Being There



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Phantom Train

What's Coming Down the Tracks in Jingletown


    The old industrial pocket of Fruitvale known as Jingletown is a crazy quilt of foundries, car repair shops, artist studios and tiny frame homes that once housed workers from the Del Monte cannery. In the past few years, it has also seen the arrival of three large condo developments. Running down the middle of Glascock Street is a train track that once serviced the nearby cement plant and grain elevator, and which now appears slightly submerged in fresh asphalt spread by the developers. Several months ago, residents were surprised to see lines of orange spray paint appear near the tracks and, later, a Union Pacific crew cutting slots in the roadway. The “Glascock Line” has been quiet for the last two years, but Jingletowners now have their ears to the track, and are squinting into the distance, summoning mighty visions of
what may—or may not—be coming round the bend.
    The train-in-the-abstract has become an engine of dread for many of the newcomers along Glascock. Phoenix Normand,
who lives in a townhome at The Estuary, a new development, writes in a blog: “In all honesty, I’m already considering the sale of my waterfront ‘dream home.’ ” Train opponents, led by former Oakland City Councilmember Danny Wan who lives at The Estuary, are organizing to fight the reactivation, and dozens attended an informational meeting held by Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. Opposition to the noise and inconvenience of a freight train is to be expected among homeowners looking to shore up eroding property values. What is more noteworthy is the reaction of the old-timers along the track who actually lived with the inconveniences for years. For many of them, the train is being welcomed back like a long-lost relative.
    I lived along Glascock Street for six years until 2006. My wife, Dana, and I were smitten by the neighborhood’s industrial charm and its unpredictable mix of artists, mechanics, White Elephant Sale matrons and forklift operators. We moved into the second floor of a handsome,
century-old building, once the offices of the Oliver United Filter Co. Massive steel filters were once fabricated across the street and shipped via the estuary for worldwide use in the mining industry. Assuming the tracks running down the street were only a vestige of the old days, we were thrilled to hear that the spur was still active. We both loved trains, and we were soon to find out how much.
    It came around 3 a.m., starting with a low hum. Heard from blocks away, the sound built in intensity like the gathering forces of Armageddon. Windows rattled, and the bed shook. We might have thought earthquake, were it not for the sound of the train’s bell. The wall across from our bed blazed, as the headlight hit it, the room erupting in a Spielbergian lightshow. Then, about 20 feet from where we lay, the immense dark engine lumbered by. Sometimes I’d try to peer into the dark cabin, hoping to catch a glimpse of the engineer, passing at eye-level with my second-story window. In my delirium, the driver and his machine, had emerged through a crack in time, briefly appearing before heading back to somewhere in the 19th century.
    The schedule was basically this: Once a week, on Mondays, there was a nighttime run to unload just across 29th Avenue from us. The train made its return trip several hours later (around the time we’d completely dozed off again). On Friday afternoons, the train also made appearances, and these were always the most fun because: (a) I was fully awake, and (b) it brought the neighborhood to a brief standstill right around teatime.
    But the nighttime visits sorely tested our romance with trains, and soon there were various strategies involving earplugs and the relocation of our bed to the far side of the apartment, all futile. It only became fun when we had overnight guests on Mondays. “Oh, by the way, a train might come by tonight,” we’d say. No matter how much groundwork we laid, it was impossible to adequately prepare a guest, who would go to sleep with comforting images supplied by Hollywood of steam engines chugging through a Technicolor frame, and awaken to the apocalypse.
    Over the years, we evolved to sleep through the trains. It wouldn’t have occurred to us to try to stop them, just as we wouldn’t attempt to try to stop a thunderstorm. They were as much a part of the industrial environment as the weather. This is when I realized that I had an unnatural love of trains. And it turns out I’m not alone.
    “The walls would rattle, and you would look out the window and suddenly the sky would go dark,” Saundra Warren, a ceramic artist living and working on Glascock fondly recalls. “I miss it a lot; it’s not an intellectual process, it’s totally emotional.” Warren grew up in a small town in central Oregon, crisscrossed by tracks. “You just know there’s something right with the world if you can look up and see a train go by. There’s something that worked 150 years ago, and it’s still working.”
    In Jingletown these days, folks are lining up on opposite sides of the tracks, either for or against the train. Cynthia Elliott has been gathering comments from other longtime residents near her building on Ford Street. “I’ve probably spoken to a hundred people who either miss the train or are indifferent.” Armed with her data, she attended the community meeting in October. “It turned out to be all anti-train people, just looking to vent.”
    Will the trains roll once more? Keep your eye on this column, and next time meet Mike Brown, undoubtedly the ultimate train junkie in the hood, who says, “I lived in converted boxcars next to railroad tracks off and on for nine years, so the sound of passing trains helps me sleep."
—By Matt Dibble
—Image by Adam Thorpe

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