No one remembers exactly, but it was some time after the law came down desegregating recreational facilities here that the swimming pools in Oak Park were locked up. Then they were filled in, grassed over, and now you wouldn’t know that pools had ever been there. Arlam Carr Jr. had lived just across the street, but he and his siblings, like all the black children of Montgomery–like all the black people of Montgomery, excepting the nannies taking white children out for a stroll–couldn’t set foot in the park, couldn’t look at the alligators in its fine little zoo either. Most white people are gone from the Oak Park area now. So are the alligators. The whites-only schools that Arlam Jr., with the help of the courts, busted open in 1964 while still a teenager are effectively blacks-only today. In this city that owes its place in contemporary history to a bus boycott for desegregation, begun here forty-five years ago this December 5, the same is true for the buses, if you can find them.
Bus stops don’t announce themselves in Montgomery. There are no signs, no shelters, no maps posted on the street. There are only three fixed routes, down from thirty-six in the 1980s. You have to know where to stand for a bus, or catch sight of one and flag it down, or call in advance for a minibus and hope to get on a schedule. If it’s a weekend, or nighttime, or morning before 6; if the schedules are too full, or the bus driver isn’t accommodating, or you don’t have a phone, you’re out of luck. There used to be a transfer station downtown, a central hub where all the buses circulated, but that was removed a few years ago. Now it’s just a grassy knoll with a Bible under Plexiglas and a historical marker noting Montgomery’s distinction as the first city in the Western Hemisphere to have, in 1886, an entirely electrified public trolley system.
A turn of the century later, “public transport” means poor people’s last resort. Just so no one misses the point, only one bus here has a dedicated route to the heart of town, but every bus will get you to the county health and welfare offices. The central transfer station is just next door. Montgomery, population 322,000, is a microcosm of the country in this sense. Nationwide, in places with populations of a million or less, more than half the people who use public transit make under $15,000 a year; nearly 60 percent of transit riders are minorities. Almost everywhere cities have cut service, raised fares, starved their systems. Some people in Montgomery are battling back, but they have to undo decades of damage. Median household income here is around $30,000 and most city dwellers don’t own cars. Yet despite the vast potential ridership, only about 3 percent of people with jobs used the buses in 1990, and many say they wouldn’t dream of riding one today. Stigma is written in concrete and steel at the transfer station, a long, narrow shed set back from the road on barren ground behind a chain-link fence edged with barbed wire. Local transport activists express faint relief that at least the razor wire, there until recently, has been removed.