I remember the first time I ever traveled to New York City by myself. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, and my uncle had enlisted my help to read excerpts of a book he had written at a poetry night. The stern, baritone voice that puberty had blessed me with still didn’t match my face or age so it was a bit of a novelty. I wasn’t worried about the reading; I relished the chance to do something to break up the monotony of school-homework-bed. What I did worry about was traveling so far by myself. I was a fairly nervous kid when it came to certain things and traveling was one of them. So as a solution, I took the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) from my town to the last stop, Penn Station. When I arrived I frantically searched for the family member I was supposed to meet, who was to take me the rest of the way to the poetry night.
That was my first time in Penn Station.
“Penn Station. New York City’s a******.” — Casey Neistat’s Vlog, S3 E9
Being from Long Island, 9 out of the 10 times I head towards Manhattan, it’s via the LIRR. As a result, Penn Station and I have become well acquainted as I frequent the city more and more often. At first I didn’t have any issues with it; I rode in, got off my train, and walked up and outside as fast as I could. But as time went on, and I started using the subway that runs through Penn, and staying out later, and even traveling via NJ Transit, things changed. Penn Station in my mind became a poorly laid out cluttered and cramped mess.
Things were always broken, or closed, or late; something, somehow was always getting screwed up. Staircases/escalators down to the tracks would be closed at random. Ticket machines for the LIRR and MetroCards would be broken, leaving way too few machines for way too many people. And plainly, I just don’t find it aesthetically pleasing as many other parts of Manhattan can be (he’s looking at you, Grand Central 😘). There are some parts I came to enjoy. Finishing a night with McDonald’s or a slice from Rosa’s always put a smile on my face, and when I was younger I made a game out of trying to be one of the first ones to get down to the tracks. But as I’ve gotten older, the bad definitely outweigh the good.
Luckily, the mayor’s office agrees. The renovation of Penn Station, officially known as the Empire Station Complex plan, is expected to wrap up this year. Frankly, I always suspend disbelief when it comes to construction and renovation projects; to me there’s always a big chance of the finished product not living up to expectations or the schedule getting delayed. But I have to admit the renderings look good. The new Moynihan Train Hall, the new terminals, and added tracks look amazing; gleaming white and illuminated and sleek and modern. There’s even skylights and way for actual sunlight to make it into the station.
What made me realize this plan was actually going into effect was seeing various parts of Penn cordoned off and covered in that blue construction wood. It’s inconvenient, like many things about Penn Station. I usually use the e-ticket system, so I didn’t notice the construction was part of a larger initiative until the Duane Reade got removed. Regardless, I do see glimmers of hope. They added some new ticket machines and additional signage to explain not only where things are but what changes to expect during the renovation. And the parts they have finished look amazing.
My gripes with Penn Station really expand to my gripes with the MTA; the MTA is to Penn Station what Palpatine was to the Sith. But I balance my usual complaints (Why aren’t there more frequent trains? Why are they always late? Why do they cost so damn much?) with the knowledge that the MTA likely has the hardest task in all of mass transit; serving such a large population and doing so 24/7. For them to overhaul and fix all the issues with our trains would require a massive, unfeasible suspension of service, not to mention an incredible amount of money.
What I’m getting at is that I will complain and moan about service, but overall I’m thankful that one of the things that’s getting fixed is Penn Station. It’s a massive transit hub whether we like it or not, and it can be a lot of people’s first experience with New York City. So let’s take our time, clean the place up, and show them the good side.