’s last remaining working-class and new immigrant neighborhoods. Viewed alternatively as vanguard for gentrification, a symbol of sustainable development, and a big government boondoggle, the proposed streetcar brought to the surface ideological and class antagonisms which are typically muted in Arlington’s broadly liberal-progressive political culture. Drawing on comments posted on a local news blog as well as interviews with advocates, this paper examines the streetcar debate through the lens of Stuart Hall’s theory of articulation and Janice Radway’s metaphor of “ideological seams.” In particular, the paper explores how streetcar opponents wove together an unlikely rhetorical fabric, intertwining fears of gentrification, a critique of “big government,” and a rearguard defense of suburban automobility. A concluding section discusses what the death of the Arlington Streetcar can reveal about the cultural politics of smart growth development and sustainable urban planning.