It is the dead of the night, and the dead of the winter, when the train from Trenton, New Jersey arrives in Penn Station. What were you doing in Trenton, New Jersey, you might ask, and I might answer that in every one of this train’s ten carriages are people with their own reasons for having been where they have been today, and with their own reasons for pulling into the heart of New York at this uncivilised hour, and that it is hard to care about what is civilised, and what is not, as you climb the narrow stairwells from the platform to the station halls, and you see them, hundreds of them, a village of them, stretched out in sleep or in the longing for it, heads cushioned on balled-up coats or on plastic bags, but mostly, cushioned only by the crook of an elbow, or by the yellowed faux-marble of the ground.
They are not waiting for trains. They are not between connections, at least not in that way. They are allowed in here during these hours, on these nights, when the wind slices down the avenues and the snow, weeks old now, freezes yet again in its filthy, hunched shoulders at the edges of everything. They are almost all men. They are not old. They are big men, thick-bodied, and they lie around these corridors as though they have suddenly just dropped from their standing. There is no sense, here, of tired bodies curling up, of tired minds drifting off. Even in sleep these people look as though they have been attacked. They lie in the stairwells, in the doorways of the shuttered station shops; they lie in the tunnels that connect the central lobby to the terminals for Amtrak, for New Jersey Transit, for Long Island Rail. They lie under posters promising quiet carriages, free wifi; under boards that post morning departures to Chicago, Philadelphia, DC. It is 2 a.m., but Penn Station is as blasted through with yellow light as ever it is, its stale air humming with the low cacophony of a thousand fluorescent bulbs. The policemen walk around without any sense of urgency, talking to one another of the football game which was on every television screen tonight, the Super Bowl, in which a team in green padding beat a team in white padding, or maybe it was the other way around. The policemen would know. The policemen look to be nodding and shrugging about it still.
Penn Station was majestic once: with a waiting room built to resemble the Roman Baths of Caracalla, the Basilica of Constantine (well, aim high); with a central concourse of domed glass and steel through which sunlight streamed onto the train platforms. Columns of pink granite, arches of delicate tile, ceilings like sculpted lace, banisters of brass. It was built in 1910, and in 1963 it was demolished so that Madison Square Garden could take its place and make its owner some real money. The transportation end of things was shunted into the basement, and the giant Weinman eagles which had perched on the building’s exterior were farmed out—to a downtown courtyard, to a Pennsylvania bridge, to college gardens and military academies, to the landfill sites in New Jersey where the rest of Charles McKim’s creation ended up. Ada Louise Huxtable’s article about the City Planning Committee’s decision in The New York Times carried the headline: How to Kill a City. ‘It’s time,’ Huxtable wrote, ‘that we stopped talking about our affluent society. We are an impoverished society. It is a poor society indeed that can’t pay for these amenities; that has no money for anything except expressways to crush people out of our dull and deteriorating cities.’
You look at the current Penn Station and you cannot believe that something beautiful existed here once; that something so beautiful was destroyed to create something so ugly. But then you look at the hundreds of bodies slumped and prone on every surface, and you think, these bodies would not be lying around the floors of a Beaux-Arts masterpiece, littering the granite and the marble with their filthy sleeping bags, with their shopping carts full of tattered bin bags, with their purpled and bloated legs. These bodies do not have access to Grand Central Station at night. These bodies do not, it would seem, even have access to the Bowery Mission at night. Nobody cares about Penn Station, and what it has become, and so these bodies are permitted to fill it, for a few snatched hours between the end of one day and the beginning of another.
But I lie; there is one part of Penn Station that suggests something like care. The security shutters which close off parts of the station by night are, for some reason, exquisite; drawn high and wide across the entrances to passageways, they resemble the glinting, filigree facades of the city’s most cherished skyscrapers, seen from afar. William Van Alen could have designed these shutters in the 1920s; or maybe now, with their angled fragments, they could be part of the mischief made by Jean Nouvel. These shutters must be the consequence of someone putting their foot down, someone saying, it can’t all be grim and soulless and fluorescent in there, there has to be some glimpse of beauty, some flash of the elegance that was torn down and carted off to a city dump. And so they got these things, these jewel-like, juddering barriers behind which the policemen disappear.
‘Sir, sir, how are you, sir?’ one of the homeless men calls out, in the direction of one of the policemen, but the policeman does not look up, and in fact the homeless man does not look up either. The lightbulbs hum.