Ed Driscoll

The Train Station that Smells as Good as it Looks

In ads for Amtrak in the late 1970s, Richie Havens used to memorably warble that “There’s something about a train that’s magic.” However, it’s certainly nowhere to be found in Penn Station, as Jonah Goldberg writes:

I’m sitting in the waiting area in New York’s Penn Station right now. Penn Station is a horrible place, not least because it shares a name with one of America’s greatest public buildings, the old Pennsylvania Station, which was torn down to make room for this monstrosity. But there is one thing about the new Penn Station that is worth appreciating, if not necessarily admiring. It’s one of the few buildings in the world I know of that has a truly distinctive musk. There are worse smelling buildings, no doubt. But the enduring odor of this place has been one of the olfactory landmarks of New York since I was a kid. What does it smell like? It’s very hard to say. The accumulated stress hormones and sweat of millions of commuters is clearly the broth to this malodorous soup. But you can’t leave out the wafting ozone from the train and subway tracks or the lingering and often piquant cooking smells from the various pizza parlors and delis down here, nor the distinct acidity that decades of homeless people setting up camp here provides (particularly in the rainy season). The special fermentation that comes with vast windowless spaces, plays a part to be sure. And of course, there’s that pinch of saffron that is misdirected urine left too long in hidden corners.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post a lengthy post on Penn Station and how went from being one of the greatest train stations in America to arguably, The Worst. Certainly the worst of the biggies. As I mentioned back then, market forces and overregulation combined to seal the fate of the original Penn Station; by the early 1960s, modernism was so ubiquitous an architectural style that how its replacement would look was similarly preordained, and any hope of a replacement seems permanently held-up in the same Manhattan red tape that’s slowed the replacement for the WTC to a crawl.

The successor station’s Website promises that it will be open in 2016. We’ll see. Yale’s Vincent Scully famously described the difference between the old and current Penn Station: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” For the good of New York, it would be nice to see that debacle finally reversed.