Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Fight to Fix/Save Penn Station


New Yorker - "The Fight Over Penn Station and Madison Square Garden"

"Pennsylvania Station, in west midtown, is the busiest railroad station in the Western Hemisphere. It is also a shabby, haunted labyrinth. I was there recently with Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect and city planner who has been involved for decades in efforts, most of them futile, to improve the station. We entered from Seventh Avenue, going down a narrow escalator with so little headroom that I flinched and ducked. On our left, a man was wrestling a baby carriage up a staircase, bumping step by step toward the street.

“It’s the architecture that tells you where to go in a train station,” Chakrabarti said. In Penn, the architecture generally tells you to go away. The area where we had entered resembles a dingy subterranean shopping mall, dominated by fast-food joints—Dunkin’ Donuts, Jamba Juice, Krispy Kreme. Three railroads and six busy subway lines converge in Penn Station, but from where we were it was hard to find your way to any of them. “Down here, the signage has always been a huge issue,” Chakrabarti said. His tone was equal parts earnest concern and professorial detachment; he was a professor at Columbia for seven years, worked as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s director of city planning for Manhattan, runs a global architecture studio, and lives with his family about a mile from Penn Station, through which they are often obliged to travel. Chakrabarti is fifty-six, tall, with a well-trimmed white chin-strap beard.

Farther down, toward the platforms, there were more issues: cramped passages with no signs, wires spilling from missing ceiling panels. People slept on the floor, propped against columns, surrounded by their battered possessions. It was midday, off peak, so even the New Jersey Transit concourse known as “the pit” was not especially crowded. Later, passengers would cram into the tight, airless pink-and-beige space to watch for a track assignment, which would signal a stampede for a single escalator. “I’m always worried about safety here,” Chakrabarti said. “Very low ceilings and very congested space is a very bad idea.” In 2017, a Friday-night crowd panicked by rumors of gunshots left sixteen people injured. A few weeks later, a broken sewer line poured fetid water into a busy concourse.

How did it come to this? The original Penn Station building, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece, was knocked down in the early nineteen-sixties, after its owners struck a deal with a developer. The extensive rail operations below it were left underground. “They basically built this manhole cover and sealed up the station,” Chakrabarti said. We were in a dreary waiting room near Eighth Avenue. Above, on the manhole cover, rose Madison Square Garden, a twenty-thousand-seat arena. The arena opened in 1968, along with a bland new office block known as Two Penn. During the construction, hundreds of massive support pillars were driven down through the station, clogging the walkways and platforms, turning the whole place into a basement."

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