Friday, May 20, 2011

Amtrak Urbanism

Three years ago, my parents moved from their long-time home in Jupiter to Clearwater Beach on the west coast of Florida. While we were sorry to see them leave their old house and friends, it was easy to fall in love with the relaxed atmosphere and retro charm of my parents’ beachy new hometown. We soon realized that the only downside to Clearwater was getting there.

So Close and Yet So Far
  
First we tried driving. Clearwater is about a 5-hour drive from Miami, which is a long trek for a weekend visit. The quickest route is to take I-75 across the Everglades at the southern tip of Florida, and then continue up the west coast past Tampa. This route is flat, straight, and mind-numbingly boring. The danger of falling asleep behind the wheel is only countered by the frustrating congestion of Miami and Tampa, or the terror of the mid-afternoon thunderstorms, with their blinding rain, intense thunder and lightning, and gusts of wind that cause cars to veer off the road. After these drives we would collapse exhausted at home, completely useless for the rest of the day. With the added insult of $4/gallon gas, my husband and I were ready to try something new. We considered flying from Miami to Tampa, but were still not convinced. The flights are expensive, they require advance planning, afternoon thunderstorms are still problematic, and we both are jaded by the long waits and frequent delays at the airport. We also do not relish being treated like cattle in the security lines and on the cramped airplane. We had all but given up hope for a pleasant transportation mode.

 
Amtrak to the Rescue
 
Last year I was delighted to find out that we had been completely ignorant of a third transportation option – rail. Who knew that Amtrak operates a daily Miami-Tampa route?
We tried it out for the first time in September, and have taken the train to visit my parents ever since. There are so many reasons to love the train. The tickets are cheap, even when you buy them the day you leave. Back when gas was $3/gallon, it was still cheaper to buy a single train ticket than to pay for gas, not to mention the wear and tear on the car. The trains have proven to be punctual and unaffected by thunderstorms, unlike driving and flying. They do not require early check-in or security pat-downs. The best part of the train is that it is comfortable- the seats are expansive, the aisles wide, and there are powercords at every seat for charging phones or laptops. There is a dining car and a cafĂ© car on every train with surprisingly good sit-down meals with real dishes and silverware – forget about airplane food or the drive-through window. We love the train because we can sleep, work, read, meet new people, or just enjoy each other’s company, all while getting where we need to go.

 

The Miami-Tampa Route 

Our favorite part of Amtrak’s Miami-Tampa service is the route itself. It runs up along the east coast from Miami to West Palm Beach, then cuts west, skirting the northern edge of Lake Okeechobee and continuing up through the central Florida highlands. The route alternates between southeast Florida’s relentless urbanization to natural and rural areas, to charming small towns, to the historic, industrial urbanism of central Tampa. At each stop, you catch a fleeting glimpse of what Florida’s old railroad towns must have been like, bringing to light a little-known slice of sunshine state history. Destinations along the route include: Miami, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach, Delray Beach, West Palm Beach, Okeechobee, Sebring, Winter Haven, Lakeland, and Tampa. Each town has a distinct history and different legs of the route are tied to different eras of railroad development.

 

Florida Railroad History

Florida’s development was closely tied to the railroad. The particular route between Tampa and Miami was developed primarily by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, which operated lines from Richmond to Miami. The company expanded into Florida in 1900, with a Richmond-Tampa line, and in the 1920s the company opened up service from the west coast of Florida to Miami, running across the state and down through West Palm Beach. At the time, Florida was a gold mine, enjoying an unprecedented land boom. The company made most of its profits from shipping oranges and timber from Florida to the Northeast, and in return, bringing tourists from the Northeast to Florida. Fittingly, most of the stops along the Miami-Tampa route were built up as winter resort towns, orange groves,
                                                           or lumber towns.

Southeast Florida’s Railroad Cities
Along the southeast stretch of the route the train stops at the original 1920s Seaboard Air Line Railroad passenger stations in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach, and West Palm Beach. Each building is built in the Mediterranean style, with stucco walls, pastel colors, and barrel tile roofs. These passenger terminals were originally built in remote parts of the cities, and even today they are located at the periphery of the Downtown. Because these cities have experienced significant growth, however, the train stations are now more centrally located to the overall population. Also, because each of these stops serves different parts of the bustling Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metropolis, they are still relevant for serving passengers’ needs.

Miami and Delray Beach’s passenger terminals were relocated from their original Seaboard stops. Miami’s station is particularly unfortunate both in location and in character – the station was moved to Seaboard’s train repair yards in Hialeah and is housed in a purpose-built Amtrak terminal that is stripped-down, metal-clad, and located far from the street, behind a large parking lot. The property has not been very well maintained.


Central Florida’s Railroad Towns


The towns along the central portion of the Amtrak route (Okeechobee, Sebring, Winter Haven, and Lakeland) are the most striking destinations along the route. These towns are small and relatively rural – they had their heyday in the 1920s as vacation destinations and agricultural meccas, but after the Great Depression they have seen little growth or change. Despite their humble size, the towns boasted a surprising amount of civic pride. Each town was laid out with a formal central square and many of them feature City Beautiful street patterns and civic art, in the same manner that was being applied in large metropolitan cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C. Sebring, for example, features a radial street pattern focused on a prominent central green, fronted by mixed-use and civic buildings. The urban fabric of each town, particularly its main street and historic neighborhoods, has remained well preserved.

Each of these towns was originally designed and built around the rail line. Looking at Sanborn Maps, detailed fire insurance maps from the early 20th century, you can see that the passenger terminal of the railroad was consistently located at the center of town, anchoring the town’s main square. These buildings were conceived of as Civic Art, and their architecture was proud, typically in the Mediterranean style that was popular in Florida at the time. Unfortunately, the main rail line and the passenger station in each town have been relocated over time to more peripheral, sometimes industrial, parts of the town. The proud experience of arriving to town by train has been somewhat diminished, however the towns themselves remain worthy destinations.

 
Tampa’s Union Station

The final destination along the Miami-Tampa route is Union Station. Union Station is located at the periphery of Downtown Tampa, but the architecture is grand. It is the most impressive station along the route, both in size and character. It was built in 1912 as Seaboard’s final destination on its north-south line. The building has a large, double-height waiting room with stained glass windows and large double-door entrances. The original passenger platforms and shelters are still in use as well. It is always a pleasure to arrive at this station and enjoy the architecture after a relaxing trip.

Anyone would enjoy taking Amtrak for its convenience, comfort, and cost. For those interested in history, urban design, and architecture, the ride is also an enjoyable way to travel back in time and learn about our Sunshine State. If you want more information on Amtrak train travel, or you are already convinced and ready to book your next trip, just visit their website – www.amtrak.com.

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