Thursday, January 29, 2015
Union Station: fix the gross part, save the sagging stone steps
Union Station is a hell hole — loud, crowded, smoky, cold, in winter, airless in summer, dripping cascades of what please God is water all year round.
So news that Amtrak finally plans to toss $12 million into fixing has to be welcome, although anybody who has spent anything on home repair has to immediately wonder how far $12 million is going to go. Announcing a $12 million facelift of Union Station is like me saying I'm spending $600 to put in a new bathroom in my home. Given that the "multibillion dollar" master plan to truly update Union Station, can $12 million even give it a good scrubbing (a skepticism reflected in headlines such as Time Out's, "Amtrak Commits $12 million to make Union Station less gross." Less gross. To totally eliminate grossness would cost $120 million. Easily). And there is the very real possibility that the years of construction work and inconvenience of the repairs will dwarf whatever improvement they actually achieve. That would surprise no one.
Still, to the degree they might enlarge the South Platform, even maybe drill another exit route down there, is to be applauded. It might means travelers won't have to queue in endless, we're-all-gonna-die-down-here-someday lines, waiting forever, our ears next to throbbing locomotives, just to get out of the place.
Although. One detail of the plan gave me pause. Not that they're listening to me, or any of the 120,000 commuters forced to descend into Union Station's stygian horrors every day. The geniuses in charge have announced they're going to fix the marble stairs into the Great Hall, steps gently worn over the decades by millions of feet, in Oxford wing tips and sandals and wrapped in rags. Chicago is not an ancient city, and those sagging stone steps are the closest thing we have to an old stairway in Jerusalem or Rome. So while God knows I would never argue with any kind of improvement at Union Station, I would say, fix those marble steps only after you've fixed everything else. Which is a code for "never."
That said, they'll probably fix them first.