The Wrong Side of the Tracks

Published 11:36 am Wednesday, November 17, 2021

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Many people have heard the phrase “living on the wrong side of the tracks”. It has generally been used to refer to the location of lower-class neighborhoods within a community. Sometimes it was the industrial part of town that might have that distinction. Often, though, the “other side of the tracks” referred to people with lower incomes, often minorities or immigrants.

As the American South and West evolved, railroads were a big part of that expansion. For towns that were already established, trains were often put on the edge of town, especially if it was a train headed somewhere else. That eliminated the need for overpasses, tunnels, and bridges. The notable exceptions were in larger cities where the terminal was located downtown. That was because the city was the destination itself.

As these new railroads came into smaller cities, they also brought a different type of growth. The economic expansion created a need for workers. With an increased need for cheaper housing, these new working neighborhoods often moved away from the more established part of town. The land was cheaper on the other side of the tracks.

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There are many exceptions to the generalized statement above. Sometimes a city evolved differently because of geographical boundaries like rivers or mountains. Other communities had leaders or even companies that aggressively addressed housing issues earlier than others. Regardless of the initial causes, the phrase and its underlying meaning still exists today.

If you live in Auburn, you have been thinking about the railroad tracks a lot over the past week or two. The CSX railroad decided to close almost all the crossings of the mainline railroad that runs east to west through the city. These closings were not just for an hour or two, but in some cases for a couple of days. The result was a monumental traffic jam throughout the city that left college students late for their classes, workers late for their jobs and buses late for their schools.

It probably is not practical for the railroad to close one or two crossings at a time and certainly maintenance is needed and required given the many trains that pass through town every day and night. Despite warnings and notices, people seemed largely unprepared as crossings closed early one Tuesday morning.

Being on the wrong side of the tracks took on a new meaning all over town. People looked for other routes only to find the next crossing closed as well. Traffic backed up for blocks and blocks in residential neighborhoods creating traffic issues for people who had no intention of crossing the tracks at all.

I happened to be on my morning walk that Tuesday morning. My normal route takes me across the rails at least twice. I, too, had forgotten about the notices of the closures and realized something was wrong within one block of my house.

It was all anyone in Auburn could talk about for the rest of the week, that is until my beloved Auburn Tigers football team ran off the tracks in the second half of Saturday’s football game. Ahead 28-3, I texted my Mom about how great the team looked, just before they went off the rails and crashed after giving up 40 unanswered points. That, however, is a story for another day.

It is good that the reasons that led to references about being from the wrong side of the tracks are disappearing. For instance, there is no longer any cheap land in Auburn and building is going full blast in every direction. But for a couple of days in November, everyone in Auburn knew what it was like to be on the wrong side of the tracks.