Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tracks to the past

For more than a year, workers in downtown Raleigh have been tearing out the old Fayetteville Street Mall and restoring the street to vehicular traffic. The old mall – begun the spring I moved to Raleigh as Raleigh correspondent for the Greensboro Daily News in 1977 – was never successful in drawing daily crowds back downtown.
But now that developers have been building residences downtown – and selling them as fast as they can put them up – the prospects for real revival seem bright. Assuming, of course, that this public works project ever gets finished. It was supposed to reopen this month; now city officials are hoping for a late July celebration of the project’s completion.
One good result, as I mentioned not long ago in a column, is the reopening of the broad vista between the state Capitol on Union Square in the city center, and the lovingly restored Memorial Auditorium at the foot of Fayetteville Street seven or eight blocks south. The copper-topped roofs of the Capitol and the auditorium already give strollers a sense of the grand buildings and inspiring view that once brightened this street. Until earlier this year, an ugly convention center had blocked the view between the two.
While hoofing it over to the legislature Monday, I saw work crews tearing out the last of the old street crossings on Morgan Street a few dozen feet from the statue of George Washington on the Capitol grounds. Workers had uncovered what must have been Raleigh’s old streetcar tracks, including the curving turn from Morgan onto Fayetteville Street, and were cutting the rails into manageable lengths with a torch. As I watched, a big shovel pulled the heavy iron rails out of the ground where they had been covered with asphalt for decades. Today all you could see of the old railway path was a jumble of wooden railroad ties, a few spikes still protruding from the wood.
I expect my grandparents rode those rails when they came to visit family here earlier in the 20th century, and my great uncle John might have ridden those cars to work or shop downtown in an earlier time. By the end of this summer, I’ll be driving that same route to work just so I can see the same sight they would have seen from the Capitol to the auditorium. I hope it lives up to the billing when all the work’s done.

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