Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Tale Of Two Commuting Hubs

Have you commuted out of the two Manhattan rail hubs? Grand Central Terminal is at 42nd and Park Avenue, and it lives up to its "grand" name. It is the crown jewel of the New York Metropolitan area's commuting infrastructure. In stark contrast, Penn Station stands at 33rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. To put it bluntly, Penn Station is an ugly rat hole. When you can honestly say that the Port Authority Bus Terminal is a commuting cathedral compared to Penn, you are really making a statement.

A very brief history: Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station were once owned by competing train companies. When the golden age of rail travel ended, the companies fell on hard financial times and both stations were neglected. Penn Station was decrepit by the time the decision was made to condemn it.

In 1964, Penn Station was demolished after the air rights to the space were sold. A new Madison Square Garden was to be built in its place. Penn Station was reduced to an underground maze devoid of charm.

Grand Central was next.

Somewhere between the demolition of Penn Station and the decision to deconstruct Grand Central, New York City realized what a terrible mistake they made in tearing down the original Penn Station. The "restoration movement" emerged, under the considerable influence and gravitas of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

In response to a plan to tear down Grand Central, Mrs. Onassis made the following inspiring statement.

"Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.*"   (I should footnote this, but it's a blog. I don't need to. Don't tell my 11th Grade English teacher.)

Penn Station, 1910. Beautiful.
After much legal and financial wrangling, a lot of money was raised, and Grand Central Terminal got a $200 million face lift.

Having restored Grand Central to its original splendor, and leaving Penn Station in its forgettable "hole-in-the-ground" state, New York City succeeded in creating diametrically opposed rail hub commuter experiences.

If you've not been through these hubs, you may be wondering what the key differences are. I could talk forever about this topic, but I'll be brief and share the most salient differences I've noted.

Grand Central has constellations of stars on the ceiling, and they light up. Some say the constellation is backward, others say it's part of the design, and provide a "perspective from the heavens." Due to my lack of astronomy education, I just look up and think it's pretty nice.

Penn Station also has ceiling patterns, but they're stains from leaks in the MSG ice.

Grand Central has the Apple Store, The Art of Shaving, and Banana Republic.

Penn Station has K-Mart. Can't even get Wal-Mart or Target.

Grand Central has Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, Zabar's, Ceriello's Fine Foods, and The Oyster Bar.

Penn Station has Rose's Pizza, Auntie Anne's Pretzels, fast food joints, and several shops selling hot pretzels, bags of nuts, and overly salted scorched popcorn. For gourmet palates, Penn also has Au Bon Pain selling sandwiches with expiration dates at least several weeks in the past. Yum.

Grand Central has the "northwest passage," which gets you to Park and Madison Avenue above 45th Street without stepping outside.

Penn Station lets you exit at 8th Avenue, where the doorways all smell like urine, or 7th Avenue, crowded and cramped with newspaper hawkers. But hey, at least you're near, um, well not much. Unless you like shopping at Macy's. Personally, I loathe department stores.

Grand Central has a majestic clock in the center of the Grand Concourse.

Penn Station has a digital clock above the departure board. In fairness, Penn's digital clock is occasionally accurate.

Grand Central has two beautiful staircases, on either side of the Grand Concourse.

Penn Station has a grimy staircase on 7th Avenue. The steps tilt downward, which helps to maximize tripping and falling.

A large arena
Madison Square Garden sits atop the Long Island Rail Road. The Knicks and the Rangers play there, which means that on game nights, the rat hole is filled with drunken fans in team jerseys. Well, not Knick fans. They don't show up anymore.

Grand Central is lucky enough to not have the Knicks playing in an arena nearby.

Ticket windows
Grand Central has a ticket window manned by disinterested workers.

Penn Station has a ticket window manned by disinterested workers.

Whoops, my mistake. Forgot I was pointing out differences.

The Long Island Rail Road will add a termination point at Grand Central in 2019. Let's put a date on the calendar to meet for a drink. I know a place to get oysters.

Happy and safe commuting, and may you encounter uncommon sense.
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