Penn Station



"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." - The New York Times, 1963

Nobody likes drinking in train station bars. They're the last resort of the weary traveller, the delayed, the desperate-to-be-someplace-other-than-here. Tracks in New York's Penn Station is such a place, a long, skinny bar serving oysters and Guinness to the down-at-heart and late-of-train. It's impossible to find without a local pointing the way and once you have found it you'd rather not leave - not because of the hospitality but because the alternative is navigating your way through Penn Station again.

A friend insisted we grab one last drink in Tracks before my connection to Newark Liberty International and it was the first time I'd stepped into the metropolis beneath the metropolis. It was an ugly place. I mean, really ugly. Penn Station may offer tourists relatively cheap and quick airport transfers to and from Newark but there's a reason guidebooks prefer to talk about Grand Central Terminal instead.

In the heart of Manhattan, buried deep beneath Madison Square Garden, it's a dirty, soulless bunker of corridors and panicked commuters, panicked because they haven't the first clue where the hell they are. It's a football-pitch sized version of the Industrial Zone in the Crystal Maze, but with infinitely less character and infinitely more people wondering where the exit is.

It wasn't always this way. When Pennsylvania Station opened in 1910 - above ground - it was a decadent temple of pink marble, glass ceilings and ornate sculptures. Tuscan columns extended across the frontage, behind which a shopping arcade led to the waiting room, the largest in the world and itself inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla. The scale and beauty dwarfed that of Grand Central.

And yet the City Council demolished it in 1963, deeming it an unnecessary, unsustainable relic in an age of ailing rail travel. Today nothing remains of the original Penn Station at the location except for a single staircase and two eagle ornaments. So instead of gazing up into the blue New York sky through an opulent vaulted ceiling of steel and glass, you can stand in line with three dozen pissed-off commuters in a miserable underground bunker, unable to comprehend why there are only ever two kiosks open at any time.

There was a silver lining to the destruction of the original Penn Station. So outraged were New Yorkers by the decision to raze the building that their campaigning led to the formation of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Act. It was this Act that saved Grand Central from a similar fate several years later. So while we can no longer enjoy a Roman spectacle in the heart of Manhattan and instead have to schlep down cramped passages bereft of light and soul, we should raise a glass to the legacy of Penn Station - in a railway station or wherever we happen to be.



"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
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