Remembering Penn Station

David Plick — 

Penn_Station3“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

“Farewell to Penn Station,” New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963


Last week I was catching a train to visit my family in New Jersey, so where did I have to go? Penn Station, of course. It’s in midtown, situated between 7th and 8th avenue and 31st and 33rd streets. From the outside there’s really no semblance of it being a train station. It looks more like a non-descript office building with the vague markings of an arena around it. The station is underneath all of this in the basement.

Taking a train in Penn Station is a grotesque experience. I try to time it precisely so that I can immediately get on my train the second I get in there. If I have to wait in line for my ticket, I always get overcome by this empty, anxious nausea. Sometimes I have trouble breathing because of the lack of ventilation, and there’s always yelling and screaming, whether it be from homeless people, or an arguing couple. I look around just counting the seconds until I can leave.

But there are . . . amenities . . . There’s a KFC, Jamba Juice, Starbucks, Planet Smoothie, or, if you’re feeling extra chic, TGI Friday’s.

To push me deeper into my depression, I am always reminded, such as in this recent Mashable article, how stunning, how utterly magnificent, the former Penn Station was. It was in the Beaux-Arts tradition and composed of pink granite. The primary waiting area was modeled after Roman baths, and was over a block long with a glass ceiling 150 feet over your head. The concourse had an arching glass and steel greenhouse roof. It was the kind of place, as art historian Hillary said, that “made you feel important.”

Today, tourists flock to Grand Central to bask in its glory, in its history. But, it’s common knowledge that the old Penn Station was far more impressive. Yet the only people who flock to Penn Station now are angry commuters from Long Island and New Jersey, and they’re counting the seconds, like I always do, to get the hell out of there.

Let Penn Station be a lesson to Austin, Los Angeles, and all major cities. Let’s not let our homes be destroyed for immediate economic gain. Let’s demand a better future than the cookie-cutter one we’re heading towards. Let’s leave monuments that are legacies for our collective cultural heritage, that give future generations a sense of society, that they come from somewhere. Our future needs a past, so let’s demand that we have one.

Now that talks have begun for the destruction of Madison Square Garden, there is a resurgence in the conversation to bring the old Penn Station back, or at least something a lot better than the gruesome version we currently have. I, for one, will be on the picket line to bring the old Penn Station back.

By: David Plick

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