The Dream of the 1890s Is Alive in Denver
October 22, 2014, 07:25 AM
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Reopening gala for Denver’s Union Station railroad terminal, July 2014

Denver has been doing well, with the third fastest growth in the number of youngish college graduates since 2000 (behind Houston and Nashville). Now, Denver’s grand old Union Station (built between 1881 and 1914) has been all spiffed up and is a huge hit, at least with white people.

From the Denver Post:

Did diversity miss the train in Union Station’s architecture? The urban playground at Union Station isn’t drawing people of color and it may be the building’s fault

By Ray Mark Rinaldi Denver Post Fine Arts Critic POSTED: 10/19/2014 12:01:00 AM MDT 77 COMMENTS| UPDATED: 2 DAYS AGO

Thursday, 1 p.m.: 186 whites, 1 black, 4 Latinos, 4 Asians.

Friday, 6 p.m.: 647 whites, 6 blacks, 6 Latinos, 7 Asians

Saturday, 11 p.m.: 693 whites, 4 blacks, 2 Latinos, 7 Asians.

It’s dangerous to assign race to people simply by glancing at their faces. Some people don’t look at all like their race. Many people are a mix.

But if my recent counts of people in the restaurants, bars and shops in and around Denver’s rehabbed, reopened Union Station are even close, it’s an overwhelmingly white place. How can the new cultural jewel of our city — where 47 percent of the population is minority — draw a crowd that is 98.2 percent Caucasian on a bustling, buzzed Saturday night?

The station’s owner, the Regional Transportation District, worked long and hard to develop a city center that would reflect and showcase Denver’s particular personality. None of the eateries are chains; the beers are Colorado-brewed. The architects, builders and programmers who turned the original 1914 building into a contemporary social hub are nearly all local.

But walking through the station, it doesn’t look at all like Denver in 2014. More like Denver in 1950. More like Boise, Idaho, or Billings, Mont. This is a public place, owned by all of us, open to all, but the invitation to visit was declined by many, and it’s obvious who isn’t showing up.

Three months in, the place hums early and late. The Crawford Hotel on the top floors is a hit, and the best 8 p.m. restaurant tables are gone weeks in advance. A few years ago, the station was a ghost town. Now it is wildly popular, and in many ways, a smashing success.

If, that is, you are white and not paying attention. Or if you think diversity doesn’t matter. If you do, you can’t help but feel like something is off amidst all the clinking of martini glasses in the swank Cooper Lounge on the mezzanine, or the low hum of pucks sliding across shuffleboard tables in the Great Hall.

If you are a tourist — and there is hope the station will impress out-of-towners with our farm-to-table menus, craft cocktails and trendy gift shops — you might get the idea that Denver doesn’t have people of color. Or worse, you might think it’s one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. That’s not the case.

… But we’re no St. Louis, a city where decades of inequality has the good citizens at a boiling point.

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.

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.

No graffiti (yet).
… 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. 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 — are they to be honored or altered to make the past palatable for everyone?

We should just blow up all the beautiful buildings of the past. That way no nonwhites will be made uncomfortable by ever being reminded of what their ancestors didn’t accomplish.
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.

But this project has defined us narrowly, darkly [i.e., whitely], negligently. There is danger in that, too.

Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, rrinaldi@denverpost.com or twitter.com/rayrinaldi

The reader comments are pretty funny.