through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 1

Travel in today’s United States is mostly about two things: the automobile, which is a fixture in every part of America, and the airplane, which made the vast expanses of the U.S. easy to cross in mere hours. However, one form of transport that was so crucial to the history of the United States is often overlooked in favor of these two: the train. Even though train travel in the U.S. (at least outside of the Northeast) is often seen as the domain of families and retirees it can still be a perfectly viable means of travel for those seeking no more than transport in style.

One of the most well known of America’s modern passenger train routes is the California Zephyr, a named train that has its roots in the postwar 1940s. The route of the original Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco was a cooperative hand-off effort of three American railroads, all now defunct. This relay race of sorts led passengers through some of the most beautiful parts of North America, including the headwaters of the Colorado River in the high Rockies, the strange desolation of the Utah desert, and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The most difficult portion for the Zephyr to traverse, from Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City, was the job of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad – and this was no small task.

The gold and silver rushes of the mid to late 1800s caused a huge amount of railroad expansion into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in search of riches, and dozens of narrow and standard gauge railroad lines stretched between the unforgiving peaks. The engineering challenges were gargantuan; narrow, treacherous passages like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison proved almost impossible to build through, steep grades and treeless high mountain passes had to be negotiated, sometimes by blasting paths out of solid rock, and deadly winter blizzards forced shutdowns and stoppages again and again.

A map of the Denver and Rio Grande Western circa 1930, showing Colorado crisscrossed with rail lines originally built by at least a dozen companies. By 1930, the D&RGW had absorbed almost all of them into their dual gauge system – the lines in black are 3′ (90 cm) gauge while the red ones are standard 4′ 8½” (1.4 m).

The Rio Grande’s mountain routes have been famous since their inception for the staggering scenery along the way. Originally, mainline trains had to travel from Denver to Pueblo before turning west into the Rockies, then into the Royal Gorge of the Gunnison River and through the impossibly deep Black Canyon before climbing north over Tennessee Pass – the highest point on the entire US rail system. From the top of the pass, trains then descended the Eagle River valley (passing through Belden) and met the banks of the Colorado River, following it west again through Glenwood and De Beque Canyons before clearing the Rockies. This way of doing things was an ethos for ‘the Grande’; their motto was ‘Through the Rockies, Not Around Them’ – a bit of a jab at their competitors (and, ironically, their eventual owners) to the north, the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP used a much easier route through the gradual, easy grades of South Pass in Wyoming, whereas the Rio Grande went west the hard way – straight through the heart of the mountains.

However, as airplanes and automobiles took over for long-distance trains, the preferred way of crossing the Rockies changed – gone were the days of teams of locomotives shoving passengers over high passes and through smoky tunnels. In 1971, during the height of the Oil Crisis, all of America’s mainline railroads ceased passenger operations, handing them in bulk over to a hastily organized state corporation – Amtrak was born. However, the D&RGW, long known for its independent streak, shunned Amtrak and continued to operate its portion of the Zephyr route as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 24 April 1983, when further declines in passengers finally forced the Grande to hand the Zephyr route over to Amtrak.

The Rio Grande Zephyr waits for its final departure from Denver’s Union Station on 24 April 1983. Photo by Slideshow Bruce via Wikimedia.

Jump ahead now, if you will, to the present day. In the middle of summer, I decided that a friend in Salt Lake City was long overdue for a visit. I booked myself a train ticket, and on the appointed day, my California Zephyr showed up at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station backwards – and nearly two hours late. The backwards part is perfectly normal, with Denver’s Union Station resting on a long stub of track that requires the reverse move for access. Today, it was track maintenance and a few passing freight trains east of Denver that held Train #5 up, but no matter; soon we would head out of Denver for the high country and begin making that time back.

Passengers wait to board the Zephyr at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station. Union Station, the Zephyr’s stop since the 1930s, is being turned into a regional commuter rail terminal, and will reopen in 2014.

With a smooth push, the Zephyr pulled out and we were on our way. My car was overseen by conductor Julia Thompson-Johnson of Chicago, a capable professional traveler. Amtrak’s conductors do far more than simply taking tickets; they are the masters of the rails, seeing to everything from extra blankets for toddlers in transit to midnight wake-up calls. I found myself a seat and watched out the window of the café car as the train pulled out of Denver’s freight yards and headed for the Rockies.

As we ascended up the Front Range, I noticed a group of people who looked as if they were from another century. They sported bonnets, dresses, and long beards for the men – members of the Mennonite religious order, as it turns out. Mennonites are similar in dress to their more well-known Amish cousins, and like them eschew most modern technology. However, their order permits them to travel long distances using trains, allowing this group to leave their native Ohio for sunny California. To these people, Amtrak is their primary link to the rest of the country – an essential service indeed.

As the train pushes into the Rockies, the terrain gets much more dramatic.

As we approached the Continental Divide, the mountains seemed to swell around us, as if they were trying to outsmart us, trying to trap the train in some nameless alpine crevice. Originally, trains on this route had to make a tortuous ascent up a 4% grade to the summit of Rollins Pass, well above timberline at 11,660 ft (3,554 m). Winter was not a kind season to the railroad, with blizzards stranding passengers in tens of feet of snow, even after a series of tall sheds were built over the tracks to protect them. By the early 1900s, the need for an alternative was apparent; the railroad was spending more than forty percent of its money on fighting the snow. Denver entrepreneur David Moffat had entertained the idea of a tunnel here as early as 1902, but it would take twenty more years of political and financial wrangling to make it a reality. The resulting masterpiece of civil engineering that would bear Moffat’s name was a 6.2 mile (10.0 km) long tunnel – straight through the Continental Divide.

The Zephyr approaches the Moffat Tunnel. It takes the train about six minutes to pass through James Peak.

Train #5 calls at Winter Park station, former terminal of the Rio Grande’s Ski Train – the last of the Grande’s passenger trains. The idea was simple: a train leaves Denver full of skiers in the morning, takes them straight to the slopes, and returns them to the city the same evening. The route survived under various owners until 2009.

The Colorado River begins in this high mountain valley, and the route of the Zephyr follows it from here to the edge of the Utah desert.

This stretch of the Colorado River is popular among whitewater rafters and kayakers like these. It is a tradition in these parts for rafters to salute passing trains with their rear ends – this group chose to refrain!

Ahead lay one of the most isolated parts of Colorado: Gore Canyon, a roadless chasm that nearly ran the railroad out of business trying to build through it. This canyon is inaccessable by any other means; only the Zephyr, a few hiking trails, and the Colorado River below allow people passage. This stretch of track was (and still is) an engineering marvel, with sheer drops, tunnels, and miles upon miles of rockfall sensors and fences. Rockslides in particular are a hazard here; in 1942, a huge steam locomotive hit a large slide while entering a tunnel here and derailed – straight into the wall of the tunnel, causing it to collapse and bury the engine until crews could dig it free. Our locomotives, however, remained firmly attached to the rails as we continued our climb through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

D&RGW steam locomotive #1800 pulls an express passenger train through Gore Canyon in the late 1940s.

From here, our train follows the Colorado River along a rail line known as the Dotsero Cutoff. This shortcut allowed more than 200 miles to be shaved off the trip from Denver to Salt Lake City by connecting the Rio Grande’s main line through the desert of eastern Utah to David Moffat’s direct, tunnel-equipped line from Denver. This combination of routes proved its worth through longevity – it still carries thousands of tons of freight and passengers through the Rockies every month. The terrain changes here, too, as the jagged peaks of the central Rockies change to the weathered reddish sandstone and limestone of eastern Colorado.

The Zephyr takes a long curve along the Colorado River.

There are few places I’ve been to so far that even come close to the natural beauty of Glenwood Canyon. This rugged chasm in the Earth was carved out of the surrounding rocks by the Colorado River over eons, leaving some of the most spectacular land forms I’ve ever encountered. Since its first run in the late 40s, the California Zephyr has been specifically timed to pass through the canyon during the day regardless of direction, always giving its passengers an eyeful of western Colorado. Our train was no exception to this rule, and as we approached the canyon’s mouth, I gave up my seat on the upper deck of the car and found myself a spot next to a window in the lower vestibule – a window that conveniently opened, allowing me to indulge my habit of sticking my head (and camera) out of moving vehicles.

The sedimentary rocks that make up Glenwood Canyon also make this route particularly susceptible to rockslides. To prevent the inevitable accidents and derailments, the railroad devised a system of rockslide fences meant to warn oncoming trains. An electric current is passed through the wires guarding the track, and when a rock slide breaks the wires, the broken circuit trips a signal warning of the danger.

Julia Thompson-Johnson and the rest of the conductors sound the ‘All Aboard!’ at the Zephyr’s stop in Glenwood Springs, a city of nearly 10,000 people nestled in the heart of the canyon.

Ahead: the strange Utah desert – and a hot surprise! To Be Continued in Part 2…

my name is Sam, Sam the Record Man

Toronto’s Yonge Street has a reputation as the city’s main drag, extending its pavement from the foot of Queens Quay on the shore of Lake Ontario to the city limits at Steeles Avenue and beyond. Lining its route are all manners of attractions for the curious, including the huge Eaton Centre (Toronto’s largest shopping mall), Dundas Square, and that most holy of Canadian shrines, the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Since 1959, the corner of Gould and Yonge Streets played host to one of the most recognizable landmarks of Toronto: two giant, gaudy, neon-filled records, ‘spinning’ in the dark. This was the flagship location for one of Canada’s largest and best-loved music stores: Sam the Record Man.

Sam the Record Man on its final night – photo courtesy JBCurio via Wikimedia

Sam’s started in 1937, in an shop in a faraway corner of Toronto. Sam Sniderman (the eponymous Record Man) and his brother Sidney started the operation as a department within their family’s radio store, but by 1959, Sam was ready to strike out on his own and moved his operation to 347 Yonge Street – next door to competitor A&A Records. As his empire grew, Sniderman opened hundreds of outlets across Ontario and the rest of Canada, eventually dethroning A&A from of its position at the top of the Canadian record biz – and eventually taking over their neighboring Yonge Street store. Boxing Day sales were legendary at Sam’s, with deep discounts on records (and later, tapes and CDs) generating queues of chilly Torontonians that stretched around the block.

However, as the recording industry became more Internet-based, Sam’s (as well as many other music retailers) saw their sales plummet. Even competitor HMV, whose huge, multinational industry reach (and conspicuously located store across the street from Sam’s at 333 Yonge) had helped edge them above Sam’s in the record business, couldn’t keep their heads above water. On 30 October 2001, Sam’s filed for bankruptcy and closed all of their wholly owned stores, leaving only the Yonge Street flagship (reopened the next year with Sniderman’s sons at the helm) and 11 locally-owned franchises open. Sam the Record Man managed to linger on until finally, on 30 June 2007, the iconic signs were switched off (though they’d be relit once for Nuit Blanche in 2008 – see above photo) and Sam’s closed its doors for good. The building that housed it was soon purchased by nearby Ryerson University to be used as a new student centre; to that end, it was reduced to a pile of rubble by the end of 2009.

The building had been hastily declared a Heritage site in an effort to preserve the iconic neon record signs (as the Ontario Heritage Act has no provisions for saving signs without their buildings), but with the demolition of the building, the fate of the records is now in serious question. Part of the deal with the city of Toronto that allowed the demolition of a listed building included a clause that says the university is obliged to take the signs, repair them and put them back on one of two sites — either the new Learning Centre or another building nearby. However, the powers-that-be at Ryerson have indicated that, due to money, they no longer intend to do this, instead opting to replace the signs with ‘digital representations’ – likely video projectors that would shine a facsimile of the sign onto the sidewalk next to Yonge Street. Not quite the same thing.

During Sam’s swan song at the beginning of 2009, I happened to find myself in Toronto, and one night, in the company of Dresden and Rustblade, we paid our respects to the Record Man. In just a few short weeks, Sam’s would be reduced to a pile of rubble, so we elected to strike while the iron was hot. Our entry point was, as things go, a pretty sketchy one, but the impending doom of this site meant the risk-to-reward ratio was unusually high. Plus, at this late hour of night, traffic on busy Yonge Street had slowed to a crawl. With lookouts posted at the ends of the the alley, Rust and I poked and prodded until, inevitably, we found our way in. We beckoned to the others, and into the now-derelict landmark we went.

Dresden surveys what remains of the first floor of Sam’s.

Preparation for demolition was well under way, the walls and floors mostly stripped to their structural foundations. Piles of salvaged pipe, conduit, and wire littered the floors, and loose boards threatened to send us flying at the first misstep. The adjoining rooms were much the same, and we had the sense that workers had been here quite recently, salvaging the last of the materials inside Sam’s that were worth keeping. The squad then whipped out our respective cameras, and the *whoosh* of traffic passing on Yonge Street was soon joined by the occasional clicking of our shutters as we photographed what remained of the first floor.

Looking towards the Yonge Street entrance, the advanced state of demolition prep is apparent.

A magic-marker mural decorates the wall of the basement. By this time, the famous signature panels upstairs that held thousands of rock star autographs had been removed.

Some of the larger store decorations, like this handmade sign, remained behind.

As we proceeded upstairs, we found that things were much the same, but the hastily deconstructed state of the upper floors gave off a strange sense of urgency. Not only had the walls been stripped of their electrical conduit and wiring, some appeared to be losing their plaster as well. The workers had been here recently, too, leaving work lights, empty wrappers, and even a few wayward hard hats and Nomex bunny suits to mark their presence. However, for the time being, we were still by ourselves, with only our own curiosity to lead us farther up the stairs.

A hole in the side of the building reveals cars passing below on Yonge Street. This hole may have been the consequence of the removal of the huge record signs which adorned the front of Sam’s.

Access to the upper floors allowed us to move between the original store on the corner and the two adjoining buildings that Sam’s took over and assimilated into itself during its existence. In the early years, Sam’s did daily battle with their archrivals A&A Records, with only Steele’s Tavern in a narrow slice of a storefront separating the two along Yonge Street. With each new acquisition, interior walls fell to their new owner, and the previously separate buildings were fused together.

The corner of Yonge and Gould in 1973 – A&A and Sam the Record Man adjoin each other at this point, but by the 1980s, all three buildings would belong to the Record Man. The second record sign would later be installed on top of Steele’s. – Photo courtesy Bob Whalen via Panoramio

This part of Sam’s was once the home of A&A. The plaster on the wall was removed haphazardly to get at the conduit and wire underneath, revealing this graffiti of sorts from bygone days.

All of a sudden, the relative silence was broken by a group of wailing sirens coming down Yonge Street. The sirens grew nearer, until they stopped just as they were about to pass by. We spent a few breathless moments paused in an upstairs corridor, waiting to see if we had been found out. After a few minutes, there was still no sound coming from downstairs, no shouts or doors slamming; it seemed the fire was somewhere else, so to speak, so we continued on. Finally, we reached the building’s final ladder, and with nowhere to go but up, the deed was done. We paused for a moment on the roof for gratuitous self-portraits, overlooking the garish lights of nearby Dundas Square.

The squad on the roof of Sam’s; this excellent view would no longer exist in roughly 3 months’ time.

After paying our respects to the soon-to-be-dust Record Man, we headed back for ground level and made good our escape. No alarms, no sirens at the end of the alley, just the four of us rejoining the foot traffic on Yonge, heading off into the night with a new story to tell.

Sam’s has been reduced to an empty lot now, and soon construction will begin on Ryerson’s new student centre – leaving only photograph and memories of those huge, spinning, neon records, twinkling away in the night. However, for the multitudes of Torontonians that grew up with Sam’s as the cool place to be, those memories will remain especially strong.

anchors aweigh!

Deep in the bowels of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, Shipkeeper Chris Friedenbach speaks tenderly of the sixty year old vessel he maintains. His voice, though barely louder than a whisper, reverberates off of the towering walls of the ship’s engine room. The cavernous space he stands in, thick with the smell of the oil covering every mechanical surface, is still much the same way as it was when the O’Brien was launched in 1943. He tells me of steam engines, specifically the immense four-story-tall example in front of him – standing at the bottom of the engine room, we can’t even see the top of the engine around all the pipes and walkways. “Everything on this ship is powered by steam, even the coffee pot,” he tells me, and indeed, the O’Brien’s original percolator has a direct line to the engine room, still caffeinating the sailors who tend to her now as it did the merchant mariners who sailed her across the Atlantic so many years before.

The O’Brien rests in her berth at San Francisco’s Pier 45. (photo via Wikimedia)

The O’Brien is a ‘Liberty ship’, a type born from a need for cheap, easy to build freighters to replace Allied losses in the U-Boat infested Atlantic during World War II. Shipyards across the country, including the Kaiser Shipyards across the bay from her current mooring spot at San Francisco’s Pier 45, cranked out these ships at phenomenal rates. On average, it took these shipyards an incredible 60 days to build a ship, from the laying of the keel to the launch – the O’Brien took only 56. Out of the 2,710 that went to sea, only two remain in seaworthy condition. The O’Brien survived the landings at Normandy, two crossings of an unforgiving Atlantic teeming with U-Boats, and sixteen months in the South Pacific. When she returned to the US at the end of World War II, she was laid up in the Suisun Bay mothball fleet, just north of San Francisco Bay.

In the late 1960s, Washington politicians floated the idea of preserving an unmodified Liberty ship as a museum and memorial to the Merchant Mariners of WWII. Rear Admiral Thomas Patterson and the newly established National Liberty Ship Memorial elected to save the O’Brien from the scrap heap as she was still in relatively good shape for an abandoned ship. Finally, on May 21, 1980, a crew led by NLSM director Capt. Edward MacMichael managed to relight the veteran ship’s immense boilers. The O’Brien, after sitting in a rusting flotilla of ships for more than 30 years, simply started up and sailed away from the Suisun Bay ghost fleet under her own power – a feat few ships of any kind have ever managed. The only other Liberty still in existence, the John W. Brown, required three years of extensive restoration in drydock before her boilers could even be lit.

‘Finished with Engine’

Shipkeeper Chris Friedenbach shows off the O’Brien’s engine room.

Back in the engine room, video monitors play a loop of footage from James Cameron’s 1997 movie Titanic. When the producers of the movie sought a life-size marine steam engine, they found the O’Brien and her triple-expansion engine a perfect fit. “People talking at a loud bar would be noisier than this engine when it’s running,” Friedenbach says. And it’s true; when the film’s sound crew edited the scene, they dubbed in their own synthetic steam engine noises because the O’Brien’s plant was not noisy enough!

The O’Brien’s steam engine is still fired up occasionally for cruises during Fleet Week and other special events. This is only a small slice of the three-story high engine that Freidenbach helps maintain.

the engine underway – video courtesy of PRThatRocks

Friedenbach hoists himself up an impossibly steep staircase, moving with practiced grace, like a dancer rehearsing a well-known routine from memory. He crouches through a half-height door and slinks down another ladder into the ship’s steering gear compartment. “Think of it as big power steering,” he says, pointing to the massive gears before him connected to the rudder. This room would have been unmanned, he explains, except in the case of a steering failure – if the ship’s wheel on the bridge stopped responding, the O’Brien could be directed from here. Later, as we head up towards topside, Friedenbach points out a room that almost certainly would have been manned in the ship’s glory days: the wireless room. Inside sits a vintage marine radio that looks straight out of a Hollywood set, covered in serious-looking gauges and a myriad of knobs and switches. Like the steam-powered coffeepot, this original piece of equipment still works (its call sign is KXCH/K6JOB if you’re a Ham and would like to chat the crew of the O’Brien up), and is used occasionally to broadcast live while the ship is underway.

Friedenbach has been tending these machines as well as the rest of the ship for the past ten years, along with the ship’s cook, known only as Vanucci. Vanucci, like Friedenbach, speaks in endearing tones about his favourite piece of kit on the ship. Vanucci’s imposing cast iron stove is, according to him, the last coal-fired marine stove in existence. “It takes three hours to turn on and heat up!” he exclaims. An average day finds him using his impressively sized range to cook up plate after plate of food for not only the crew, but for the visiting landlubbers as well.

Vanucci inspects his fire-breathing marine stove.

Thousands of visitors climb the gangway to the O’Brien every week, and Vanucci plays not only the role of cook for them, but of ambassador. His smile is as warm as the fossil burner he uses to cook his dishes, and the visitors to the ship see his hospitality right away. As I watch, a quintet of Japanese tourists walk past the galley’s window, and Vanucci beckons them to try his latest creation. Today, it’s Cuban chicken and rice, and the tourists eagerly grab a plate and dig in. The sense of history in the mess hall is not lost on the people who visit her. Vanucci tells me of a former merchant mariner who visited a few years back. “He came in to the galley and sat down,” he says, “and then he started crying. He said to me, ‘It’s just like it was 60 years ago.’ Turns out he had worked on a Liberty during the war.”

Outside, the wind coming off of San Francisco Bay nearly knocks Friedenbach down as he steps through a hatch to the main deck. They’re firing up her engines this weekend, he tells me, and next month they’re taking the ship out onto San Francisco Bay. The O’Brien’s engine is not started at the flick of a switch, and for Friedenbach, it’s going to be a full day. “It takes between 13 and 15 hours to start the engine because we have to wait for the steam to get superheated. Initially there’s a lot of condensation [to get rid of] in the pipes.” He doesn’t sound like someone who dreads a long day at the office, rather, he’s visibly excited about spending his weekend in the engine room of a 60-year-old ship. For Freidenbach, like so many of the sailors who came before him, the O’Brien is like a good friend – and as long as there’s a ship to tend, it’ll stay that way.


After a few months of ‘study’ in London, myself and a few friends decided to leave the UK behind and see what else Europe had in store. Due to time constraints, we had to keep our destination close, and we settled upon a city all of us had on our lists – the largest city in the Netherlands, Amsterdam. We booked a cheap flight out of London’s well-located City Airport, and after boarding our small plane on the tarmac with an old-school airstair, off we went on the hour-long flight to the Netherlands.

Later that night, the rain lashed the window in our hostel, smearing the lights of the city‘s Centrum district into an unrecognizable blur. Our night out had ended early, with a torrent of icy spray that intensified as the wind started to gust. So far the city had proven that, while arguably more sociable than London, it had lost none of the appalling February weather. Despite this, the four of us in the room decided to crack the window a smidge, rolled up a legally obtained joint, and ruminated on our first impressions of the city we had just met.

Amsterdam is a city built on canals, much like a drier version of Venice. The innermost and oldest of these canals, the Singel, served the city’s moat in the Middle Ages. As time went on, the city outgrew the moat, and the former siege defense began to serve a more commercial role. Over time, one canal became 11, providing the growing city with ready access to water transportation for everything from the bustling warehouses of the Dutch East India Company to the rows of picturesque houseboats that have made the city so famous. Today, the canals continue to serve not only as transport, but as an attraction in their own right, with tourists from all over the world stopping on the bridges to photograph the annoyingly photogenic waterways.

The next morning, we were nearly mowed down by three or four cyclists on our way to the hostel’s cafe for breakfast. Amsterdam has a well-earned reputation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. The bicycles are everywhere, stuffing the three-deck bike parking garage outside Centraal Station and stealthily cruising down seemingly every street and alley in the city. The Dutch have a love affair with the bicycle, even going as far as to create their very own kind: part cruiser, part commuter bike, almost always black, and with a very European philosophy of riding. You won’t find any spandex-wearing Lance Armstrong types on carbon fibre speed machines tearing up and down the bike lanes here; the Dutch are much more relaxed about their cycling. Don’t let it catch you off guard however, since most of the time the last thing you’ll hear before getting plowed into by one of these bikes is the ding of a bell, maybe a few curses from the rider as you step out into the street unaware of the approaching metal steed.

One of the things that Amsterdam is most famous for is, of course, its tolerance. The Red Light District is the place in the city where this policy is most apparent. It’s hard to hide from it here; prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and the ladies of the night are there for any interested parties to size up – at street level, through full-length windows. This is a strange part of town after dark; the towers of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city, are quite literally across a square from several ‘storefronts’ full of red-light windows.

Just down the street, the sweet smell of cannabis floats through the air from one of the city’s famous ‘coffeeshops’. Their specialty is not coffee; for a cup of joe, one would go to a café. Amsterdam has a thriving business built around pot, one that brings in nearly £2 billion a year for the merchants in the city. Technically, marijuana is still illegal in the Netherlands (mostly to comply with international treaties), but since 1976, the Dutch government has had a policy of non-prosecution on the basis that it essentially has bigger fish to fry. Amsterdam once had a big heroin problem, big enough that the government could not fight it within its means. They decided that pot wasn’t nearly as big a problem as the hordes of junkies in the Red Light District, so in looking the other way, they freed up piles of cash for fighting the epidemic of hard drugs. The results have been more than encouraging: since the policy went into effect, there are now only around 600 addicts in Amsterdam, almost all in rehab programs. Not too shabby. Now, the 360 licensed coffeeshops in the city keep locals and tourists smiling while making huge sums of money (via taxes) for the government.

A coffeeshop experience, whether one partakes or not, is one thing that is uniquely Amsterdam. There are few other cities I have been to (Denver and perhaps San Francisco) where the sweet smell of ganja is not uncommon on the street. The Dutch style of toking is to roll fat, cone-shaped spliffs, almost always with tobacco as well as weed. The procedure is simple: first, walk up to the counter. There will be a menu of sorts, but no visible product; (advertising or overtly showing that you sell weed is against the law) simply choose what kind of bud/hash/edibles/etc. you’d like and tell the man behind the counter. He will weigh it out in front of you and hand you your prize. From there, find yourself some kind of smoking apparatus. No self-respecting coffeeshop would be without at least rolling papers for its patrons, some even have fancy water pipes and vaporizers for check-out use. After you’re sorted, find a comfy spot on the couch and smoke ’em if you got ’em.

It’s always 4:20 in the coffeeshops of Amsterdam.

As you walk out the door (possibly in a bit of a haze), make sure you watch for the bikes. They’re everywhere – this is Amsterdam, after all.

epilogue: the closing of the Gary Library

Gary, Indiana is a city that is no stranger to loss. Its once thriving steel industry now stands as only a shadow of its former self, and with its decline came a still-rising tide of blight. The city’s once glittering Broadway is now lined with boarded up storefronts and crumbling buildings. Now, as Gary struggles to reinvent itself, it faces yet another painful loss: its central library.

The library’s fate is not a new idea to the nearly 80,000 people who still call Gary home. Last March, the Gary Public Library’s Board of Trustees voted 4-3 to shutter the 48-year-old main library on 5th Avenue as well as its Tolleston branch location. Board president Tony Walker told the Chicago Sun-Times that the closing was necessary to prevent the city’s remaining four branch libraries from suffering the same fate. The idea was that the board could only stop the library’s budget bleeding by cutting off the head.

A patron takes a look at the Gary Library’s collection of video media on its last day of operation.

Gary’s city coffers, like most metropolitan areas, are filled every year by a number of revenue streams including things like fees for parking permits, fines for petty offenses, and sales taxes. However, these only provide fractions compared to the biggest single source of municipal revenue: property taxes. In 2009, Indiana voters passed an amendment to their state’s constitution capping property tax rates at 1/2/3 percent (residential, commercial, and industrial rates respectively) of assessed value. While this amendment fixed taxes at a predictable rate for citizens and business owners, for Gary’s checkbook, it was a big problem for one simple reason: abandoned buildings (of which there is no shortage in Gary) do not pay a cent of property tax. All it takes is a short walk from the South Shore line train station towards Gary’s downtown to see the stunning level of urban decay afflicting Gary; some buildings look like they would blend in better in Sarajevo circa 1992, burned out and full of holes. The city’s post office, train station, main hotel, and historic Methodist church all lie abandoned and disused and in real estate limbo; too expensive to either demolish and rebuild or renovate and reuse.

Gary’s City Methodist Church has been abandoned since the early 1980s. Plans for redevelopment have been made and shelved time and again, but the church stubbornly remains standing, even after being set partially ablaze in the Great Gary Arson of 1997.

While nearby cities like Hammond and South Bend have made do with the tax cap, they also have the advantage of far lower vacancy rates than Gary – and by the same token, more taxpaying property owners. Without the ability to independently raise tax rates to make the difference in funding up, Gary’s civic leaders applied every year, starting in 2009, for a special exemption to the cap amendment in order to keep the city’s basic services – fire and police departments, streetlights and the like – away from the axe. Further exemptions were given in 2010 and 2011, allowing the city to charge up to an additional 0.68 of a percent on businesses and industrial properties including the still impressive US Steel mill at the edge of Lake Michigan.

However, when the state’s Distressed Unit Appeals Board (DUAB) granted its final yearlong exemption last April, it did so with the express condition that this was the last time – next year, Gary would have to make do with the standard 1/2/3 percent tax rates for the state, come hell or high water. For Gary, this meant that keeping the streets lit and police and fire departments intact would mean looking at other places for cuts. And with projected revenues now falling even further away from forecasts, the option of closing the main library became truly viable, a means by which the city could try to stem the tide of the recession.

Fast forward now to the last week of 2011, and that reality is all too certain. Signs proclaiming this, December 30, to be the final day of the Gary Library are posted all over the entrances to the building as I walk in. The librarians behind the desk go about their work as if it were any normal day, but have a sort of forlornness and resignation in their movements. One of them comes out from a room filled with towers of books waiting to be sorted, and takes me upstairs, keys clanking through the deserted hallway, to the pride of the Gary Public Library: the Indiana Room.

This upstairs sanctuary is home to a unique repository of materials, some dating back past the founding of Gary to the genesis of Indiana itself. The smell up here is different than the rest of the library; mustier and palpably old, the scent of aging, hand-bound books and antique parchment maps. Obscure titles like: “The Life of Elbert H. Gary – The Story of Steel” and “Lake and Calumet Region of Indiana – Historical 1917-1918” share shelf space with old blueprints, phone books and church directories.

Up here, Rufus Purnell spends a little time with the archives before the library closes down. Purnell grew up in Gary, and this library, which has been open almost as long as Purnell has been alive, was a fixture in his youth as well as his adult life. “They even asked me to join the board (of trustees) three times!” he exclaims. His enthusiasm for Gary’s library is apparent, but also in turn his sadness at its closing.

“I’m just afraid that someday, libraries…they’re going to be a thing of the past. You’ll have to be a rich city to have a library,” he tells me, looking out over the reading room speckled with patrons. “We are a community,” he says, “and we really need a library. Everybody don’t [sic] have internet, and sometimes people just need a place to go.”

Purnell then takes another look at a shelf, examining it for a moment before finding something that catches his eye. “Well, hell, it’s even the right year!” he exclaims, taking a weathered high school yearbook off the shelf. The year on the cover is 1971, and Purnell flips the pages until, sure enough, he finds a sharp-looking, afro-sporting photo of himself in his younger years. He chuckles and tells me that thankfully, these archives will be saved – for better or worse.

Rufus Purnell looks through the Indiana Room’s collection of high school yearbooks. His photo appears in the book in the foreground, on the top row of the left page, near the fold.

Downstairs, librarian Charles Matthews flips a book open, hunts around for a bar code, and scans it back into the library’s system with a *beep* from his computer. Matthews grew up not far from here, in Merrillville, and was a library patron from early on. “Oh yeah, I remember when they first got VHS tapes back in the day!” he tells me excitedly.

Williams has been a librarian here for three years now, but tomorrow he might not have his job anymore. Though the library’s management is doing what it can to preserve the jobs at the Central branch by moving them elsewhere, he tells me that there’s still a lot of uncertainty over whether or not the inevitable layoffs will claim his job. That’s not all the uncertainty in the air, either, as neither Williams nor the other librarians yet know the plan for what will be done with all the library’s books come tomorrow. Though the Indiana Room’s priceless collection is certain to be saved, the rest of the library’s sizeable media collection will have to be moved and stored somewhere or sold off if ‘disposal’ is to be avoided. Williams’ best guess is that they’ll be stored at the other branch libraries in Gary’s system, but he concedes that he knows of no timetable for when this move could happen.

He looks out over the reading room again, flips open another book, and tells me: “I hate to see it happen like this…I’d love to see it reopen as an even better library.”

Charles Matthews checks a book into the Gary Public Library’s system on the last day of the Central branch’s operation.

The Central branch’s reading room begins to empty out as the end of the last day approaches.

The sun starts to stretch through the big plate glass windows in the reading room, heralding the final stretch in the Central Library’s last day. Soon, the real task begins: clearing the building in order to manifest the Board of Trustees’ final vision for the Central Library, a rebirth as the South Shore Museum & Cultural Center. This proposal would see the building undergo a $2 million conversion into a museum that would house exhibits on the history of the city, a computer lab, and a state-of-the-art theater. The building’s redesign would be done locally, by a branch of the architectural firm of Forms + Funktion. The idea is that the cultural center will preserve the history of the city – including things like the Indiana Room – but will cost less to operate than the library, thus leading to long-term cost savings.

However, many Gary residents question the logic behind spending such a multi-million dollar amount on a renovation when even the consultants hired by the Board agree that the building is structurally sound and in no need of repair. Gary’s citizens aren’t being silent, either; as of this writing, petitions are circulating in Gary that not only oppose the closing of the library – some even call for the recall of the board members who voted to close the library.

Whatever happens to the Gary Central Library, one thing remains certain: the book on this fragile part of the city’s fabric is anything but closed.