Category Archives: Travel

The Subway Challenge

Like other great ideas, this one was borne out of a hangover, exhaustion, and the excitement surrounding the opening of New York City’s newest subway stations.

My brother, my college buddies Dan and Deaux, Deaux’s cousin Ian, and I spent the first evening of 2017 hopping on and off the Q Train to explore the three new Second Avenue Subway stations. Lined with different art installations, each station merited a stop.

At one point, as the five of us waited for the train to leave the 96th Street Station, our conversation led to the creation of the Subway Challenge.

Most people interested in a subway challenge these days just rely on it on a daily basis. Or if they are looking to get in the record books, they attempt to ride the entire system in one go.

Our’s is a more leisurely, neighborhood-y idea. Live in the city long enough and you will end up on every subway line at one point or another. But most of us get off the train long before it reaches the end of the line. And for every terminal like Coney Island that draws massive crowds, there is a 207th Street. For every World Trade Center, there is New Lots Avenue.

With this in mind, we decided that once a month, we would tackle a subway line. Meeting for a drink at the beginning of the line, stopping for food somewhere on the way, and getting a closing round at a bar near the last stop.

One Sunday a month, Dan, Deaux, Ian, myself (my brother lives in Vermont) and sometimes a special guest ride the rails. This will be the place for the stories from that ride.

The Power of Unfinished History

Bannerman’s Castle as it looks today. Via Artificial Owl

We’ve already written about the underwhelming first, and every other impression Penn Station makes upon your arrival – be it on the train, subway or from street level. It makes Soviet architecture look lively and warm. Even during its most packed and maddening rush hour moments, Grand Central Terminal maintains a grandeur that excuses the hustle and bustle of the suburban commuters and bewildered tourists.

The only justification that excuses the madhouse that Penn Station can be is the promise of the beautiful scenery flying by your window no matter your destination – north along the Hudson, New England-bound as you hug the Atlantic or south as the train runs through the Chesapeake region. A word to the wise, the absolute worst time to find yourself in Penn Station is Friday during afternoon rush hour. Not only are tens of thousands of commuters making their way home, a fair amount of them already tipsy, but you’ve got a litany of sold-out Amtrak trains loaded with families on vacation, tourists exploring the US by rail and long-distance commuters trying to get home. It’s a combustible cocktail of exhaustion, anxiety and weariness that can test the nerves of the most hardy traveler.

But even the worst Penn Station experiences can be wiped from the memory quickly. Last Friday, just minutes after departing Penn Station for Vermont, as the train rumbled over the Harlem River into the Bronx, the stressful wait at Penn Station had begun to slip away. As the train made it way up the Hudson with the sun settling gracefully over the Catskills, giving the river a golden hue, the hullabalo that is Penn Station disapeared from my thoughts.

That’s the great thing about the ride between New York City and Albany, no matter the weather or the time of the day, the river and it’s surrounding environs are a cathartic bubble if you’re lucky enough to catch a window seat and find yourself in the right state of mind. At night, the lights of the bridges and the small hamlets on the western banks periodically illuminate the river. In the rain, the raindrops, at the right angle look like skips of rocks bouncing over the water and on partly cloudy days filled with a bright sun, it’s easy to understand why a school of art was named after  the body of water.

For me, the best moment comes about an hour out of New York City. For the entirety of the ride, the Hudson River is dotted with speed boats and kayakers, lighthouses and puttering tugboats hauling barges to the port. While these are picturesque, nothing comes close to the the abandoned structure near Fishkill, that is a few hundred yards from land. It looks like it could be the mansion in Jane Eyre – after the fire.

Having ridden this route consistently since 2003, this relic of another century has always left me wondering – who lived there? What was it like to call that building home in a time when the natural beauty of the lower Hudson Valley must have been less hemmed in and towns and cities along the rivers banks were the exception, instead of the norm? What was it like living there through the coldest of winters where people could cross the river simply by walking on the ice? How stunningly jaw-dropping was it to stand on those grounds in the middle of the most perfect summer nights as the constellations were plastered on the sky as if they were nightlights on a ceiling?

For years, my lack of knowledge allowed my imagination to wander about the Victorian and Gilded era opulence that the mansion once could have been and the stories of the scions and their brood who called the place home. And to the eventual destruction of the place – was it overnight? Did it creep upon the estate as the last of the family line aged and was unable to maintain the building financially, physically or both? What type of Franzenian (yea, I turned his name into a verb) family drama ensued that sealed the fate of this once imposing structure? Could it be restored? Would it make any sense to do that? What would it be like to live in the restored grandeur of a 19th Century mansion in the middle of the Hudson?

One of the castle’s exterior walls – Via HudsonValleyRuins.org

Knowledge may be power, but when it comes to confirming the perceptions you’ve honed for years with little basis besides your imagination and fictional narratives imbued in your psyche from years of English class assigned novels, knowledge can be the ultimate downer. During my last trip to Penn Station on Amtrak, I finally decided to Wikipedia the building that had long enchanted me.

Located on Pollepel Island, the structure is Bannerman’s Castle. Built by Francis Bannerman in the early 20th Century, it was intended for his military surplus business. Bannerman needed a place to store his more than 30 million surplus munitions cartridges because his storeroom on Broadway was, naturally, not the best place for these items. However, when he died in 1918, construction stopped. And that began the downward slide that has left the structure in the dilapidated state it’s in today. A portion of the building was destroyed from an explosion involving 200 tons of shells and powder a few years later. The structure was all but abanoned after the ferry serving the island sank in the 1950s. Just a few weeks before man landed on the moon in 1969, a fire destroyed much of the building. The final ignominy for this imposing castle came just a few years ago when a sizable portion of the structure’s front and east walls collapsed.

Like the Titanic, crumbling away as it suffers at the hands of time and nature, Bannerman’s Castle, standing in the middle of the Hudson, is probably not long for this world. In a decade or two or maybe three, this once glorious, unfinished structure will be no more. Who knows how many riders, from the glory years of passenger rail zipping across the Empire State on the New York Central, to the bleak days of the downtrodden Penn Central or today’s travelers on Amtrak and Metro North let their minds wander as this structure, intended to house military curio and relics, caught their eye? Structures like Bannerman’s Castle may remain unfinished in reality, but their unfinished nature gives our imagination the opportunity to right the wrongs unleashed by the unforgiving hands of time and nature.

Looking Backwards to See Penn Station’s Future

The magnificent original Penn Station - Via Wikipedia

There is something magical about the approach to New York on a Penn Station-bound train. Arriving from points North, the train rumbles under the George Washington Bridge before racing alongside the Hudson River and the West Side Highway’s traffic. Trains from points South pull out of Newark and within moments are flying through the Meadowlands with Midtown’s skyline glistening in the distance. Both of those entrances pale in comparison to the beauty of the Hell’s Gate approach. Rising over the confluence of the Harlem and East rivers and the Long Island Sound, a passenger with a window seat at sunset or in the evening feels like they are gliding through a movie before rushing over Astoria and diving underground towards Midtown.

This magic is fleeting. That bridge – Hell’s Gate – is named after the impact that the confluence of rivers has on the water, but it could very well describe what awaits any passenger getting off the train at Penn Station.

It’s important to remember the Penn Station we have today is not our grandfather’s Penn Station. Especially, as the MTA made a big to do yesterday about Grand Central Terminal’s upcoming 100th anniversary next year. Rightfully so. It is the Crown Jewel of American Rail Terminals, up there with Union Stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and DC, respectively.

There is another rail terminal anniversary coming up in 2013 that New Yorkers would be wise to take note of. Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the demolition of the original Penn Station, knocked down to make room for Madison Square Garden and a handful of non-descript office buildings.

At the time of the demolition of the Beaux-Arts station structure which had opened in 1910, The New York Times wrote, “a city gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves.”

That editorial central message still resonates. Especially when it comes to Penn Station. The modernized Penn Station is a haphazard bunker doubling as the  entry point for hundreds of thousands of travelers. Beyond just the aesthetic shortcomings, long painfully obvious in this “improvement,” the station is now reaching a critical juncture.

Beaux-Arts knew how to make an entrance - Via Wikipedia

Long at capacity, Penn Station’s future is joined at the hip, in some ways, with the future of high-speed rail in the United States. As it stands today, the station serves as the mid-point in America’s only answer for high speed rail, the Acela-traversed Northeast Corridor. In spite of Congressional obstinance and construction delays, I’d be willing to bet Mitt Romney’s $10,000, we will one day see European style high-speed rail in this country. Amtrak has already proposed a next-generation HSR corridor that would halve travel times between DC and Boston.

The only way to bring more trains into New York City is to increase the number of tracks coming in – currently two under the Hudson and four under the East River – and the number of platforms available.

This is where that Times editorial is just as relevant today as it was almost fifty years ago. We get what we pay for and what we deserve. Maybe you’ve heard about Moynihan Station. The efforts to restore the grandeur of old Penn Station would be achieved by moving Amtrak across the street to the equally Beaux-Art Farley Post Office. In 2006, construction for both phases of Moynihan Station was projected at a cool $3.2 billion dollars. Want to guess how many more trains that $3.2 billion would be able to bring into Penn Station? Or how many of those would be new High-Speed consists? If you guessed zero, you’d be spot-on. Right now, just phase 1 which includes the entrance at the post office and some new stairs has been funded, with construction set to wrap up in 2016

Is it a mall? Is it a bunker? No, it's "modern" Penn Station!

I get the desire to bring the Beaux-Art Penn Station back from dead. In a perfect world, I’d be camping out like there were new Apple products about to be sold in the run-up to its opening. But, we live in a world of finite resources, especially when it comes to public transit in general, and passenger rail infrastructure in particular. If we throw money to aesthetic projects, we make it harder to increase train capacity and improve the infrastructure to the point that it can handle next generation high speed rail.

Historian Vincent Scully may be right that where “One entered the city like a god one scuttles in now like a rat.” Penn Station remains the busiest passenger transportation facility in the United States, serving 1,000 passengers every 90 seconds. As our population continues to grow and rail becomes a more popular mode of traveling, once again, our infrastructure will need to meet this increased demands. Count me as one scurrying rat who wants federal and state funds going towards increased capacity and improved infrastructure in lieu of cosmetic improvements. It would be our generation’s Penn Station demolition to do otherwise.