21.7.05

UNDOING VANDALISM. James Lileks notes that New York City has committed to rebuilding the Farley Post Office Building as a new Pennsylvania Station.
The sin of the demolition of the old Penn Station was never erased, and the wretched piss-soaked warren they put in its place was a constant reminder of the Original Sin of post-war urbanists. That unholy combo of bottom-liners and utopians took away one of the most magnificent spaces in urban American and replaced it with something that seemed lifted en masse from a claustrophobic dream. To modern eyes it makes no sense: the era where social divisions were keenly felt gave us a space so vast that all distinctions dissolved in its great stone heaven; the egalitarians, by contrast, gave us a space whose equalizing impulse was best expressed as the desire to oppress everyone’s spirit. I usually cooled my heels in the Amtrak First Class club, which was a parody of a sham of a travesty of First Class, at least in the 90s. You got a scratchy seat and a battered magazine and translucent coffee. If I didn’t have a first class ticket I went to the bar on the north side of the room, where you could smoke. It stank. Aside from rush hour, it was empty, and had a sad battered quality that made you feel like a rude sack of meat slumped over a ration of intoxicants. And I never knew which track I should take. It never seemed clear. Even though they had signs and names it always seemed as though they were leaving out some key detail. Like your destination. No, I hate Penn Station.
The tribute to the old station includes one of my favorite quotes, this from the editorial board of the New York Times.
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.
That pretty well applies to many of the other monuments of the America of that era, the America that worked, including the universities.

But enough of that. Consider Mr Lileks's tribute to train travel.
Penn Station had one thing going for it. Trains. Nothing compares to arriving by train; you’re not dropped off in a climate-controlled center on the edge of town, but dropped in the humid middle, surrounded by machinery and steam and shouts and clangs. You don’t slide up the jetway – you schlep yourself along the platform to the stairs, you jostle and maneuver and find your place in the throng; you thread through the station, head outside – and oh, my, GOD, there it is, loud and wide and high and alive, the city.
Yes, and throughout the rebuildings of the visible spaces of Penn Station, the one constant has been the trains and the tracks. Apart from the connections to a west side coach yard and a New York Central freight line to bring all Amtrak trains into Penn, the track is as The Pennsylvania Railroad conceived it in 1910.
When you leave you leave with the nudge. Planes waddle to the runway then throw themselves in the air with theatrical fury. Trains nudge you out. You’re sitting in your seat; you’re still. The strange orange subterranean light fills the car; again the shouts, the clangs, the whistles, the whirr of electric carts. The doors huff shut. Conductors walk around listening to crackly voices on the walkie-talkie. You wait. Then the nudge. The train lurches forward, the wheels clank, the rhythm begins, and you’re on your way. In a few minutes you’ll clear the tunnels and see the city from below, indifferent to your departure. Clank clank clank clank clank clank clank clank. On the plane you seem to approach New York like a nest of hornets – you’re wary, circling, then you bore in. When you leave by train you simply move along, move down, move out. Old tunnels, old concrete, rusted remains, barrels, trash, then light.
And speed.

No comments: