In El Paso, historic streetcars take a 4.8-mile route that connects downtown to the West Central part of Sun City. The route forms a figure eight around the University of Texas at El Paso, hospitals, museums, and the art district. Old buildings, some more than a century old, stand alongside newer ones on the route. So do restaurants, the Plaza Theater, and the colorful murals of Segundo Barrio that help teach the past of a neighborhood that may soon become a historic district. For sports fans, there’s a stop across Southwest University Park where the Chihuahuas play baseball, and the Locomotives play soccer.
On July 29, the streetcars returned after being shut down for more than 15 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Riders could once again board the streetcars. Seeing downtown El Paso, you can feel the merging of history with the present.
For Peter Svarzbein, the streetcars may be “the ultimate symbol or metaphor for what it means to be from El Paso and Juárez,” he says. Born and raised in El Paso, Svarzbein is the city’s mayor pro tempore and represents the district that part of the streetcar route goes through. Svarzbein’s been a strong advocate for the streetcar ever since discovering their history while working on his thesis project at the School of Visual Art in New York City.
For nearly 90 years, El Paso had some version of streetcars. First, in 1882, mules—the most popular of them named Mandy—pulled the city’s streetcars along the tracks. After that, the streetcars became electric and carried almost four times as many passengers. They became so popular that by 1920 there were 103 streetcars riding on 64 miles of tracks in El Paso and into Ciudad Juárez. From there, in the 1940s and 1950s, just like it did across the country as the auto industry flourished and city buses increased, streetcar ridership decreased.
In 1973, the route called the “internationally-famous El Paso-Juárez trolley line” by the El Paso Times ended, partly because of a strike after 16 Mexican toll collectors lost their jobs. Those workers took possession of one streetcar and blocked the rest from going across the border. The mayors from the two cities met to discuss the problem. And though the striking workers returned the streetcar, the route was never reestablished. The following year, El Paso stopped using all streetcars.
By 1998, of the more than 100 streetcars that had once traversed across El Paso and Juárez, only nine remained. None of them got used. Instead, six of them were rusting out in the desert, on the edge of the El Paso International Airport’s runway. The other three were outside the building of a local crane company.
For decades there was seemingly always some plan to bring back the streetcars. The impediment to those plans always returned to a lack of money. Coincidentally, the latest of those plans happened around the time Svarzbein was a graduate student in art school.
“Ten years ago was the first time I put up posters throughout El Paso,” Svarzbein says. He remembers wanting to focus on a part of the region’s history that was different from what’s often portrayed, essentially portraying the Texas-Mexico border as a threat. “My thesis project was basically a fictional ad campaign, imagining the streetcars running again between El Paso and Juárez,” he explains.
About six months into that project, he discovered some city council representatives had done a feasibility study for a streetcar line connecting downtown to the University of Texas at El Paso. That’s around the time when, for Svarzbein, the streetcars went from an art project to an advocacy campaign. That increased when he found out the city was trying to sell the nine old streetcars to San Francisco. “I thought it would be the dumbest thing in the world to go and sell these streetcars,” he says. “We shouldn’t be selling our history, we should be celebrating it.”
Eventually, after Svarzbein collected signatures to get the streetcar project added to a quality-of-life bond only to get ignored when the city said public transportation wasn’t eligible, and after members of city council told him that despite the failure he’d helped to show there was interest in bringing back the streetcars, the state couldn’t help but to notice.
In 2014, the Texas Department of Transportation gave El Paso $97 million for the streetcar project. With the money, tracks got replaced or added, and the overhead wiring system got installed. The streetcars also got refurbished in Pennsylvania. Stripped to the frame, they then got rebuilt with air conditioning and heating, Wi-Fi, bike racks, wheelchair lifts, and other modern amenities. Four years later, more than four decades after they stopped operating, the El Paso streetcars returned until the pandemic halted service until last month.
Ridership may not be as high as it used to be, but eventually, Svarzbein says, the streetcar may connect El Paso to Juárez the way it once did. That’s the connection—made literal through the streetcars—that first caught Svarzbein’s attention. “This isn’t a place where two countries end,” he says. “It’s where two countries meet and a third place—a very creative, beautiful and wonderful place—is created.”