I wanted to see some cities in the South; my sainted wife Anne indulged me for our 25th anniversary last month. We went by train from Hartford, stopping for a few days each in Washington, Richmond, Va., Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. From which, a few observations.
If you are not in a hurry, Amtrak is a very pleasant way to travel. One wishes it were a bit faster and a tiny bit smoother in part, but it's comfortable and pleasant. Republicans since Ronald Reagan have tried to kill the federal subsidy for Amtrak, so it may be a miracle that service is as good as it is.
How can anyone familiar with the traffic on I-95 think this is a good idea? Does everyone understand that there is also a massive federal subsidy for the highway system? That our heavy reliance on cars involves vast amounts of energy and pollution?
President Barack Obama needs to keep pushing for high- or just higher-speed rail.
And though service has gotten better, our trip revealed one unfortunate result of the decline in rail travel after World War II. Although Washington's Union Station has been gloriously restored (they are now restoring the restoration), the three cities to the south all closed their downtown stations in favor of nondescript stops in suburban industrial parks.
Richmond has, after a major preservation project, reopened its historic and stately 1901 Main Street station. But you cannot get a passenger train pointed south from this terminus, apparently due to heavy freight traffic. So you have to take a train back to the main line and wait for another train heading south. In the other two cities, it's a fairly expensive cab ride from the station to downtown. This loses one of the great advantages of train travel, at least over air travel — the ability to bring people to the city center. The proposed Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor south of Washington would get Richmond the southbound artery it needs.
Richmond has much in common with Hartford; state capital, revived riverfront, world-class art museum, elevated highways in the wrong place. One cannot help but notice that the presence of Virginia Commonwealth University (and its medical school!) downtown adds a lot of vibrancy to the city.
I interviewed a Richmond official some years ago who told me the city was hampered by its small size. It comprises 62.5 square miles and has a population of 204,000 in a metropolitan region of 1.2 million. If that's a problem in Richmond, Hartford is 18 square miles with 125,000 people in a metro of 1.2 million.
Charleston and Savannah are both known for spectacular historic preservation efforts. The most distinctive architectural style in Charleston is the "single house," a rectangular structure with the narrow end — just one room wide — facing the street and two-story verandas or "piazzas" along the side. They were built for cross ventilation in the era before air conditioning. Many have been restored and add a unique elegance to the city.
Hartford has a distinctive residential architectural style, the brick, three-story "perfect six." These don't have to be six-unit apartment buildings, they can be renovated into side-by-side townhouses. What if the city made a fuss about "perfect sixes?"
The preservation effort got going in Savannah in 1955 when seven prominent women, upset with the loss of historic buildings, saved the handsome 1820 Federal-style Davenport House from being torn down for a parking lot. Since then, the "magnificent seven" and their successors have saved and reused hundreds of historic structures.
In Charleston and Savannah, local colleges are involved in historic preservation. The Savannah College of Art and Design, which offers a major in historic preservation, has bought and preserved more than 80 buildings, officials told me. The school uses some; some have been resold or converted to public uses.
The combination of historic buildings and a brilliant 1733 city plan — it was laid out around 24 squares, nearly all of which survive — make it a very walkable city. Savannah has its visitors center in its former train station. I'm told there is talk of bringing the trains back; good idea.
I left wondering why we can't build places like those we visit on vacation. And, yes, we flew home, now being a little short on time.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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