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October 23, 2009

the romance of production

This is a tiny scene from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, which I visited last week with my 10-year-old.

The museum contains 27,000 square feet of model train layouts, the largest collection in the world. The tracks and dioramas seem to be built and maintained mostly by older men with leathery skin and buzz cuts, although there are opportunities for kids to help. What fascinates me is the nature of the scenes they have chosen to represent. In England, a model railroad museum would show steam engines chugging through picturesque villages, with gothic churches, cricketers on green fields, and grazing cows at every turn. Not so in San Diego, where the trains pass an urban railroad yard, a port, a Western gypsum mine, and an Imperial Valley agricultural town from the 1950s.

The layouts seem realistic to me, complete with dusty access roads, utility shacks, blasted hillsides, barbed wire, abandoned machinery, and guard dogs on chains. It doesn't look like anywhere I'd want to visit, let alone live and work. These are places in serious need of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, or maybe the Wobblies to organize the old gypsum mine. But obviously the men who have hand-made these scenes in loving detail do like such places. Mass production, the extraction of raw materials, and the transformation of nature have a romance for them. Laboring at one 87th of actual size, they respect the manual labor of the real farmworkers and miners and admire the engineers and executives whose orders transformed the West on a vaster scale. It's a legacy that's easy to criticize but worthy of respect.

October 23, 2009 8:23 AM | category: cities | Comments


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