23 Feb 2022

Union Station: Run down or coping with the pandemic?

On Monday, February 21, Adam Tuss tweeted a sentiment that made some very upset. Sure, it’s Twitter and anything is bound to make people upset– but this tweet really incensed some:

And then, to underscore his point, he quoted his earlier tweet and said the following, three hours later:

Now, Adam undoubtedly knows about transportation, as one of our region’s transportation reporters and local NBC affiliate anchor. He is not just a random voice in the echo chamber that is Twitter. But there are some things that need to be said to give his tweets context. And to hopefully make him realize that when you have as large a platform as he does, there is a level of responsibility that comes with having that many people listening to and reading your opinions.

Many times, walking through Union Station, I have felt despair and anger at the state of some parts of it. But it does feel like perhaps Adam should have thought his tweet a little better. For instance, referring to the station as “smelly” as if this fact were somehow new is not just nearsighted, but it seems like a subtle way of pointing out that it smells bad because of people. Now, yes– train stations are places that are open at all hours and they attract people who have no place to go. This has been true pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. Considering that Washington, D.C. has a dearth of public restrooms, it begs the question, where are people supposed to go?

All photos by Maria Helena Carey ©2022
Waiting outside for taxis or just passing the time.

There is a large janitorial crew cleaning Union Station every single day. Have you ever asked yourself what the station would look like if no one swept, washed or picked up? Just stop by at around 4 a.m., before the crews start working and you’ll see the stark difference. It’s a big place, and it takes a lot of effort to maintain. For instance, crews have been working on cleaning the indoor statues. You can see them on the cherry picker on a near-daily basis, caring for the statues and making sure things look clean, top to bottom. This is something that continues, despite the pandemic.

As for the Swastikas painted all over the portico, those have been all covered up. Many readers wondered why it was taking so long, and why crews aren’t done. It was Helder Gil, who happens to work for the District government, who offered some sort of clarity regarding the delays:

And as you can see, at least the symbols are no longer visible, due to some sort of paste that is actively covering up the symbols under the plastic sheeting. Hopefully as the days get warmer, we’ll start to see some more action on this mess. Incidentally, there has been a water stain on the front of the station for a long time and no one has said anything about the cause. I have tweeted at Union Station Redevelopment Corporation a fair amount of times, but they haven’t said anything about it.

A detail of a vandalized bit of marble and the patch that covers it up (MHC)

But let’s go back inside, shall we?

Are there shops that are vacant? Absolutely. Starting with the large former H&M space that anchors the western side of the mall, there are big spaces that are completely empty. The former Le Pain Quotidian spot is also eerily empty, as is the old Pret a Manger spot and, in the mezzanine level, Legal Sea Foods bar. Does this mean that the places sit there empty? Well, yes– many of these chains pulled their businesses at different points. However, on a regular day, you can see travelers looking for spots to charge their phones, sit and chat or just hang out.

Pret a Manger’s former space. (MHC)

During a cursory walk yesterday, I counted over 20 empty storefronts. Gone is the shoe store and both Ladurée and Magnolia Bakery. No more Victoria’s Secret and therefore no more ill-fitting bras, which is not such a terrible thing when you truly think about it. But Ann Taylor and Andrew’s Ties are going strong. East Asia Café is going strong. And Uno is, too.

A man checking his phone in the area where Legal Sea Foods bar used to be (MHC)

There are travelers coming in and out at all hours, and while there are many vacant storefronts, there are still many places to shop. If you lose your headphones, for instance, Hudson News has a wide array of ear thingies at good price points– from cheapie wire headphones to Apple AirPods. And as a reminder, for those who miss Barnes and Noble, they also have books.

A view of the mezzanine level (MHC)

Do I miss Claire’s? Dearly. But were there thriving businesses opposite Claire’s in the mezzanine level? Well, no. So many different stores have tried to give it a go in this space: from the Carpe Librum bookstores to comic book stores to dress stores, some might say that the north side of the mezzanine is cursed ever since Chico’s left– but this is nothing new. This has happened for years; the pandemic just made it worse. And for the record: the eastern mezzanine area only smells like pizza from Pizzeria Uno.

Let’s go back to the word “smelly” for a second. What can make a station smelly? Could it be the fumes from all the idling taxis or from the trains? Perhaps. Could it be all the fast food smells, wafting around the area– the smells from a million clogged grease traps? Sure, why not. But no: the word “smelly” seems to refer pointedly to people not being able to use a bathroom and relieving themselves at the station. Who does this? Sure, the obvious target, as always, is the unhoused population. But there are plenty of young bros who also relieve themselves, drunk after a night at the bar as well. And the larger question is, where are people supposed to go to the bathroom at Union Station anyway? If you’ve ever had a toilet-training child who NEEDS TO GO, or you have a neurogenic bladder, perhaps you have been able to locate one of the bathrooms. They are located by the entrance of Pizzeria Uno at the mezzanine level and down at the Food Court level, across from what used to be Bojangles. In the main level, there is one close to Mc. Donald’s and one close to Sbarro’s– which is still open. And now you know, too.

DC needs public restrooms, not just at Union Station, but everywhere. Making sure that tourists can relieve themselves but not affording that same convenience to those who are forced to live out on the streets or those who desperately need a toilet is a cruel practice.

A homeless man’s box dominates the path from Massachusetts Avenue NE through Columbus Plaza (MHC)

Smelly also has a connotation of unwashed, which brings us right back to our unhoused population. Do you see a pattern here? Of course, if you cannot take a shower on a regular basis because you have limited access to a restroom, you will smell. And if you’re hoarding things that you take along with you and which you may not have a chance to wash, those will smell, too. But once again, the problem is not exclusively Union Station’s, nor is it a new problem. Is it a more serious problem? Absolutely: Many of these unhoused folks have been systematically kicked off the two triangle parks on Massachusetts Avenue, as well as off the underpasses along the train tracks. Unfortunately, plans haven’t always been in place to make sure that instead of being kicked off and forced to relocate to another outdoor area, that they are able to be placed in permanent housing. To her credit, Mayor Bowser has tried to focus on permanent housing, but things have not always gone smoothly.

A line of DC taxis waits for passengers (MHC)

What does it mean to be thriving, exactly? How do you measure it? Did you sit outside Union Station with a counter over a series of days and draw conclusions from the data you collected? If the line of taxis waiting to pick up travelers outside the station is any indication, people are at least engaging taxis. Cabbies are no-nonsense folks who will tell you to get out of their cab if they feel you’re not going far away enough to make it worth their while (this has happened to me). If they thought there was no money to be made outside Union Station, they’d leave. And they are back, baby. The queue is not completely back out onto H Street NE –over the Hopscotch bridge and down around North Capitol, like in the pre-pandemic times– but it’s getting longer every day. Is that not thriving?

Travelers come in and out. Metro platforms get crowded at off-peak times waiting for the trains that only come every 10-20 minutes. Teens have started to flock to the station, looking for a place with cheap food where they can just be. It’s hard to be a teenager– adult packaging with none of the maturity but all of the expectations placed upon you– but Union Station does allow these little mutants to have a place to just be.

The main hall at Union Station, with patrons at Blue Bottle coffee in the middle distance (MHC)

Sure, there is not a lot of seating. Many lament the lack of benches in the main hall. For me, the ones I miss were the ones in the east hall, where you could sit quietly and enjoy the peace while smelling the aromas wafting from the Thunder Grill (R.I.P.). Did unhoused people sit at those benches? Well, yeah. That’s the thing about benches: they don’t discriminate against your derrière. Anyone can sit and sitting is a wonderful thing, especially when you’re tired. It’s good that Blue Bottle Coffee is still open and they keep a nice seating area in the main hall, as do Shake Shack, Cava, and Potbelly. People come through at all hours and work from these seating areas, or get a killer pourover or a burger while waiting for the train. These are nice amenities and they bring people. These are spaces that are thriving.

Downstairs at the food court level, Walgreens is always thriving because everyone needs something for this years-long headache that won’t go away. And Chick-Fil-A is also thriving because despite our best efforts, it’s hard to resist the siren song of perfectly spiced homophobic chicken. On Sundays, Taco Bell and Chipotle are still providing the grease, aided by the relatively new Wendy’s that opened right at the beginning of the pandemic.

People catch the train and eat at McDonald’s and buy meals for the homeless at McDonald’s. They get their caffeine at the one extant Starbucks that is always full of people. That is thriving. Sure, it’s not pre-pandemic, but it’s pretty good. Even the shoe shine station is back, because there are enough leather shoes to shine. (Note to self: Get boots shined soon.)

People walk toward the trains. The Laderach store and the Amtrak ticket counter are both visible, as well as the Starbucks. (MHC)

Finally, really, Adam? Do you think that Penn Station is a magnificent point of entry to New York City and does it smell amazing? We’re not going to enter some sort of contest as to which stations are better than others, or whether they are better kept up. Public areas are always vulnerable to disrepair and neglect from overuse. Cities aren’t always focused on maintaining public areas as well as they could– although we also know that when the alternative is true, that is to say, when they don’t take care of things, the neglect becomes obvious right away.

In short, please think before you Tweet.

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