For New Yorkers who grew up in one of the boroughs of New York City, Penn Station was the arrival point for that subway train that you would take from the Bronx or Queens or Brooklyn into Manhattan. Funny, but for us native New Yorkers, we never said we were taking the train into Manhattan, we always said we were taking the train into the city. We took the train to Penn Station for various reasons. Many of us were kids being dragged by our moms to Macy’s on 34th Street right across the street from Penn Station. For most of us, Penn Station was a spot where you could transfer to any other subway line to go uptown, downtown, crosstown, wherever you needed to go, you could do it from Penn Station. That was before New York became the tourist spot it is now. Of course, New York City has always been a destination for travelers but it was different back in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
One cannot write the history of Penn Station from a book. Although we do use them to get the historical facts right. Nonetheless, If you want to learn about the history of Penn Station you need to talk to the people who used the station every day of their lives. Those who use it to commute to work, those who transfer through it, those who eat there, work there and even sleep there. We will get to that in this article.
The Original Pennsylvania Station
The original Pennsylvania Station opened in 1910. The reason it was called Pennsylvania Station and not New York Station was because it was built for and by The Pennsylvania Railroad. Although, it was often referred to as New York’s Pennsylvania Station. The station was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad company to compete with New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The station was designed by the American architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. The firm utilized the Beaux-Arts style of architecture in many of the buildings they designed in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Beaux-Arts style mixed elements of French neoclassicism with Gothic and Renaissance traditions.(1)The Pennsylvania Railroad had to buy a great deal of land to build their station. In the process they also had to demolish hundreds of buildings. That’s the story of New York City. Buildings go up and fifty years later they come down to make way for something bigger. Sometimes it’s a skyscraper and other times its an expressway or some other type of roadway. Just ask the sons and daughters and grandchildren of the millions of families displaced in The Bronx when Robert Moses and Mayor Wagner built the Cross Bronx Expressway. The Pennsylvania Railroad brought seventy five acres of land for the construction of Penn Station. It was all brought in an area that was coined the “Tenderloin.” It was a nickname given to the area by a New York City police captain at the time because of all the bribes the police received from the so-called underground in that area of the red light district of New York City.
While the The Pennsylvania Railroad was building Penn Station they were also awarded the contract to build a glorious United States Post Office on the grounds of the station. That building would become the James A. Farley Post Office, All in all, it was a massive building project. Pennsylvania station would host twenty one railroad tracks. In between the tracks, eleven platforms were built. The same tracks and platforms are still in place at the current station.
The Pennsylvania Railroad were not just faced with the task of building a monumental train station, they also had to dig the tunnels that the trains would need to enter and exit the Island of Manhattan. This would encompass sixteen miles of underground tunnels. It was obvious that constructing tunnels across the rivers surrounding Manhattan would be a great deal cheaper than building bridges. The North River Tunnels were two tunnels built under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and the West to the Island of Manhattan. The East River Tunnels were four tunnels connecting the Island of Manhattan and it’s glorious Pennsylvania station under the East River into the borough of Queens on Long Island. Penn Station would become the ultimate railroad hub with connections that allowed trains to travel in all directions. The railroad in the first half of the 20th century was for many, the prefered method of transportation. That would all change in the second half of the century.
In the 1950’s and 60s more and more Americans began using automobiles for transportation. The airline industry also began convincing travelers to fly by air rather than train. Competition in the travel industry grew fierce. For many reasons, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided in 1962 to replace the grand Greek and Roman style building of Penn Station with a new one. Despite opposition from traditionalists, the grand columns came down and a new Penn Station was in place by 1968. Some portions, and pieces of artwork were placed in the new Penn Station as a tribute to its past.
The station was placed underground while office buildings were placed above the station. A new Madison Square Garden was also built on top of Penn Station. The sports and concert arena would become the most famous arena in the world hosting the New York Rangers and Knicks as their permanent tennents. Every musical performer’s dream of of making it big ended with the dream of performing at Madison Square Garden. If you could play there, you could play anywhere! Sorry Frank.
Penn Station: Facilities
Penn Station is currently used for travelers using the Long Island Railroad, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the New York City Subway system. Over the years, the massive crowds that flock through the gates every day have taken a toll on the aging station. It has probably the worst rest rooms in the city. As a musician who has worked in many night clubs over the years and seen some pretty horrible bathrooms, Penn Station’s bathrooms especially the one in the Long Island Railroad section by the escalator are the worst. Many scary people are seen going in and out of the rest rooms. The rest rooms in the Amtrak section of Penn Station are not much better. The best place to use the bathrooms at Penn Station would be the ones in the Pennsy Food Hall located right next to Penn Station.
Penn Station: The Homeless
There are many homeless panhandlers walking throughout the station. Many people can be found sleeping in various corners. Most native New Yorkers like myself always ignore those men and women sleeping in the station. Not because we don’t care or have no empathy, but because we know they can be dangerous. Not all of them, but I have seen some lash out violently at people. It’s not an issue reserved just for Penn Station or New York city for that matter. I have seen many homeless people sleeping in train stations from Boston to Philly and almost every other massive urban central train station. I have seen the same in many of Europe’s grand train station terminals. It’s sad and I wish we could do more to help those in need. But that’s a topic far beyond the scope of this article.
Penn Station In the 1970s
Penn Station in the 1970s was a far different place than it is in 2019. One of the main reasons behind the differences was the lack of police presence in the 1970s. The city was broke in the 70s and just did not have the funding to patrol Penn Station like they do in the present. The aftermath of 9/11 increased the police presence in Penn Station ten fold. In 2019, it’s common to observe police officers in swat gear carrying automatic weapons patrolling the station. There are several police mini stations set up through the station. There was nothing like that back in the 1970s and 80s.
The food selection for travelers has dramatically improved in Penn Station since the 1970s. The station used to be filled with pizzerias, Orange Julius , Nathans and some other various choices. In 2019, there are unlimited places to eat and drink in all sections of Penn Station. The station has the standard chains like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme and even a Shake Shack. Its has some places one may have never heard of like Prete A Manger, Jamba Juice and The Magnolia Bakery. Our favorite will always be Rose Pizza & Pasta. There is a large section of tables in the back to eat your pizza and wait for that train. Just be careful as it can get pretty sticky back there.
Penn Station Present Day Issues
The biggest issue facing Penn Station in the 2010s is overcrowding. The place is always busy seven days a week, twenty four hours a day. It’s most crowded times are weekdays in the late afternoon and evening hours as thousands and thousands of commuters wait for their trains to take them home from their work day. The rush continues into the late evening hours when the crowds from Madison Square Garden let out after a sports game or concert.
Currently, in 2019, Penn Station is once again undergoing renovation. Although, renovation may be an understatement. For the entrance alone, New York State is spending 600 Million dollars to build a new entrance way to Penn Station with direct access to the Long Island Rail Road and New York subway system.
Penn Station’s concourse that surrounds the Long Island Rail road will be widened and the ceiling raised. The widening of the concourse will force many of the above mentioned restaurants to close to allow for new space. The biggest part of the project will cost 1. 6 billion dollars spent on turning the James A. Farley Post Office into a new train station with seventeen tracks and nine platforms. The hall will be connected underground to Penn Station.(2)
For millions of people, Penn Station has become part of their lives as commuters utilizing the station every day. They have spent years waiting in frustration for delayed trains in overcrowded hallways holding a cup of coffee or folded slice of pizza staring at the train board waiting to find out which track their train will arrive on. The mad dash down the escalator will begin as soon as those LED lights list the track number on the big board. It’s a way of life and most are numb to it.
For those millions of travelers who are arriving at Penn Station for their first time in NYC, their experience will begin with first trying to find their way out. As most will step out onto the street of Manhattan for the first time onto Seventh Avenue, ther jaws will drop as the smell, the noise, the traffic, the huge video screens, the street hustlers, the people, and the tall buildings will shock their system. They will have never seen anything like it.
Welcome to Penn Station. Welcome to NY!
(1) Leland M.Roth, Mckim,Mead and White Architects. New York: Harper and Row,1983.
(2) Mcgeehan, Patrick. “Manhattan’s Farley Post Office Will Soon Be a Grand Train Hall.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 17, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/nyregion/manhattans-farley-post-office-will-soon-be-a-grand-train-hall.html.