I grew up in New York from age zero to six, when my family moved to Baltimore. Dad left Columbia University after the student riots [chronicle] and took a position at Johns Hopkins University. I still consider myself a New Yorker when it’s convenient to be.
Most summers, dad arranged some time at the National Archives in Paris, and we took the cheap route: train to New York, Icelandair to Luxembourg via Keflavik, and the early morning train from Luxembourg to Paris Gare Du Nord. That route usually got us into Paris at around 6am and we often found a bakery, bought bread and croissants, and hung out in Notre Dame Cathedral, which was always open. That route makes up a lot of my childhood memories (as well as a storm on the Dover to Calais boat train) I always knew on the return trip that 34th street (Penn) station in New York was the waypoint that meant “almost there” since we could usually sleep on the train down to Baltimore. I also remember the endless clinging stink of cigarette smoke, which covered everything on the trains and planes of the day. But I’ve always loved train stations; I’ve spent a lot of time in them.
The Penn Station of my memory is shabby and smells of piss and cigarette smoke. In the 60s and 70s it was a constant construction site – a flight of stairs and escalators that went a ways into the ground, to a walkway of cruddy stores and a Dunkin Donuts, to a waiting room and destination marquee that made an indescribable mechanical noise when it changed and triggered mass crowds charging for the escalators at the top of each of the track gates.
When I lived in Baltimore in the 90s, I did a lot of consulting work up in New York (SAIC, the company that runs the computers for the New York Stock Exchange was a big client of mine) and I spent a lot of mornings on the Amtrak from Baltimore, and returning, stood around (eating Dunkin’ Donuts) waiting for the train home in the evening. The only improvement I ever detected to the station was that, eventually, it no longer reeked of cigarette smoke. I did not like Penn Station and I still don’t.
I haven’t made that run since I moved to Pennsylvania. Now, if I need to go to New York, I drive to Allentown, PA (3hr) and park, then take the Bieber commuter bus in to the Port Authority building. Major construction projects at Penn Station were off my radar screen, so I was surprised the other day to see that New York has upgraded the part of the station where the Long Island Regional Railroad and PATH trains come in. It’s… Better than it was. I still don’t like it.
[nyt] declares it “Stunning” and a good step. For $1.6bn, it ought to be stunning.
Immediately after claiming that the new train hall is “Stunning”, the NYT backs up a load of disdain for Penn Station. Deserved disdain. If you don’t know: in the 1960s, the old Penn Station was torn down and Madison Square Garden, a round building, was constructed on top of it. Madison Square Garden is a 1960s monstrousity of design – vaguely resembling a giant moldy cheese – built on top of 34th St station by demolishing the original Penn Station and leaving the gates and tracks and a small waiting room. Construction projects like this are insanely expensive because, often, the new construction is accomplished while the old train station is still operating. Buildings are built on top of buildings full of people and trains, so the traffic is not interrupted.
When the original Penn Station was built, the same architects designed a post office across the street, to match. Compared to the train station, the post office was smallish:
The new train hall occupies part of the old post office building. Thanks, New York, for ruining another of your architectural masterpieces. But, the wheels of progress must turn and churn the past to dust.
The Bowery Boys podcast [bb] recently did an episode about Penn Station and the destruction of the old station, which came up on my rotation. That’s why I am remembering the smoke and crowds and traffic; it’s vivid. What I never experienced was the original Penn Station. I’m familiar with pictures of it (The Bowery Boys go into a lot of detail about what happened to the various pieces of it) but it reminded me to do some google image searches for what the various bits and pieces around there looked like.
Of course I remember Madison Square Garden, a huge ugly thing but a product of its times. You can see the door at the bottom says “Pennsylvania Station” – if you go in there, you don’t wind up in the sports arena, you wind up in the cramped waiting room/lobby of the current 34th Street Station, a special 1980s sort of hell:
That’s the Penn Station I remember.
I also have one fun memory of Madison Square Garden. One time, in October 1976, we were coming back from France and missed our train to Baltimore because there was an absolutely insane traffic jam in all the streets around The Garden. We had to get off the bus and push our way through the crowds to get to the entrance to the train station, but it took too long. I remember asking dad, “What is a Led Zeppelin?” and he said, “I have no idea.”
If you look closely at the picture of Madison Square Garden being built, you can see the covered area where they maintained an opening for troglodytes to access the train. Across the street at the right is the post office building where, now, the new train gallery is located (underneath it, I think). The Garden doesn’t look so big but that’s just a factor of scale – look at the little bitty people on the sidewalk.
All of this meandering is to say that I’ve been in some of the great train stations of the world: New York Grand Central, Paris Nord, Est, and Orsay, London Paddington, Tokyo, Budapest, Istanbul. But I’ve never been in the real Pennsylvania Station, which lives somewhere in memory like a ghost that will forever haunt New York. You can’t look at the girders of the roof of the Moynihan Train Gallery and not see deliberate nods to the old station.
The old Penn Station was clad in marble, so it quickly became dingy from smoke. The interior, dingy from smoke. The exterior, dingy. That was the excuse for spending $1.1 billion to build Madison Square Garden. You can buy a lot of cleaning for $1.1 billion, but the sad fact is that Penn Station was built at the moment of “peak train” and glamour travel switched to air just as the station became available. Instead of the upper crust traveling by train, suddenly the building dropped a notch or 5 in the class hierarchy, which meant that nobody wanted to spend money on it, and Pennsylvania Railroad didn’t have money, either.
It’s popular in some quarters to deny that the US is an empire. Yet, unmistakably, the US of the 1900s was architecturally declaring itself to be an imperial power. By the way, the architects of the building deliberately lifted visual references to the Great Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
The 60s/70s were a time of counter-culture and rebellion, but also bad taste.
Go back and look at the picture of the post office building. Do you think it was staged? I do. The people are sharp and clear, but the street has no cars. If you look carefully at the street, you can see artifacts that may be reflections off of moving cars. My theory is that the camera was locked on a tripod and loaded with slow film, and the cars deleted themselves because they didn’t register on the film. What about the pedestrians? I suspect that the photographer had a few people stand still for about 30-40 seconds while the camera’s shutter was open. I could be completely wrong; it could be an early photocomposite produced by separately exposing a negative of empty road onto a masked area at the bottom.
I know this piece is a bit meandery but that’s how the experience of my memory works, so I try to reflect that in my writing. I’m not sure if it’s a good method but it’s what I’ve got. It’s certainly not literature, but then I never said I was trying for literature.