Annotated by the Author: ‘New York Penn Station: Incoherent Urban Calamity’

Annotated by the Author: ‘New York Penn Station: Incoherent Urban Calamity’
Credit…Image courtesy of Henry Hsiao

Arriving today in New York’s Pennsylvania Station — as any commuter, tourist, or local may attest — is a degraded business. Previously, it was an awe-inspiring affair. Consider old Penn Station, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece of imposing grandeur and soaring arches that once straddled an entire block. A technological marvel, it welcomed weary travelers into midtown Manhattan until its merciless 1963 razing. But modern Penn Station — unlike its illustrious, state-of-the-art predecessor — is sorely unequipped to handle its 21st-century demands. In fact, a (brief) visit confirms that Penn Station 2.0 — a subterranean hellhole — lacks absolute coherence.

Henry Hsiao: My first order of business: Fashioning a compelling hook that would give readers a “personal stake” in the review. This, admittedly, was a tricky task; I spent hours brainstorming leads. My solution? Thinking about those who pass through Penn Station daily. Hence, my focus on the commuter, the tourist and the local, a trio encompassing the majority of the transportation hub’s users. Everyone can empathize with those roles — who hasn’t been a “tourist” or a “local” before?

And, besides getting my readers invested in the review, writing about Penn Station from this trio’s perspective eliminated any critical snobbery; the commuters, the tourists and the locals “attest[ed]” to the truthfulness of my statements, demonstrating my trust in and respect for them.

The other important move I made in this paragraph was juxtaposing the new Penn Station, which was built in the mid-1960s, with its older, more glorious predecessor to highlight the enormous gulf between the two: “degraded” vs. “awe-inspiring”; “sorely unequipped” vs. “state of the art”; “subterranean hellhole” vs. “technological marvel.” By providing this stark contrast, I made my point about Penn Station’s current woes more effectively.

A note: I relish description, yet occasionally overdo it. My first draft had five additional sentences on Penn Station’s history. As agonizing as it was, I decided I had enough introductory information without these details, so I cut them. Sometimes, painful sacrifices are necessary.

Notoriously difficult to navigate, Penn Station’s absurd layout only compounds its woes. Though the transit hub is purportedly composed of an upper and lower level, this — one soon discovers — is extremely misleading. In reality, the “two” levels are further divided by numerous split-levels, ramps, and stairs — all impeding efficient human flow. Consequently, Penn Station is perpetually crowded. Oh, and have I mentioned the baffling signs? “Downstairs,” I observe a man holding a map and scratching his head, clearly confused. People here look lost — because they are.

While the first paragraph was meant to hook my readers, this paragraph was meant to explain. I wanted to tell my readers what I meant when I wrote that Penn Station was an “incoherent urban calamity” by showing them the root causes of its overcrowding.

During a hasty trip to the station, I journaled and drew sketches to help me make sense of things. This method not only guaranteed me an accurate recording of my thoughts, but provided me with specific details from which I could draw when I sat down to write.

One of those details was the absurd layout. I put quotation marks around “two” and “downstairs,” in particular, to signify my impressions on the nonsensical level-blending.

Another was the anecdote of the lost man, holding a map and scratching his head. Besides being somewhat amusing, this tidbit added a human touch to the review and concisely illustrated my argument and why it was relevant — people actually were lost in Penn Station.

The scarcity of unity extends to the train concourses, which function as individual microcosms — each complete with eccentric fonts. Amtrak’s hall has high ceilings, but its waiting area is cramped as if passengers were the last priority. New Jersey Transit’s concourse, despite a garish color scheme, is the only tolerable space — in rush hour’s absence. And the Long Island Rail Road’s cross-station artery — clogged with a mishmash of stores and eateries — is suffering the architectural equivalent of a heart attack. If train services were amalgamated in old Penn Station’s fashion, this state of disarray would’ve been instantly eliminated.

Here, I continued to build on the train station’s lack of cohesion, writing about its “scarcity of unity.” This portion, I recall, was challenging because there was so much to say: Panning Penn Station was simple (and fun!), but I got carried away. The first draft of this paragraph was double the length of its final iteration. In deciding what to edit out, I remembered to hone in on the attributes that were most relevant to the commuters, locals and tourists I mentioned in the beginning. So I focused on the three concourses instead of the perplexing layout of stores. The purpose was to concentrate on the bigger picture, not the smaller features.

This paragraph contains one of my favorite lines in the review: “And the Long Island Rail Road’s cross-station artery — clogged with a mishmash of stores and eateries — is suffering the architectural equivalent of a heart attack.” Personification is an excellent tool that can animate the inanimate, and close the distance between readers and abstract ideas. I wanted to relay that Penn Station, not unlike an actual person, was suffering from a host of symptoms. So, when presenting the congested Long Island Rail Road concourse, I portrayed it as a body whose “arter[ies]” were “clogged,” thus precipitating its overload — a “heart attack.”

Penn Station’s obstructive configuration isn’t just frustrating for riders — it actually endangers their lives. Particularly disconcerting is the dearth of escape routes, which constitutes a major security hazard. Antecedent incidents underscore the perilous ramifications; a literal 2017 stampede injured 16 people. Yet Penn Station doesn’t only want to kill you — it sucks the humanity out of you. After 15 minutes wandering its dim tunnels devoid of sunlight, I felt aggravated and stressed. Now, imagine doing this daily — for years. Exasperated commuters shove each other, scrambling for the subway home. Tourists dragging luggage gape at the chaos. Locals flee. Nobody wants to be here. Somewhere above the din, mournful strains of music wail.

For the fourth paragraph, I returned to the audience’s “personal stake.” Reciting a litany of complaints wouldn’t suffice for a review; I had to convey why exactly they were relevant. Crucially, I wanted to explain that Penn Station’s arrangement wasn’t just a minor nuisance, but rather a major threat — to both the physical and mental well-being of its users. To achieve this goal, I synthesized incidents I read about through research with firsthand accounts: the stampede in 2017 that led to physical injuries, as well as the feelings of frustration and anxiety that consumed me on my own visit.

Next, I brought back our trio (commuter, tourist and local), noting precisely how each was impacted by the transit hub’s “obstructive configuration.” For the commuter, it was rush hour’s unpleasantness. For the tourist, it was sheer confusion. And for the local, it was knowing what to avoid.

To further stress their discomfort, I included sensory verbs with negative connotations: “shove,” “flee” and “wail.” Here, I also shifted gears by changing sentence rhythms, gradually making them shorter — and punchier. This syntactic fracturing was intentional: Condensing these sentences mimicked machinery — in this case, Penn Station — breaking down.

For those interested in experiencing Penn Station’s horrors firsthand, admission is free. Entrances are located on 34th Street and 7th/8th Avenues — I utilize the 7th Avenue exit. Back outside, I glance at the squeaky escalators belching masses onto the unforgiving concrete curb. They emerge — and scamper away. As Vincent Scully, the late art critic, famously noted, “One entered the city like a god … One scuttles in now like a rat.” That blustery Friday afternoon, it wasn’t too hard to see Mr. Scully’s point.

When possible, I lighten up the mood with humor. To lessen the preceding paragraph’s gloom, I chose here to compare Penn Station to a horror theme park, emphasizing its absurd qualities. And in the following sentence, I again used juxtaposition to contrast the directions for the station’s entrance with those of its exit — implying that one should leave quickly, as I did.

I wanted to leave readers with a vivid picture of Penn Station, so I packed this paragraph with sensory images: I personified the escalators’ noise with vulgar “belching” and accentuated the dehumanizing conditions by reducing the travelers to human “masses” and comparing them to “scamper[ing]” rodents.

I then expanded on this theme by tying my descriptions to a pithy quote from Vincent Scully, the esteemed architectural critic, that I once read in a New York Times article. This brief quote did a lot of important work for me in the final paragraph: (1) it brought the review full circle by harkening back to my introduction, in which I compared old Penn Station with its newer self; (2) it established credibility for my claims from a well-known critic and (3) it left readers with meaningful commentary to reflect on.