As I mentioned in my previous post, when visiting New York, I paid a visit to Grand Central Terminal, which is seen by many as the gold standard of landmark train stations. In the past, I've more often used Penn Station, New York's other major train station. This is because most of Amtrak's trains go here, as do trains to and from New Jersey where one finds affordable hotels when visiting New York City.
Penn Station is the gold standard of bad train stations, according to its reputation at least. It was once an architectural marvel like Grand Central, but the original station was demolished and replaced by Madison Square Garden, with the platforms and concourses shoved into Madison Square Garden's basement. It's cramped, dark, labyrinthian, and woefully inadequate to handle the crowds it sees.
And yet, somehow, it managed to work. You have to respect it for that.
Recently, just like Grand Central, Penn Station has seen significant investment. Amtrak and investors took over the architecturally pleasant former post office complex across the street and gutted it and repurposed it. The result is something of a modern equivalent to Grand Central: a place where all the trains gather, and people are made to stand in awe at the Great Hall and its glass ceiling. This building, attached to Penn, has been named the Moynihan Train Hall.
Maybe it was the newness of the place, or the prevalence of extremely bright digital advertising screens, maybe it was too early in the morning and I hadn't had my coffee yet, but Moynihan felt anti-septic to me. It's not just that it doesn't have the history that Grand Central commands (I'm sure it will build that up, pronto). Rather, I got the feeling that any speck of dirt that landed in Moynihan wouldn't just be cleaned up, it would be eradicated.
Throughout this trip to America (and, just like some previous trips I've made to American cities to check out their transit systems), I've encountered a number of homeless people. Unsurprisingly, they've located at the places of last resort that will tolerate them and, in cities where transit is often taken as the last resort for public mobility, that often means you'll find the homeless there too. It's the same in Toronto. Visiting Newark's Penn Station and Grand Central, despite attempts to make the place uncomfortable to loiter in (no chairs or benches anywhere to be seen), despite admonitions on Grand Central's PA system to not sit on the stairs or the floor, I saw people sitting on the stairs and the floor. I even saw somebody sleeping on the stairs at Grand Central.
It's significant that I didn't feel unsafe during these encounters. There are security officers in plain sight in both Newark Penn and Grand Central, but the attitude appears to be, you leave the homeless alone, they'll leave you alone. It's all very calm and peaceful, if somewhat sad. I was approached by a woman at Newark Penn who asked me to buy her a soda from one of the concession stands I was buying my dinner at. I saw no reason not to. At Grand Central, a black gentleman asked me to buy him an egg sandwich. Again, why not, since I was eating too.
But at Moynihan, I was approached by someone who said in a gruff voice, "You look like an American. Could you spare me a couple of dollars to get a bagel?" When I said, "Sorry," he started into a rant about he was sorry that he ever served this goddamn country and took a bullet in the name of liberty." I caused him to stumble when I said, "Actually, I'm Canadian", and he huffed and said, "Same thing", before stomping off.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, or maybe I'm just projecting off this one incident, but Moynihan, while impressive, felt a little less welcoming. Get in and get out. Don't linger. Definitely don't sit.