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January 11, 2010

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I was in Tennessee a few years ago checking out the remnants of America's glorious past. In Nashville, the old train station, a stunning gothic pile, now houses a Wyndham Hotel. In Chattanooga, the train station incorporates Pullman cars in a kind of hotel/railway theme park. In Memphis, the grand beaux-arts train station was torn down in the late 60s for a postal annex. You can imagine what that looks like.

The damage that cars have done to this country are beyond calculation because there's no metric that can quantify the visual horror of most American cities. Most of us just accept it as a given, as if Europe was destined to be "quaint" while American cities were destined to be zippy. But prior to World War II, most American cities, including Phoenix, were much closer to the European model. And what we gave up in the name of prosperity and personal mobility should - and does - haunt our dreams.

I wish nostalgia worked but it just makes us cranky. Kunstler's jeremiads about the American crudscape are thrilling to read because they're so obviously right and gloriously angry. But we're stuck now with an infrastructure too expensive to revamp and ultimately too expensive to maintain. How we navigate the future is anyone's guess. I'm guessing it won't be pretty.

I am an Arizona native (born in Tucson in 1976) who lived in the Phoenix area from age three until 27, when I left for a job in Boston. I witnessed the changes that occurred as the "Valley" grew rapidly during the 1980s through my 2004, when I left town. I still remember those green welcome signs that greeted motorists as they entered Phoenix, announcing the city's population at 885,000. To an 8-year-old kid, that was a staggering figure. On a side note, motorists who were about to leave Phoenix were bid goodbye in Spanish on identical-looking green signs: "Adios, Amigos."
During the 1980s, my old man owned a business adjacent to the steel mills just west of the State Capitol. When school let out at St. Theresa, I took the city bus to the main terminal on Central. He picked me up and I would ride with him as he visited job sites across the metropolitan area. Occasionally, we would pass by Union Station, which at the time, had passenger-rail service. I never got to visit the inside of the station, but I was always curious what it looked like, and for that matter, what it was like to ride a train. I always thought the exterior of the station was beautiful.
I love reading Jon's Valley 101 columns; as someone who grew up in the city, they remind me of what made Phoenix a great city (the citrus groves, the Japanese Gardens, the untouched desert just beyond Phoenix's northern border, Bell Road) and sadly, what has contributed to its devolution: the Arizona Legislature, the influx of people from other parts of the country who don't care and just want to be left alone and the loss of influential business leaders and groups such as the Phoenix 40, which worked hard to diversify the region's economy and bring high-paying jobs to the area.

I was 18 years old in 1965 when I came to Phoenix to check out ASU and returned to Illinois via train and left from the Union Station.It was December and I had a wonderful 3 day trip with lots of time to write a term paper that was due and relished the dining car experience.The day before I left,they released water into the dry Salt River that I had driven through earlier in the week and as the train crossed the river in Tempe I thought "what kind of nuts build roads in riverbeds?"I later did work at the station when they refurbished in the 8o's or 90's and it was a beautiful old building still then.It brought back a lot of good memories that I will always cherish about Phoenix.

Dear Mr. Talton,

Thank you for this bit of nostalgia. It doesn't make me "cranky" -- in fact it makes me rather jolly. In fact, the joyful experiences of yesterday can inspire both hope and vision for the future, if we but allow it. To permit memories of the past to die, through cynical neglect and lack of hope -- truly, only then will the sterility of the desert triumph.

A man without a past, yet advanced to middle-age, is surely a man without a vision. Let's not allow ourselves to be reduced to mere dry husks of resentment and lost opportunity. As long as beauty lives in the mind and soul there is hope for the future: for these are the eternal springs by which the sterility of the desert is watered and made capable of supporting the gardens of the future.

Such beautiful prose Mr. Pulsifer. Thank you for the inspiration.

Emil, that was poetry! It is so tempting to join the "Ain't it Awful" society, but the cost of membership can be corrosive cynicism.

When I worked for Phoenix FD, I inspected the new generators installed at the Phoenix Union Station. It is a really interesting building with some very unique architecture. I always wondered why the City didn't purchase the building and use it as part of the city's history.

Your history information was very helpful. Thank you for sharing it.

I am 28 years old and have lived in Phoenix for 23 years. Jon's writing is the only place I have ever seen Phoenix's Union Station even mentioned. How sad is that?

Being a product of the 1950s and 60s post-WWII U.S. migration west, our family moved to Scottsdale from St. Louis in 1960. My dad received his Ph.d from Washington U. but took a teaching position at ASU.

As a 6 year old I remember the Phoenix train station-- we would pick up St. Louis friends who had taken the train to visit. It was a cool place. I remember the benches and windows with smoky shafts of sunlight coming in and the hustle and bustle of the passenger lobby. Not long after, Sky Harbor became the hub to travel from, although I have fond memories of the old terminal building there as well.

It is sad to see the station in its present form, tucked behind the 4th Ave. jail, buried among the new buildings. It screams to be restored, if only as a train museum, or something of the like.

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