When People Cared About Place

Union Terminal in Cincinnati stands sturdy behind a monumental approach: A long landscaped mall is bordered on the left and the right by paved lanes, each wide enough for two cars, that lead toward a circular pick-up and drop-off driveway. The center island of that driveway is embellished with eight imposing stone pylons, and graded ever so slightly, subtly enhancing the station’s impressive grandeur.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a full moon illuminated this expanse leading up to the dark station. The birds hadn’t yet begun to chirp, and not a single human could be seen to enliven the station or its large yard. If there were lights on inside the building, they could not be seen through the dark, thick windows. The yard and the massive station looming behind it were quiet and still.

The tranquility was broken at about 4 a.m. when a yellow cab turned down the long approach. The driver pulled up at the front of the building and turned around to face his passenger. Something wasn’t right.

“Where are you going?”

“New York.”

The cabbie’s jaw dropped in disbelief, as if to say: “You’re embarking on an eight-hundred mile trip from IN THERE?

Imagine taking a taxi to the Jefferson Memorial at midnight, walking around back, untethering a giant ostrich and flying to Budapest.

The passenger had a moment of self doubt. It was 4 o’clock in the morning. There were no signs of any trains around. No signs of any people around. For all its magnificent architecture, the building somehow felt abandoned, or nearly so. It was obviously well cared-for, but it didn’t exactly appear to be occupied. Sitting in a cab in front of this deathly silent stone monument and claiming with a straight face to be about to embark on an 800 mile journey suddenly seemed absurd.

“Hang on a minute and let me check the door.”

He gave the driver $5 and stepped out of the car. The thud of the closing door carrying off into the distance. He walked toward the bank of doors and tried one. Viola! It opened right up. The passenger turned around and gave a salute to the driver, as if to say, “I’m cool here. Thanks for waiting.”

On the other side of the door was just a stupendous sight: A cavernous interior on as grand a scale as the outside, its soaring ceiling seemingly as high as any in Europe’s grandest cathedrals. Gigantic art deco murals filled the highest portions of the walls with images of prosperous cities &#8212 ironworkers and skycrapers and factories coming together in a brand of optimism that hadn’t been seen since the 1920s. The room was absolutely deserted.
Off to the side of this enormous circular room, a neon sign in Art Deco lettering said “To Trains.” At the center stood a ticket sales booth, but the tickets were for … films at an Imax movie theater?

* * *

Startsandfits.com spent a significant portion of this weekend in Louisville, taking in the 131st Kentucky Derby. The purpose of the trip was not to gamble but to sample the festive atmosphere that accompanies Triple Crown horse races. (Such was the state of rowdy, sun-drenched intoxication in the race’s infield that until reading the next morning’s papers, my friend and I thought the winning horse was named Glaucoma, not Giacomo.) The nights before and after the Derby, we stayed in Cincinnati, the city with the closest Amtrak station.

Folks in Cincinnati have done a fantastic job making the most out of a splendid architectural treasure they inherited from a people who cared more about place than we do today. They understood that we just don’t build buildings like that anymore. Like Union Station in Washington, D.C., and many other train stations, this one has metamorphosized into its second life as a leisure time attraction. It holds the Cincinnati Museum Center, which has a science piece and a kid’s area, a historical society library and an Imax theater. Oh yeah, and you can actually still pick up a train there. How quaint!

Route of the Cardinal
Image from Amtrak.com

Because Washington has underfunded Amtrak for many years on the notion that trains should be “self-sufficient” even though highways cost our government far more and even airlines can’t make a profit, service on the route through Cincinnati, the Cardinal, has fallen and fallen. Union Terminal receives six trains a week: Three bound for Chicago and three for New York. Added to the strangeness of a score of passengers using a terminal built for thousands is the time of day they arrive there. The Chicago-bound trains arrive at 2:58 a.m., and the New York-bound trains arrive at 4:55 a.m. The few remaining passengers move through the station when it is eerily dark, the museumgoers who fill it during the decent hours are comfortably asleep in the suburbs.

Railroad passengers at the dawn of the 21st century are like a tiny trickle of water in a dry and dusty riverbed. When the river was flowing that place must have been bustling with travelers and redcaps and all sorts of others who earned a living in that milieu. An air of excitement, kind of urban euphoria that faded after World War II, flowed around these halls and corridors. Visitors would have gotten their first impression of Cincinnati there in that grandiose hall. A fitting entrance to a proud city.

After marveling at the station in peaceful if drowsy solitude, I caught the Cardinal back to New York. It may have only a half dozen trains pass through it in a week, but Cincinnati had the foresight to save its glorious central railroad station. We in New York wrecked one of ours in 1963, burying it underneath a basketball arena because the jet and the car were going to make trains irrelevant. Today, 6,894 trains come through Pennsylvania Station each week, more than a few of them standing-room-only. These trains disgorge hundreds of thousands of people a day into an undignified but teeming maze of passageways. Thankfully, efforts are underway to restore some of the glory of the old station, but not all of it.

Last weekend, the Cardinal chugged through Appalachia, traded in a diesel engine for an electric one at Washington and then sped up the Northeast Corridor. I arrived at Penn Station at midnight and found it bustling with people as always, some waiting for a train, some rushing to catch one, some buying tickets, some selling tickets, some munching on food, some homeless, trying to furtively catch some sleep before being kicked out, some in fatigues, guarding the place with dogs and automatic rifles. Electric boards displayed lists of arriving and departing trains, and an announcer was talking over the P.A. As I walked toward the only subway in the world that never stops running, I passed through the Long Island Rail Road’s concourse, and the whole scene was repeated.

It was good to be home.

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5 Responses to When People Cared About Place

  1. aaron says:

    Great essay, AD. Here’s my big Amtrak experience:

    http://www.naparstek.com/2003/08/twenty-seconds-late.php

  2. AD says:

    Aaron,

    Interesting post you mentioned. It’s too bad that you had a bad experience with Amtrak because I expect you would be a frequent rider if the railroad had served you better. (My train was late as well, but I wasn’t in a hurry.)

    I feel that Amtrak on-time performance suffers because of chronic underinvestment. The railroad needs more money, either from public or private sources. The Bush administration wants to privatize as much of it as they can or force states to pick up the funding. The question everyone’s debating right now is whether privatizing it would lead to an inflow of private or state money, or would kill off intercity passenger service entirely.

    I’d love it if private railroads competed with one another on a bustling network of rails, but sadly, I don’t think that would happen. I think the Bush proposal would kill off service altogether, forcing more people to sit in traffic on our nation’s freeways. There was a reason Amtrak was formed in 1971: The private rail carriers couldn’t make money at it. Have things changed significantly since then?

    Assuming the Peak Oil theory is correct, fuel costs will make carefree motoring and any jet travel prohibitively expensive in the years ahead. I think we’ll be sorry then if we let our railroad die. The cost of rebuilding a railroad from scratch would be far higher than reinvigorating one.

  3. aaron says:

    I agree with all that you say. I would love it if Amtrak or some other version of national rail service worked properly. I’d use it all the time. It’s a big bummer that the system is failing and there is so little political will to fix it.

  4. futurebird says:

    I have will!

  5. aaron says:

    Vote Futurebird?

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