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From “Save Penn Station,” which was published in Issue 31 of the New York Review of Architecture.

“Hellhole” was the word that New York governor Kathy Hochul used for the existing Pennsylvania Station complex when, in 2021, she proposed to tear down and rebuild it, thereby erasing the remnants of the original 1910 station not already replaced by the demolition in the Sixties. To call a place a hell is to slander its users as demons and sinners. Today’s Penn Station is of course no such place: it’s just a complicated patch of urbanism that has suffered from poor stewardship, from uncomprehending and condescending renovations, and from habituated and unexamined contempt. It is blamed for the visible evidence of its own neglect.

New York City loves demolishing Pennsylvania Station so much that it keeps doing it. “One entered the city like a god,” goes the famous elegy by the historian Vincent Scully, “one scuttles in now like a rat.” Presumably he meant that because the 1910 Penn Station’s colonnaded halls and vaulted rooms, with their sixty-foot monumental Corinthian design, were based vaguely on the Baths of Caracalla, you could waft through it all like one of those many irritable or implacable Roman deities—or at least like a Roman citizen spending a summer afternoon at the caldarium.

Yet the rat is the natural sigil of New York City: maritime, hungry, brave, ingenious, ambitious, unsentimental, disloyal, charismatic, sociable, adaptable, capable of violence, possessed of a nocturnal glamour and feral beauty. Compared with all that, what New Yorker would want to be a mere god of ancient Rome: languid, impulsive, callow, inhuman? God-wise, the demolition of Penn Station also echoes a Christian martyrdom story: the old Penn Station had to die so that other distinguished ancient buildings might live. The fall of the wrecking ball was our Judas kiss. Our uncritically received gospel is that the city’s instant remorse at having done such a thing catalyzed the founding of its Landmarks Preservation Commission, generally understood to be the first of its kind and an institutional template for the conservation movement in architecture and urbanism. But this is a flattering and soothing and juvenile and puritanical and gratifyingly evangelical narrative: that only through an act of successful savagery and self-sabotage could a place or a people arrive at righteous rectitude. Conversely, embedded in the regret for destroying the old Penn Station may be also a perverse thrill or transgressive pride in having actually done it, in having proved our dangerous streak and our roguish immunity to refinement. By smashing our nice things and then hating ourselves for doing so, we get to have it both ways: to identify with the barbarians as well as the Romans, with the rats as well as the gods.

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January 2023

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