27.1.17

CURATING THE MODEL RAILROAD.

Meet William Davidson, the General Superintendent of Transportation and Chief Track Walker at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Nevertheless, the United States of William Davidson, tells other stories, some anticipated, many not. There are condos and grizzly bears and annoying beachgoers. Gene Kelly swings from a lamppost and dances in the rain on a small town street corner. There are spots were our dream life breaks through to our everyday life. And there are places where religion seems to rear its head: a woman emerges from a municipal building and squints upward at the sky and appears to be in a fainting swoon. There is at least one video store left in business in the USWD, and in a reminder of economic inequality, a neighborhood playground sits mere steps from a factory. The majority of the residents of the USWD appear to be largely white though racial and ethnic diversity can be seen in places throughout. On the steps of a train station, there is a man wearing a sandwich board around his neck that says (though the lettering is way too small and distant for average museumgoers to read): "Equal Rights for All."

There is a dead body floating facedown in the Calumet River. Been there for years.

The USWD is a divided country, an incomplete place, bookended by tall buildings. "Selectively compressed" is how Davidson sees the nation.
Selective compression is what model railroading is all about. Plus sight gags, for the alert observer.  (Oh, the things you'll see at Hamburg's Miniatur Wunderland, if you look hard enough.  But I can't tell you here, this is a G-rated post.)  When you build a railroad in a heavily trafficked gallery, with balconies for viewing from above, there are in addition maintenance challenges the home model railroader doesn't face.
Homeland security is a part of the job. Vandalism is a struggle, he said. Say there's a large group of kids and one teacher to watch them — he rolled his eyes at the thought. "People derail our trains frequently. Kids lean over the railing, derail the trains. Debris falls from the balcony above, derails the trains. Gum wrappers, nickels, pennies derail trains. People throw money at trains. This layout is 15 years old. You have to be vigilant."
And when the trains are running, all day, every day (except for the holiday closures) there's a lot of track cleaning and locomotive maintenance to do.
Davidson's hands are scrunched close to his face. His eyeballs are comically large behind his magnifying eyeglasses, outfitted with pen lights at the temples. He was operating on a derailed train. "It's an investigation," he said. "Something's throwing it off track. It's derailing by the apple orchard, all day long."

He worked in silence.

Then he spoke: "You work beyond your means. Model railroading is still a hobby where people like to work from scratch to build or enhance, and I do too, but we are working with trains that weren't intended to run the way we run them. You have to learn to bend metal and learn how to reuse and recycle parts. These trains, we have them running all day and they weren't designed to run eight, nine hours a day, 363 days a year, longer if we have holidays hours or a corporate event or a sleepover event or it's just a summer day, with summer hours. The parts are just plastic, man. Any part can go. Nature of the beast. Shafts break and wheels go. I am always cleaning debris out of the assemblies."

When Davidson talks trains he inspires confidence. A member of the Windy City Model Railroad Club (and a fixture of that community), he keeps connections, drawing on the know-how of others for cheap, believable tweaks to his nation. He's also fiscally frugal, and quick to react: The worst disaster since he's been here came when a baby dropped a Little Mermaid from the balcony. Prairie Town took the brunt. One building was damaged, another flattened. Trains derailed, scenery was destroyed. "It was a doll but it might as well have been lead weight," Davidson said. And yet, instead of growing cautious, Main Street was renamed Ariel Lane. Where there had been ruin, new businesses were added, buildings went up, and Prairie Town flourished.
Then there are the challenges of keeping a museum display relevant, something that contributed to the removal of the classic O Scale Museum and Santa Fe that used to be on display.
An actual coast to actual coast diorama, New York to Los Angeles, was a possibility, but didn't tell the right story of how resources were transported. He also decided the train set "should reflect today's America," and so in the 15 years since his exhibit was installed, the texture of its neighborhoods have changed. Edge closer to big cities, the racial mix of its tiny figures grows more diverse. Prairie Town, a backwater in 2002, now boasts a Mexican restaurant. Even gentrification has come to the train set: One of the evocative old factories on Chicago's West Side was reinvented as Algren Avenue Lofts. There is humor now: Dracula stalks the top of the Crain Communications Building, and Hulk stands on Lake Street. A skunk breaks up a picnic in the Rockies. And as in life, a slightly jaundiced view of institutions can be felt. The only insurance business is "Minimalist Insurance." Which is bad, because occasionally disaster strikes the USWD.
Disaster is always just a few minutes after museum opening away, as the article explains. But the trains roll, and the development of additional interactive exhibits and vignettes goes on.

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