The City-Suburban Transit Authority has agreed to add full-length buses to lines serving the Dockside community, in a reversal of current policy and in response to harsh, ongoing criticism from local activists. For years, the CSTA had maintained that Dockside’s narrow streets made maneuvering full-size buses dangerous and difficult, while residents charged that the Authority was using “midget buses” to purposefully under-serve a historically poor district.
“Hopefully, the introduction of full-length, full-size buses will lay to rest any concerns that the CSTA cares less about certain neighborhoods than others,” said Transit Authority Director Ray Martin.
Dockside developed from a hard-scrabble industrial area into an artists’ colony in the early 1970s, when famed surrealist artist-philosopher Lulu Parsons won the deed to the abandoned ICE-EE-COOL warehouse in a civil suit against the city over squatter’s rights. She rented the warehouse’s individual refrigerators as cheap studio space and used its massive shipping and receiving bays to stage group art exhibitions, attracting the work of Jean-David Miró, Karl Bjorn, and Geoff Duchamp (no relation to Marcel).
“Lulu was a one-of-a-kind gal,” said her close friend and protege’ Flora Turner. “She made Dockside—gave it birth, made it breathe, slapped some sense into it when it got uppity. And now full-size buses! If she could see it.”
Parsons continued to reign over the district until her death in 1977, by which time her influence was clearly visible in the record stores, Polish restaurants, and open-air art markets of Arctic Avenue and the district’s dense network of sidestreets and alleyways. (Mayor Farley Wilson once quipped to the Clarion-Standard that “you could barely swing a paintbrush without hitting a drunk or an artist—or both at once”; city historians are divided on whether this comment contributed to his defeat the following year.)
While the Dockside of the late 1970s teemed with battered Beetles and shabby Honda motorcycles, the district had not had regular public transit service since 1935, when financial concerns forced the city to discontinue the electric streetcar service that had allowed workers to commute to the district’s wharves and warehouses.
In 1979, Dockside residents began collecting signatures to convince the city that there were enough people living in the district to warrant regular bus service. The City Council authorized bus service in June of that year, with the proviso that “said buses shall be no longer than two-thirds the length of a standard city bus, and no taller than two-thirds the height.” The Weekly Docksider went to press with the headline “City To Dockside: Suck It!” and a special editorial that derided the transportation as “midget buses.” (The Clarion-Standard mentioned the City Council vote only in its “News in Brief” section.) Despite municipal protests that the buses’ size was determined by needs for maneuverability, not revenge, the name stuck, and cries for equality continued.
Many believe the tipping point in the midget bus debate came last year, when the Lulu Parsons Memorial Foundation threatened to sue the CSTA over equal access to a public good. Transit Authority Director Martin played down this idea, saying only that “We’re fortunate that recent advances in steering, engine, and camera technology have meant that all areas of the city can receive full-size buses.” While the Parsons Foundation welcomed the decision, not all Dockside residents were pleased. Jerry Gelson, the interim head of Docksiders for Home-Rule, wrote in an email that the introduction of full-size buses is “just another in an series of moves designed to placate Docksiders and deny from them what is truly theirs—political autonomy.” (Gelson did not respond to follow-up emails about the generous city subsidies Dockside cultural organizations receive.)
The Transit Authority will introduce the full-size buses on the Arctic Avenue line later this month, and gradually phase in full-size buses on the 4, 10, and 27 lines. The 18 line, which operates as a heritage line, will continue to be served by a midget bus, painted in the vintage Transit Authority livery.
- Sean Fraga