Denver is in the process of renovating its long-neglected Union Station, built in 1914 in the Beaux Arts style. Denver Post Fine Arts Critic Ray Mark Rinaldi has serious issues with the renovation of a building designed exclusively in European styles, which thus inevitably celebrates European culture and civilization, while neglecting to represent all those various peoples of colors which our liberal friends all tell us are destined very soon to displace us as the American majority. Evidently Mr. Rinaldi thinks that Denver ought to be consigning European culture, architecture & European history to the ash-heap of history right now.
Union Station is a neo-classical mix of styles â€” 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.
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.
Would any of those updates have made Union Station more welcoming, made it “Ready for the Next 100 years,” as its marketing proclaims ? Could they still?
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 â€” 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. Denver’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan, one mayor a member, kept things in their place.
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 â€” are they to be honored or altered to make the past palatable for everyone?
The programming does little to mitigate the obstacles. The local restaurants and chefs that made it onto Union Station were the city’s highest-profile operators whose establishments serve mostly white clientele, and their fans have followed along. Minority businesses were part of the station’s redevelopment, but many of the key players were white, too. These people are not racists. They are our among our best, most creative thinkers.
Still, something is missing. There’s no traditional Mexican restaurant, no soul-food restaurant, no sushi bar, 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. …
Union Station is programmed toward wallets. You need a password to use the Wi-Fi. Its product is elegance, even exclusivity. You can’t even find the Cooper Lounge unless you know where you are going; it’s set up for insiders. Exclusivity has its own historic baggage. Whether it’s about keeping Jewish people out of a subdivision or gay people out of the military, it historically benefits the majority.
That’s only part of it, of course. Because today’s Denver has a growing middle-class of minorities. Plenty of blacks and Latinos could afford to play at Union Station. The surrounding neighborhoods are diversified with residents who could simply bike over or take the light rail or downtown shuttle. There is no one at the door looking folks over. The workforce is mixed. There’s no open policy of exclusion.
But there may be an institutional one. 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.
But it chose a different path. RTD, whose buses and trains are the most diverse places in Denver, created a monster of separation. You can’t keep private enterprise from doing this sort of deed, but a public entity, a common asset, might have more democratic obligations.
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.