CH filmmaker explores a region once ruled by rail

For the film, J.T. Waldman, one of the last illustrators to collaborate with Harvey Pekar, drew a street scene common to working class neighborhoods in 1890s Cleveland. With no parks, children had no choice but to play in streets made increasingly dangerous by electric streetcars—a conflict explored in "Streetcar City."

Northern Ohio was an epicenter of electric rail in the early 20th century. Cleveland had one of the largest streetcar networks in the country, and was a key national center of streetcar innovation and manufacturing. Ohio once boasted the largest inter-urban electric rail system in the Midwest, connecting cities and small towns across the state.

What happened to those elegant systems? Was it a mistake to abandon them? What does history teach us about sustainable transportation choices?

Cleveland Heights filmmaker Brad Masi addresses these questions in his film "Streetcar City," which will have a free screening at the Bottlehouse Brewery & Meadery (2050 Lee Road) on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m.

The film identifies relics of the streetcar system that are still visible in the Heights today—including the urban design patterns of popular mixed-use districts such as Coventry Village, and the rusty iron electric poles lining the median of Fairmont Boulevard. The film, incorporating extensive archival footage and photographs to immerse the viewer in a city shaped by rail, uses these relics as a portal into the past. 

The work of the late Harvey Pekar, Cleveland Heights resident and underground-comic writer, plays into the film. Masi uses selections from American Splendor comics to show how the streetcars shaped communities more conducive to walking, interaction, and mixing—qualities that inspired many of Pekar’s musings about life in Cleveland.  

Illustrations by Pekar collaborators Gary Dumm and J.T. Waldman depict the tumultuous early history of streetcars, including the 1899 Streetcar Strikes—one of the most violent episodes in Cleveland’s history—and the transformation of Tom L. Johnson from aspiring streetcar monopolist to progressive mayor, championing a municipally owned streetcar system. 

Masi says of his film, “It’s not so much a nostalgic longing for streetcars as it is a meditation on how transportation choices shape the city in dramatically different ways. My hope is that understanding the past can inform better decisions for the future.”

“Streetcar City” is the first in Masi’s “Moving Places” film series that explores the history of transit in Cleveland. Other episodes include "Freeway City" and "Bike City." 

For more information, visit

Sam Bell

Sam Bell is a longtime Cleveland Heights resident who serves as a co-chair of the city's Transportation Advisory Committee. He has concentrated on sustainability issues for more than a decade, and was the proprietor of The Lusty Wrench until closing it. Bell is a bicycling advocate whose current business, RoadPrintz, is developing a robotic road-painting system.

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Volume 12, Issue 11, Posted 10:58 AM, 11.01.2019