Walking New York City: Penn Station

January 15, 2012

It must be said: Penn Station in New York City (between 7th and 8th Avenues, 31st and 33rd Streets, not far from Macys on 34th Street) is truly one of the least pleasant, most confusing, claustrophobic, crowded and unhappy major transport terminals I have experienced.  Low ceilings, circuitous routes, little seating, difficult access to railway tracks (don’t you love the New Jersey transit track ‘lottery’ when every stands around in crushed impatience waiting for a track to be called and then all rushes the small two-metre door at the same time), oh yes, Penn Station has it all.  It is also the busiest in New York, and is the main terminal for New Jersey Transit trains, the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak (the busiest Amtrak station in the USA, double the 2nd busiest – Union Station in Washington DC) – as well as being served by the subway lines: 1, 2, 3, A, C and E, and only one block away (6th Avenue and 34th Street) from the Path train and the N, Q, R, W, B, D, F & M subway lines.  The streets surrounding Penn Station are some of the very busiest in New York City, the taxi pick up area is a mess.  Not a happy place.

Here’s a slide show of the current station.  What a shame, as it was not always this way:  When the original Penn Station was completed in 1910, it was grand and beautiful.

Click here for some more photos. But the redevelopment czars had their way in New York in the 1960s, commencing its destruction in 1963.

And now, guess what?  They are talking about re-making it grand again – again only fifty years since the original desecration.  It is to be re-built across the street in the James Farley Post Office (post code 10001 – now, that’s a cool number, that’s the postcode we had when we lived on West 27th Street, just four blocks away). There is a great New Yorker cover from 19 September 2011 which features this post office:

Check out photos of this post office here.  I used this post office many times and assure you – it looks just like this!  Here are some photos I took:

The new station is to be called Moynihan Station, named after the late Senator from New York (who served 24 years).  Not a moment too soon, but don’t hold your breath waiting: in my two months in New York in late 2011 I read The New York Times every day and saw not one mention of the new Penn Station.

Walking and seeing the city, part 2: crime in New York City

January 15, 2012

In my two months in New York City last year, with up to two hundred hours spent walking the streets, approximately 250 subway rides and visits to every borough of the City, I am pleased to say that I did not see one crime committed, nor the evidence of any crimes.  I was never threatened, or felt threatened and of the many thousands of local residents and visitors, I found an astonishing lack of concern for safety.  I walked in Central Park more than twenty times, about half of them very early in the morning.  I saw many single women on their own, older people, young kids walking to school and the great range of people.  In other words, people in New York City are not scared.

It was not always thus.  I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the post-war years; the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were not kind to the City of New York.  In fact, according to crime statistics, the crime rates of New York steadily rose and only started to drop in 1990.  Yes, this also happened around the United States, but they dropped even faster in New York City.  Here are some useful links:

– A 2004 paper entitled “The Remarkable Drop in Crime in New York City”

– The Wikipedia entry on crime in New York City

– Heather McDonald’s City Journal article on New York police

– And especially, the October 2011 book The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control  by University of California criminologist Franklin E. Zimring , which has been extensively discussed in the media – see the New York Times and KQED.

Zimring particularly identifies the role of policing.  Check out the Oxford University Press links to a number of supporting tables.  And here’s a simple set of tables: New York Police Department borough by borough law enforcement staffing from 1990 to 2009 – a full twenty year period.  What we find here is that police numbers have risen from 25,839 in 1990 to 35,628 in 2009, an increase of almost 38 percent – paralleling the drop in crime.  Zimring examines all sorts of factors, including use of illegal drugs (not down by much, but drug-related violent crime sure is), the number of people in jail: again, New York has released far more people than most other places in the United States – meaning that the objective of putting problem people in jail as a way to reduce crime simply is not the answer.  What appears to be the answer is the sort of intensive policing of identified crime “hot” spots, and the result appears to be that when a “crime is prevented on 125th Street, it does NOT go to 140th Street”, according to Zimring.

And that’s one thing I observed in New York this (northern) autumn: large numbers of police.  Sure, we were there for the tenth anniversary of September 11th, and for a UN General Assembly vote on Palestine, but the numbers are substantial, visible and impressive.  It’s interesting that more jurisdictions, including here in Australia, are not following the New York methodology more closely.

Walking and seeing the city, part 1: Broadway

December 18, 2011

With this post I start a new category entitled “walking and seeing the city”.  It is based on a course I took in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of City and Regional Planning, taught by Professor Allan Jacobs – and subsequently turned into a book by him, entitled Looking at Cities.  Each week in that course (on a Friday afternoon), we would spend about six hours walking new neighbourhoods of San Francisco, analysing them as we walked (amazing – I don’t remember it ever raining on us!).   I dedicate this section of my blog to Professor Allan Jacobs, whose influence has lasted much longer than he knows.

Here is my current vote for the most interesting “long” street in New York City:  Broadway.  Broadway certainly deserves a number of books about it (think of course of theatre, Times Square, etc), but here I am talking about the street itself, which starts in lower Manhattan.

I lived in Manhattan for the months of September and October 2011 and during that time I estimate that I spent at least 150 hours walking the streets of New York City.  It was mostly Manhattan, although I did spend some time in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope in Brooklyn.  I calculate that I examined every neighbourhood in Manhattan south of about 96th Street (east and west).  Because I lived on the west side, I did not do enough of the East Village, Lower East Side and Upper East Side, but I did visit.

Every weekday morning I dropped my daughter to her school in the Upper West Side and walked back to our flat on West 27th Street from Columbus Circle at 7.40am.  And every morning I took a different route, almost always cutting back and forth and often heading north through the park to come down the east side.  So here are the streets which I went down (actually in this order as it seemed logical that way):  Twelfth Avenue, Eleventh Avenue, Tenth Avenue, Ninth Avenue, Broadway, Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, Sixth Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Third Avenue, Second Avenue, First Avenue and York Avenue/Sutton Place.

I am not the first person to spend time in New York City and walk it.  Alfred Kazin’s autobiography (1969) is entitled A Walker in the City.  Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (2007) frequently discusses his travels around the city.  Philip Lopate’s book Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan (2004) is just that: a whole book devoted to his walking the waterfronts of Manhattan, including The Battery, Battery Park City, The World Trade Center, Tribeca, Soho/Greenwich Village, Chelsea, 42nd Street to Riverside South … and on he goes (we have not even hit the East Side yet).  Lopate also edited the fabulous collection Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (  ).  In the introduction to that collection, Lopate talks of the “walking around poem” (which I had never heard of before), which “is a species of travel literature in which the writer puts himself through culture shock in his own city.”  Various peripatetic poets – including Walt Whitman – used this as a “solution to the problem of integrating the random stimuli of modern life” (p. xx).  And there is also E.B. White’s (1949) Here is New York, about his own walking the city.

And then there’s Broadway, that great street that runs all the way from The Battery downtown up through the top of Manhattan where it crosses into The Bronx, not far from Baker Field, Columbia University’s football stadium (although almost no tourist maps show Broadway above 135th Street – Columbia and City University of New York).  I cannot attest to how Broadway has fared over history, but let me describe to you the parts of Broadway which I know.  It is delightfully diverse, filled with shopping, cafes, of course, theatres and – in mid-town with street studios of major television networks (I watched ABC’s Good Morning America three times from the sidewalk at the corner of 44th Street and Broadway – just go there any weekday between 7.00am and 9.00am, a great New York tourist attraction, and it’s free.

Curiously, there is one part of Broadway which seems lagging:  just south of 42nd Street the street seems to lose all of its energy.  The street appears to narrow, the buildings get smaller, the people disappear and the shops become marginal.  It lasts that way for a few blocks and then picks up coming up to Macy’s and Herald Square (35th-34th Streets): that 34th Street shopping district (and only a block to the Empire State Building) is very dynamic.  But Broadway loses energy once again south of Herald Square until it gets close to Madison Square Park and the glorious “Flatiron Building”, which is located on a triangle block between Broadway and Fifth Avenue just south of West 23rd Street.  This building is truly one of the most fabulous which New York City has to offer.