Editor's Note: I am currently reading the book Looking For America On The New Jersey Turnpike by Angus Kress Gillespie and Michael Aaron Rockland and am blown away at how they are able to derive so much meaning from such a mundanely inhumane institution. This morning while reading the book on the train I had an "a ha!" moment: shouldn't Penn Station get similar treatment? I then remembered that I have not the time, talent, or resources to write a similar book about America's busiest train station. I then remembered that I at least have this humble blog. I plan on making the Penn Station Project a running series. Today is the first chapter.
Penn Station might be the most unloveable place of its importance in the world, on par with Heathrow and LAX, but worse because it isn't even allowed to be its own space. It is first and foremost the basement of Madison Square Garden, an afterthought beneath The World's Greatest Arena.
It is even more unloveable for being a poor replacement for what had been one of the most impressive train stations ever constructed. The original was completed in 1910, a Beaux Arts beauty made of pink marble and meant to symbolize permanence. In perhaps the greatest crime against New York's built environment ever perpetuated, Penn Station was torn down in the mid-1960s, its marble and famed eagles dumped into a swamp in New Jersey. In less than sixty years a great monument to the ascendance of rail travel had been obliterated, a sign of its obsolescence in the age of the automobile.
The new Penn Station would be part of a multipurpose space, a concept so beloved by architects and urban planners of the day. On top would be Madison Square Garden and a tall office building, jammed beneath, like an unwanted child, would be Penn Station. Never mind that 650,000 people pass through it everyday, more than the number of passengers at all three major New York area airports combined. Before 1963 travelers to New York would emerge from the tunnel under the Hudson into a spectacular cathedral to trains, a grand place befitting a world-dominating city. Now they are disgorged into a dirty, grungy rabbit warren with claustrophobically low ceilings and foul air.
I pass through this place twice every day. I am in it so often that I my brain doesn't really register what my eyes see. I once joked that I could walk through Penn Station and pass right on by Dick Cheney administering fellatio to Satan. I know there are hundreds of thousands of fellow commuters who have the same relationship to the place that I do. I would like to slow down a bit and actually take a look around. That's what this series will be all about.