Home View from Underground The dangers of glorifying Penn Station and the 1970s

The dangers of glorifying Penn Station and the 1970s

by Benjamin Kabak

The original Penn Station as seen from the Gimbels department store. (Via the Library of Congress on flickr)

During an as-yet unpublished part of my interview with Jay Walder, the MTA CEO and Chairman spoke of the progress the authority has made since the early 1980s.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.

The remains of the Gimbels Passageway bring long-time New Yorkers back to a more dangerous era. (NY Post/Chad Rachman)

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.

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Alon Levy November 29, 2010 - 2:57 pm

There is nothing in Penn Station to suggest bad faith and bad bureaucracy have anything to do with the conditions

Nothing, except for NJ Transit’s inexplicable refusal to add staircases like the LIRR did in the 1990s. And let’s not even start on the separate concourses for the LIRR and everything else…

Marc Shepherd November 29, 2010 - 3:06 pm

The separate concourses aren’t crazy, as there are comparatively few passengers who arrive at Penn to transfer to another carrier (other than the subway). I’m not saying it is a great design (clearly it’s not), but most people are not affected by that particular liability.

JFK Airport is a good point of comparison. Before the AirTrain was built, changing planes there was insane, unless both the inbound and outbound flights were in the same terminal. But because a lot of people DO change at JFK, there were good reasons to fix that problem, and eventually they did.

I don’t recall reading where NJ Transit actually refused to add staircases. Their whole ticketing/waiting area was upgraded a few years ago, so clearly they were willing to invest in the space. Whether they invested wisely might be a whole other discussion.

Alon Levy November 29, 2010 - 3:37 pm

In the replies to the ARC comments, they said they couldn’t add staircases, without specifying a reason. The staircases are one of the reasons they think Penn’s tracks are at capacity, forcing Alt P to include a cavern. In other words, they were spending billions on not adding staircases.

Andrew D. Smith November 30, 2010 - 3:07 pm

Do people not transfer because there’s no demand to get from Jersey to Long Island or because it’s reasonably hard to do? I don’t really know the answer. I’m just wondering aloud, er, in print.

Driving from Jersey to Long Island is often terrible, and the train doesn’t get stuck in traffic. That said, it’s hard to do anything once you get to a suburban train station if you don’t have a car, so perhaps there really wouldn’t be any demand.

Eric F. November 30, 2010 - 5:34 pm

You have a hit on a key issue affecting regional commerce and growth. Travel from L.I. to NJ and beyond, by car, by truck, by rail is simply unreliable. More connections of all kinds are needed and none are planned.

Alon Levy December 1, 2010 - 1:01 am

No, there is actually some demand. If you check county-to-county work trip flows, available on both the BEA and Census Bureau’s websites, you’ll find many tens of thousands commuting just from Jersey to Brooklyn and Queens.

Adirondacker12800 December 1, 2010 - 9:34 pm

But they aren’t all commuting to suburban train stations. Nor do those statistics tell you how many of them are using the train. I used to commute from suburban Essex County to the central Bronx. Bus to Penn Station in Newark, any train except the all parlor car trains into Penn Station in NY, subway to the Bronx. It was faster than driving even back then.

John November 29, 2010 - 4:20 pm

Penn Station below ground was an afterthought when the new facility was designed. The point was to make as much money as possible from what was above ground — Madison Square Garden, 2 Penn Plaza and the associated 1 Penn Plaza where the old Greyhound bus terminal was between 33rd and 34th streets. What was put in place one level down by the Pennsylvania Railraod was only the minimum accommodations necessary and were basically borrowed from early 1960s airport terminal features (and that was just for the Eighth Avenue end where the long-distance trains were platformed — the designers gave even less of a damn about the north side of the complex, since the railroad had pretty much washed its hands of the LIRR by the mid-60s and turned it over to the State of New York).

As for nostalgia for the bad times, it’s a common occurrence among people who have the money to at least partially opt out of it, whether its living in a low-crime section of the city, having a doorman/security guard in your apartment building, or having enough cash to take taxis instead of buses or subways. Folks who never had to catch a bus at the Port Authority thought the hookers, drug dealers and peep shows gave the neighborhood ‘character’ while the art crowd that glorified the graffiti works during the 1970s or early 80s never had to run down to the platform Roosevelt Avenue and not know if they were jumping onto an E or an F train because the destination signs were all spray-painted over.

With Grand Central over on the East Side, you’d think it would be harder to see the ‘plus side’ of Penn Station today, even if you can’t remember the old building, because you’ve got a stark contrast less than a mile away between what was produced during the 1960s versus what was provided for train passengers 100 years ago. Even the art patrons of the 1970s who did little rail travel could figure that one out.

jim November 29, 2010 - 5:27 pm

I don’t think Penn Station is that bad. The “rat maze of tunnels shoved underneath Madison Square Garden” describes the lower level. All that’s needed there is to clear out some of that space and to connect the various corridors. As Alon notes, there should be a lot more vertical accesses to the platforms: staircases, escalators and ADA-compliant elevators. There needs to be wayfinding signage. A lot more information needs to be made available: which trains are leaving/arriving at which tracks when. Two televisions in the waiting room and one big departure board isn’t enough.

None of this is terribly expensive. Compared to the cost of renovating Grand Central, it’s trivial. Compared to the cost of the plans for converting the Farley building (none of which address platform access or wayfinding), it’s trivial. It’s not done, because everyone agrees that Penn Station is a failure. Fixing it is therefore not possible.

Scocca and Sicha to some extent have it right. The Seventies lives in Penn Station while everywhere else in Manhattan it’s been banished. We should ask why.

petey November 30, 2010 - 1:13 pm

apart from the music and the clubs, which were great, nyc in the 70s sucked. i speak from experience. i’d like to know the age of the people who are nostalgic for it.

Douglas John Bowen November 30, 2010 - 1:35 pm

The 70s were indeed tough for those of us holding on to belief in New York — aided only by rallying love letters such as “Annie Hall” or “New York State of Mind. ” Perhaps because of that, this observer doesn’t recall the “bleeding city of the 1980s and early ’90s.” Indeed, to one acquaintance who wrote off New York during the 1970s as “a dinosaur too stupid to know when to die,” the ’90s allowed for a prim rebuttal: T-Rex not only lives, it roars.

Even with a dysfunctional Penn Station.

Andrew D. Smith November 30, 2010 - 3:04 pm

It wasn’t only the graffiti and the hookers that made New York so vital during the 70s and 80s, it was the muggings. I can’t believe that Disney came in and deprived us all of the right to be robbed every couple of years. Sometimes, when you were really lucky, the mugger would hit you with a little club or some brass knuckles, just because he could. God those were great times.

Alon Levy December 1, 2010 - 1:08 am

Disneyfication and crime have nothing to do with each other. While Koch was starting to clean up the streets of inconvenient people, crime was still rising. It peaked in 1990, just as Dinkins took over and started implementing community policing; then it started falling.

Henry Berg December 1, 2010 - 5:43 pm

I’ve pondered quite a bit on how to improve Penn Station and haven’t come up with many answers. Judging by Suburban Station, Philadelphia hasn’t either. I think a couple things would make dramatic improvements:

* Lose the ‘main staircase’ and the Amtrak waiting areas that currently sit where the men’s and women’s waiting areas used to be. These just mimic the old station layout. That staircase doesn’t go anywhere anymore.

* Cut a big hole in the floor around the area where the staircase/waiting areas used to be. This would create a certain ‘center’ to the station that people could orient themselves to and provide a bit of a sense of airiness.

* Severely scale back retail signage. The current Penn is an assault on the senses and needs as much calming as possible.

* Pull the linoleum off the glass brick floor!! That will add some light underneath.

* From what I can tell by peering at the ceiling, it looks like the headroom downstairs is so low because they ran air conditioning ducts under the floor joists then a drop-ceiling below that. Lose these and you could probably pick up a foot and a half. I’m sure a smart HVAC person can run those ducts lengthways between the joists.

* Install elevators on all stairs or return to the arrival level/departure level traffic pattern. I’m not sure, but I think this would help with crowd control.

* And, of course, more stairs.

Bolwerk December 2, 2010 - 10:36 pm

Wider platforms and fewer tracks would be a big help. The current layout and accessibility are terrible.

Joer December 10, 2013 - 10:40 am

I realize that the last post in this article is exactly 3 years old.

what I want to know is that in the past few years, who was the one (NJ Transit side) who authorized replacement of single wide escalators to the platforms with brand new single wide escalators when there is clearly plenty of room for double wide escalators?

The width of the old stairways are identical to all platforms, yet some escalators can fit two people across but others only fit a single person, which only helps clog things up.

The decision maker is probably someone who gets paid a lot, with a fat pension and perks and has never set foot in Penn Station.


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