Let’s start with the building itself, the actual architecture. Union Station is a neo-classical mix of styles — European styles. The symmetry, arched windows, ornate cornice and stacked, stone walls have their roots in the glory days of France, England, Greece and Rome, in empires that were nearly absent of ethnic minorities and who felt fully at ease invading, exploiting and actually enslaving the people of Africa, subcontinent Asia and South America. [So - asymmetrical design, square windows and plain sheetrock is the key to appealing to blacks, Latinos and Asians - we could call in Dr. Ghery, but isn't he one of those non-minority types, like, er, Jews? Ed]
Yes, that’s all in the past; things have changed. But the $54 million renovation of Union Station doesn’t take that into account. It restores the symbols of an old world with no updates. The gilded chandeliers have been rewired, the marble polished, but there’s no nod to the present, no interior walls in the bright colors of Mexico, no Asian simplicity is in the remix. There are no giant sculptures by African-American artists bonused into the lobby, no murals on the basement walls.
A preservationist might object to physical updates. Restoration is about the exact, the original. History has its ups and downs, the thinking goes, and you can’t blame buildings for the good or bad that happened. But a preservationist just might end up with a building that draws mostly white people — with a Union Station.
The present restoration harkens back to Union Station at its height, in the first half of a 20th century when many Americans suffered the social indignity and economic disadvantage of a segregated America. Denver’s neighborhoods, parks, schools and social amenities were divided sharply by race.
The trains themselves were not officially segregated here, but you can bet many people on them boarded or disembarked in stations where blacks entered in separate doors and rode in restricted cars.
Denver’s bigshot bigots are gone, schools and workplaces desegregated. But the structures of back then look the same — are they to be honored or altered to make the past palatable for everyone?
[S] omething is missing. There’s no traditional Mexican restaurant, no soul-food restaurant, no sushi bar [first time anyone's identified an Asian as an oppressed minority in decades - the guy is really trying for diversity here. Ed] as if no one noticed that the Mexican-American, African-American and Asian-American families that own and operate those places across the city are also our best food purveyors.
RTD had a thousand choices when it was rehabbing the station. It could have put in a farmer’s market or a suite of micro-offices. It could have let its imagination run wild and installed a basketball court or a rec center, day-care facility, museum, a theater that any group could rent, an indoor playground, or yes, a Subway [he is apparently referring to that processed meat peddler that poor people like so much, not an underground railway. Ed.]
But it chose a different path. RTD, whose buses and trains are the most diverse places in Denver, created a monster of separation [building up to his climax here] .
Union Station will make plenty of money and that will help keep our transportation system solvent. But how much is lost?
This really was a chance to define today’s Denver, to show off to the world, to say we are as interesting and relevant as anywhere you can name. But this project has defined us narrowly, darkly, negligently. There is danger in that, too.
Up in Aspen, these sage words will be nodded over and earnestly discussed over glasses of chilled Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Chardonnay, and all will praise Mr. Rinaldi for his perspicacity and sensitivity.
Which just proves the point.