“That’s on the wrong side of the tracks.”
I’ve been hearing this phrase for years.
I was first introduced to this idiom as a kid when people would toss it out flippantly as a phrase describing a location they felt was dangerous or undesirable. As an adult, it became regularly said when we opened the Martin Center and people were coming for basketball or volunteering. Then, a few years later when we opened 3rd Street Community Church. It’s surfaced again more recently since we’ve opened the ONE Center and people are attending events. Both buildings have the unfortunate coincidence of residing just past a set of railroad tracks, so this phrase becomes a descriptor for our location.
“Head east down Tusc and it’s just past the railroad tracks. You’re coming to the wrong side of the tracks today!”
This phrase was introduced into American language in 1929 by author Thorne Smith. In one of his writings, Smith wrote, “In most commuting towns, there are always two sides of which the tracks serve as a line of demarcation. There is the right side and the wrong side. Translated into terms of modern American idealism, this means the rich side and the side that hopes to be rich.” Source.
This phrase always got a little under my skin, and after looking deeper into its roots and descriptions, I understand fully why.
When we describe locations as “the wrong side of the tracks” we are assigning value to full people groups based entirely on where they live. We are deciding the worth of a business simply by its location. We are using railroad tracks as indicator lines for whether or not someone is worth our time.
A few years back, a local newspaper published statistics about Canton City in the paper. The school system was looking at possibly closing a few schools, and the paper was covering the story. The paper illustrated why schools may close by giving stats (a very normal thing to do). We were meeting with a group of broken-hearted students that evening and canceled all our plans to let our students get their emotions out regarding the news.
One of our students read aloud the stats. It’s one thing to read stats in a book or article, but to hear them read aloud in the midst of the very people they are written about… That is an experience that will haunt me the rest of my life.
In an instant, one of our calmest and quietest students burst into tears and slammed her hands on the table.
“WHO YOU CALLIN’ POVERTY?!”
Her shout was deafening. And she was right.
Stats do not communicate faces, hearts, and stories. Idioms do not leave room for communities, passions, and desires. Blanket statements cover up the dreams of families, households, and youth who could change the world.
I took both of these photos this morning at sunrise. These are the railroad tracks in Canton, Ohio just before The Martin Center, 3rd Street, and The ONE Center. These are the very tracks that people look at and deem one side “right” and one side “wrong.”
I stood at the center of these tracks. I aimed my camera and took a picture, then did a 180 degree pivot and took another. Unless you’ve stood on these tracks yourself, I bet you cannot look at them and say which side is “right” and which side is “wrong.”
Because railroad tracks do not determine a person’s value.
There is no right and wrong when it comes to a person’s physical location, there is only perspective. These railroad tracks do not determine value; the only thing these tracks determine is the route of a train and the speed of traffic.
Where are the places you’ve named “the wrong side of the tracks?” Who are the people you’ve named unsafe to interact with?
When Jesus went to Samaria, he was going to the place his culture despised. When Boaz welcomed Ruth, he was welcoming the immigrant and outsider. When Peter was sent to Cornelius, he was being corrected for viewing other cultures as less than his own.
We preach these stories in our pulpits. Let’s be people who practice them with our lives.
Let’s be people who think about the implications of our words and choose to shift our perspectives.