Thursday, June 12, 2008
Some Really Did Call It 'Gotham'
Just finished with Jill Jonnes' Conquering Gotham, a book about the building of the original Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. This is a book tailor-made for me: the industrial revolution, transportation (especially railroads), New York City, infrastructure; I feel as though she wrote the book with me specifically in mind.
I knew only the most basic outlines of the story: that the original (now replaced) Pennsylvania Station was a much grander structure, and that it fell to the wrecking ball about a nanosecond before the city realized its destruction was a bad idea. What I did not know was what the original station represented, nor what an undertaking its construction involved. I've come in and out of the current Penn Station at 34th and 7th Ave. a hundred times, crawling up from underground and emerging beneath Madison Square Garden and out into the heart of the city. And though I love trains nearly to the point of fetish I can see that the present Penn Station is a far cry from, say, Grand Central or the railroad terminals I've seen in Europe (though just the same it has the electricity of more than half a million daily travelers along its corridors, along with all the amenities that come with them).
Well, the original station was something to behold, a cathedral to modernity.
The station fell to the wrecking ball before my second birthday, only about 50 years after it opened, and naturally I've only seen the photos. But from those photos it is inconceivable to me that anyone should have been allowed to tear it down. Even a chimpanzee could see its pricelessness. This part of the story figures only as a coda in the book, though the nostalgia whore in me was keenly interested in this morbid aspect even before I began the book. It's one thing for a purely aesthetic structure to fall out of favor, but for a classically-designed historic and functional structure of this magnitude to reach such a state of public esteem that it accounts as a liability--in only 50 years' time!--would seem to require a mass myopia that we would surely come to regret later. We'll come back to that.
The book lays out what an astounding expenditure of effort and money was required to bring the station into existence, and what a grand vision its construction realized. At the time the Pennsylvania Railroad initiated its efforts in 1901, the only ways to reach the island of Manhattan, which was already the busiest city in the country, were via a host of ferries or over the then-new Brooklyn Bridge. There was no access from the West. Tunneling under the rivers that surround the island was thought to be flatly impossible by many experts; at the very least it was at or beyond the leading edge of our technological capability. The task would require groundbreaking engineering, and involve genuinely hazardous endeavors, much like supersonic flight or space travel in the '50s and '60s. To overcome these challenges required huge sums of money, figures which one would be forgiven for thinking beyond the reach of private enterprise. But the railroads--and the Pennsylvania particularly--were the economic goliaths of the day, representing concentrations of wealth and power never before known in America. That's a big part of the story.
The terminal building itself was so vast that hundreds of buildings covering many blocks were purchased and razed to make space, and millions of yards of earth--much of it solid rock--were blasted and excavated deep below ground level to accommodate all the trackage (all while shoring up hundreds of structures and myriad utilities around the perimeter). Methods needed to be devised, and machinery built, to dig the tunnels through material--river silt--which was not really understood by anyone. The digging crews were protected by keeping the growing tunnel pressurized against the inrush of water with compressed air, which brought its own set of problems. Cave-ins and blow-outs and collapses and the bends caused quite a number of deaths during the more than half decade the digging was actually underway. Even after the tunnels were constructed--but before trains were allowed to run in them--there were very real questions as to whether they would survive the strain of fully-loaded trains (never mind hundreds of them each day), or even the actions of the tides, which caused the tunnels to shift slightly with each ebb and flow. A catastrophic failure of a tunnel would be an unimaginable calamity.
The first half of the 20th Century saw an America whose spirit was infused with the railroad in much the same way as the automobile and airplane informed the second half of the century. This was the time when railroads were at their peak, and there's a sense that an awareness of the railroads in history was required to really grasp who we were as a nation and as a people--I don't think that's overstating things. They represented all that was modern and cosmopolitan in an American culture newly obsessed with its explosive modernity, and they played a seminal role in the industrial revolution, hauling people and raw materials throughout the vast reaches of the country. Even cars and airplanes later were only refining and improving on things which the railroad introduced. Prior to the railroad, the country was huge and inaccessible, just an idea for many people. The railroads made it tangible.
It's the easiest thing in the world for me to wander back in imagination to these days, to a time when rail travel--like ocean travel--was communal and very civilized, and where the country literally sprang up and prospered along the tracks, tracks which represented by their very appearance the romance of travel to exotic places. This is the time of telegraphic communication and, later, of radio, a time when people in remote places listened to live big-band jazz broadcast from the hotels and ballrooms of America's greatest cities, places many people will have lived their whole lives without seeing in person. And it was the railroad that could bring you there. The trains passing through the small towns originated and terminated in those places!
(I have this mental snapshot image--maybe it even comes from a long-forgotten photograph--of a farm boy watching a train passing through a small plains town on a hot summer night, the opulent interiors of the streamliner cars emitting a warm glow of light as the train steams past. Near the back of the train, a uniformed African-American porter smokes a cigarette in the open door of a service car, the whole ensemble representing an almost alien civilization for the boy, who might only have heard of the train's destination on the radio. I remember from my own youth the magnetic desire to walk along the tracks because you knew, eventually, those tracks ended up someplace wonderful.)
Jonnes describes the very wealthy and ambitious railroad executives and engineering men involved in the project, and we are treated to a bit of the rough-and-tumble of New York politics that the project had to navigate along the way. She details the whole project from many angles, engineering and design and business and politics and social. And we learn exactly how the station came to fall into disrepair and, eventually, to meet its final demise. This last, poignant part is saved for the coda; 200 pages for a 10 year period, and the next fifty years in the final few pages. It seems that Henry Ford was to blame. He and the airplane. When the next vision of the future was waved before our eyes, we quickly poured vast sums of post-war money into interstate highways and airports, thus giving a heavily subsidized alternative to the railroad for both passenger and freight travel. It made for an environment where the usubsidized railroads (who would think to give money to these giants?) could not compete. The nation's exploding growth and prosperity occurred as if running away from the railroads that started it all. And as quickly as that these once-invincible companies were on the ropes; by the mid-50s the PRR was in dire need of the cash which the airspace above their very vertical New York terminal could command. And there's the recipe for The Bad Decision; ergo, the new Penn Station with a sports arena perched atop.
We now take the great triumph of sub-aqueous tunnels for granted, but Jonnes' book reacquaints us with the scope of the accomplishment that culminated in the original Pennsylvania Station. There has been an ongoing discussion for more than a decade now about some kind of restoration of a grander rail concourse in the space adjacent to Penn Station--space now occupied by a huge post office--but the discussions have come to naught thus far. Maybe it's just as well. Part of the wonder of the story--and the tragedy of its end--is that the project would simply be too costly to replicate today.
And the photos are all we have left.