During an as-yet unpublished part of my interview with Jay Walder, the MTA CEO and Chairman spoke of the progress the authority has made since the early 1980s. When Walder started at the MTA in 1983, track fires and power outages plagued the system, and the mean distance between subway car failures was a meager 7000 miles. Today, after three decades of investment and new rolling stock purchases, Transit’s fleet averages 150,000 miles between failures. No one should miss that era.
Yet, 1970s nostalgia is alive and well in New York City. Urban dwellers who either moved here too late or were born to late experience all that the city had to offer during its darkest days have a tendency to glamorize them. People yearn for the “art” of graffiti-covered subway cars. They bemoan the state of tourist-filled Times Square and harken back to an era of prostitution and peep shows. Alphabet City? Fuhgeddaboudit. They cleaned that former haven for drug users and dealers decades ago.
The latest in 1970s nostalgia comes from Tom Scocca and Choire Sicha. Last week, they penned an ode to Penn Station for The Times. Now, this isn’t about the McKim, Mead and White Penn Station that was unceremoniously destroyed in the 1960s. Rather, they’re talking about the rat maze of tunnels shoved underneath Madison Square Garden that does disservice to the idea that a train station should be a Great Public Work.
The lamentations over the death of Penn Station began, they say, “before the bulldozers,” but we should celebrate the current version of Penn Station for what it represents and offers. The pair, one of whom at least one is not from New York, offer up a paean to an era when New York was “gritty.” It’s a comparison that plagues baseball players of a certain quality as much as it is one that falls upon New York City as its nadir. They write:
What has been forgotten in this hysterical nostalgia is that our current Penn Station is also a miracle: pitiless and comically jury-rigged, sure, but miraculous. Three railroads and two subway lines deliver more than half a million people each day directly to almost anywhere except Grand Central. It is one of the great achievements of New York…
Because everyone agrees that Penn Station is a failure, nobody has ever tried to make it anything other than baffling to the outsider. That’s the famous welcoming spirit of New York! The Long Island Rail Road has no interest in telling anyone how to get to New Jersey Transit, and vice versa. No one is in charge of knitting it all together, or no one bothers to. It’s bad bureaucracy and bad faith, not bad design — though at least our bureaucracies reflect our metro-area standoffishness…
This is a diorama of our recent history. People love to say they miss the ragged, gritty, vivid aura of New York in the ’70s. Yet it still lives! Down in the corridors of Penn Station, you can appreciate how much effort it takes to hold off entropy. Think of it as a ’70s theme park, but without gangs or muggers or hookers roaming around … very frequently. It is the careful chaos of this commuting ballet and the marvelous cultural freeze-frame of our city that the worshipful cult of the Old Penn Station want to destroy.
There is nothing in Penn Station to suggest bad faith and bad bureaucracy have anything to do with the conditions, and there is everything — from poor signage, to complicated and convoluted staircases and exits — to suggest bad design. Simply put, Penn Station is indicative of a design from a time when the city didn’t care about public transit, and it shows. It isn’t a structure that deserves glorifying.
At the other end of the spectrum is a column on the Gimbels Passageway from Steve Cuozzo of The Post. The Passageway, once a clear sign of the dangers of the subway system, made headlines earlier this year when Vornado announced plans to reopen it as part of its Penn Plaza development plan, and Cuozzo reflects back on the dangers that lurked in this passageway for many decades before it was shuttered. He writes:
To revisit the long-closed Gimbels Corridor is to relive New York’s past-tense future. In the early 1970s, conditions in the pedestrian tunnel presaged the bleeding city of the 1980s and early ’90s. Filthy, fetid and unpoliced, it entertained rampant lawlessness, squalor and decay years before they fully possessed the streets…
Prior to a recent “tour,” I hadn’t set foot in it since 1974 or ’75. Back then, the interminable, 800-foot stroll, as long as four city blocks, was too much even for my youthful spirit of adventure. Street weirdos and sex hawkers on Eighth Avenue were amusing; knife-wielding hustlers, legless beggars and the howling insane in a dimly lit corridor a mere nine feet wide for much of its length were not. The mad harmonica player who stalked me end to end was the last straw.
Once you were inside, there was no way out except to reach the other end. In the midst of teeming Midtown, bare-bulb fixtures like those in mines marked a path through a Calcutta-like sprawl of diseased, predatory humanity. The corridor seemed to exist beyond the reach of any authority. Vornado says it’s owned by the MTA. The MTA says it’s owned by Amtrak, which told me it thinks it owns a portion of it. Who was in charge 35 years ago is an even deeper mystery.
While Cuozzo’s story may verge on the hyperbolic, he point remains the same. “Those,” he says, “who romanticize our dark age need a tour, too.” We don’t want our transit system to slip back into a state of disrepair, and we don’t want to view the 1970s disregard for investment as anything but a bad stretch of years in the city’s otherwise illustrious transit history. The Gimbels Passageway and Penn Station, with its Moynihan-filled future, is but a metaphor for a route we should avoid.