In the first week of spring, I decided to ride the Amtrak from Boston to Washington, DC. The ticket was significantly more than the cheapest flight, and the ride would take eight hours, but I figured it would be vastly more interesting than flying, easier on the environment, and a lot less obnoxious than dealing with airport security.
As I boarded the train in Boston that morning, I didn’t realize that I was about to glimpse an overlooked part of America. The secret hideouts of children and the homeless in the woods of Rhode Island, Baltimore’s decaying neighborhoods, and the industrial wastelands surrounding Philadelphia are sights hidden from everyone except local residents and Amtrak passengers.
As the train slid away from the platform at Boston’s South Station, the city congestion loosened its grip on the landscape. High-rises yielded to suburbs and drab office parks punctuated by sad-looking swamps. Ducks swam away from the tracks as we passed through, leaving ripples in their wake. All the houses we passed faced the street, affording me an unsolicited view into their backyards. I saw scattered toys, trash, and gardens pasted over with dead leaves.
Nearing Rhode Island, the train ran along the coast. Snowy egrets rose from the salt marsh grasses on their reed-like legs, raising their heads as we swept by. The houses here were significantly larger than before. Many had long docks leading out over the marshes. It was low tide, and the tidal rivers we crossed trickled towards the sea, a shining gray ribbon in the mud.
South of Providence the train headed into a long wooded stretch, where I saw my first hideout. Hidden from roads and houses, these clandestine hangout spots were often visible from the train. I saw bow-legged plastic chairs clustered around an industrial-sized spool; a squatter’s shack with shirts and pants hanging from a tiny clothesline strung between trees; a rusted-out bus with a dirty mattress inside it. Places deliberately hidden, mistakenly overlooked. But I saw them from the train.
I dozed off and awoke somewhere in Connecticut. I didn’t know where we were at first, but I assumed we must be in New York judging by the gritty, abandoned buildings we passed. Long patches of fluorescent graffiti ran the length of old brick buildings, and weeds threatened to overtake large piles of rusted metal. A fading painted sign on a factory told me we were in Bridgeport. No sooner did I orient myself than the rough part of town ended, and soon we were back to quaint coastal towns and spacious homes. It was unsettling how quickly the scenery changed as soon as we exited the downtown.
As we neared New York City, the train tracks ran parallel to I-95, the principal interstate of the Northeast. The backsides of highway-facing billboards flickered by, but I never saw what they said. There was hardly any advertising intended for train riders, so I tended to notice the few signs meant for us. Normally they seemed like an afterthought, tacked onto the backside of buildings more to identify the company than to convince us to buy anything. But I did see one clever ad on an old mill that had been converted to storage units just north of New York. A white dotted line encircled one window, and a large arrow pointed at the box it made. YOUR STUFF HERE, it said in huge block letters.
The train tracks went underground north of New York, so I saw little of the city. We re-surfaced in New Jersey, and for a while the train ran along the bottom of a steep embankment. Trash cascaded down the slope, where a rusty fence caught it before it hit the tracks. Diapers, rags, paper cups, and plastic bags were pinned against the fence. I had noticed earlier that the train tracks served as a kind of informal dump, and New Jersey confirmed my suspicion. The assumption must have been that few people would see the trash here, compared to along the interstate, where teams of men picked up litter. I was starting to think that people ignored the train. They let the riders peek into their messy backyards, threw trash down the embankments, and built little shelters in the woods where they could escape from everyone. Except us.
As we approached Philadelphia, I had to put down the notebook in which I’d been jotting down observations. A child of the suburbs, I had never seen anything like the ghetto of north Philadelphia before. I struggled to think of a framework to make sense of what I was seeing, but all I could think of was war. The windows were blown out of old factories, jagged glass teeth in gaping mouths. Thorny vines clawed up their sides. On some buildings, graffiti covered almost every square inch. The holes in their sagging roofs revealed rusty manufacturing equipment and mounds of trash.
The skeletal remains of neighborhoods sat side-by-side with these industrial graveyards. Houses with missing or boarded-up windows outnumbered those that were occupied. Some looked burned. One out of every five showed some sign of habitation — a drawn curtain or a protruding air conditioner. I didn’t see any cars on the streets.
I found the abandonment appalling and fascinating. There were so many mysteries along the tracks. Who scrawled the angry, bubble gum graffiti on that crumbling wall? What did that old factory produce, and why did it close? Who lives in this ground zero of a neighborhood? I switched quickly between staring out the window and scribbling everything down in my notebook.
We neared the center of Philadelphia and exited the ghetto. But it would emerge again a couple of hours later in Baltimore. This time I was more prepared for it, and I started to notice things other than the buildings. Like the fact that I could count on one hand the amount of people I saw on the streets. It felt like there had been a massive evacuation, followed by an aerial bombing, and no one had returned. Far from the interstate, the ghetto received little through-traffic. I wondered if being out of sight of the highway kept these areas looking the way they did. Far more people travel by car than by train. If more people saw these neglected places, would they stay the way they are?
Earlier in the trip, I had felt uncomfortable looking into the backyards of rural homes. But now I stared into the backyards of the backyard of America. Most people maintain the side of their house that faces the street. Similarly, the industrial and residential areas along I-95 were much cleaner and more modern than along the train tracks. But the ghetto is where we get lazy, let our guard down. If something is broken in the back, we don’t fix it as quickly as in the front because no one can see it.
South of Baltimore, we returned to suburbia. We stopped for a couple of minutes at the airport, where there was some confusion about whether Amtrak would accept passengers with tickets on the commuter train (they wouldn’t). We continued on, and soon were decelerating as we neared Union Station. As the train lurched to a halt, I shoved everything into my backpack and stepped onto the platform. I climbed the stairs and entered the cathedral-like lobby of the station. White marble arched overhead, and the sound of a hundred pairs of shoes clicking on the floor echoed around the hall.
Outside, I squinted in the sun. The Capitol rose gracefully just beyond the station, flanked by rows of green-budded cherry blossom trees. Open-topped tourist buses flew by, and taxis swarmed. I instinctually wanted to stop and stare like I had done in the ghetto earlier in the day. But in D.C. I was gaping at a cultivated landscape, sharing the “Capitol Hill rush” with a thousand other people there that day. It was a very different feeling than peeking into the ghetto — America’s un-mowed, messy backyard, a place almost no one sees. Except passengers on the train.