"The wrong side of the tracks"

Today I heard that the origin of this phrase was that when trains were coal-powered, poor people lived on the downwind side of the tracks and wealthy people were able to avoid the soot by living on the upwind (“right”?) side of the tracks. Is this the real origin of the phrase?

I don’t know, but I doubt it.

Railway tracks would usually run some way from the historic, commercial, social centre of a town (because land in the centre is that much more expensive). Those who lived on the far side of the tracks were cut off from the centre by the tracks. This made their properties less attractive, and so less valuable. In addition the presence of the railway would tend to degrade the amenity of property for any purpose not requiring closeness to transport (because of noise, dirt, traffic . . .). Also marshalling yards, storage depots etc tend to take up a fair amount of land but not generate a lot of activity, so they become hostile spaces, especially at night. All of this low-grade development would tend to take place on the far side of the tracks, because land between the tracks and the city centre was more valuable.

So, the wrong side of the tracks is the side furthest from the city centre.

Just my guess.

I’d suspect the origin of the phrase is possible Britain - simply because railways developed earlier. Here, the railway would typically mark something of a boundary around the industrial area, docks or whatever, within which the poor slum housing would be located. Further away, beyond the tracks, would be the wealthier districts. So the ‘wrong’ side was the side closer to the industrial centre.

I don’t know where it originated, but I did hear mention of the phrase on that epitome of accuracy, The History Channel :rolleyes: .

Dodge City was a rough-and-tumble frontier community where cowboys liked to blow off steam. Lots of salloons, and lots of brothels. IIRC people of more means moved into town and decided that the widespread vices should be sequestered, and they passed laws that forced the less-reputable business to be located on one side of the railroad tracks so that the respectable people could live in respectable neighbourhoods. If you lived in the red light district, you were on the “wrong side of the tracks”. Remember, though, that this is the channel that said “doozy” came from the Deusenberg automobile and consistently makes other mistakes in accuracy.

I grew up on “the wrong side of the tracks.”

Railroads led into the very heart of cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There was never just one set of tracks or one central station, but many, at least until the railroads consolidated into “Union” stations. (Which is why the showplace old railroad station in so many cities is called Union Station.)

In smaller cities and in towns, however, there was much more likely to be one major set of tracks more or less bisecting the city. Industries would be built along the tracks the entire width of the city. And before the automobile became dominant, tracks were laid at grade, so that people, horses, carriages, and cars had to cross them to get to the other side.

My side of the tracks consisted of large numbers of industrial sites and housing for the workers - mostly immigrant - who walked to them. There was some nicer housing, along one or two major streets, but the vast majority of better housing was across town, away from the ugly brick plants, the lower-class people, and the obstructions getting to downtown. That part of town was a near complete mystery to me throughout my entire childhood.

As for the History Channel

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