TODAY'S PAPER
Good Evening
Good Evening
NewsNew York

Moynihan Train Hall: Enjoy, just don't get too comfortable

Rail stations back in train travel's golden age

Rail stations back in train travel's golden age typically offered public seating, even if you didn't have a ticket. That's not the case at Manhattan's Moynihan Train Hall, which opened on New Year's Day. Credit: Corey Sipkin

"Dear New York, This is for You," beckons digital signage inside Penn Station’s new, $1.6 billion, 255,000-square-foot Moynihan Train Hall, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hailed as "a testament and a monument to the public."

But who do you think "You" are?

The answer sits at the crossing of homelessness, the design of public spaces, and who belongs and who doesn’t.

Nowhere on Moynihan’s Tennessee marble floors or below the vaulted 92-foot-high skylight can those without tickets find seating. Even in the main passenger-only seating rooms, where a ticket is needed for entry, wooden bars prevent reclining or sleeping. In addition to the National Guard and multiple police agencies, private security officers also keep watch. And in the city that never sleeps, visitors won’t be welcome inside overnight, as the building closes between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., hours stenciled onto the glass doors.

Moynihan Train Hall — in a retrofitted post office, and designed to give Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak passengers new places to wait and access tracks — contains textbook examples of "hostile architecture," a strategy seen in spaces worldwide and meant to discourage unwanted uses and users — notably homeless people. That’s according to Tobias Armborst, an architect, urban designer and author of "The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion," an illustrated encyclopedia of the "weapons" used to keep the unwanted out.

On a walk this month through Moynihan, Armborst, an associate professor at Vassar College, marveled at the building but said: "Here, very subtly, a space like this sends a message that it’s really a space to just get in and out and not spend more time in."

He took note of the lack of seating anywhere in the main hall, and the wooden bars dividing seats in a ticketed waiting area. He laughed at the "tiny, tiny" ledges a flight below. He glanced up at the balcony, home to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, exclusively for its first-class passengers, with an attendant checking those seeking to enter. Even the Starbucks, he noted, lacks any place to sit.

And the forthcoming food hall — starting over the next 12 months, brands like Magnolia cupcakes, H & H bagels and Jacob’s Pickles will be for sale — is aimed at a to-go crowd.

Taking a close look at public spaces around the world reveals "hostile architecture" that might escape a first glance: Park benches purposefully uncomfortable, with armrests, to prevent reclining. Sprinklers deployed strategically to deter lying out on the grass. Boulders spread along a sidewalk to obstruct encampments.

At Moynihan, it’s not just the hall’s design that discourages hanging around, Armborst said: It’s the rules, too, like how the building is closed for four hours every night.

While old transit hubs tended to be open 24/7, certain contemporary ones tend to close overnight, including Grand Central Terminal and Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. (Penn Station, the busiest rail hub in North America, is open all night.)

Moynihan’s nightly closure, during what is a low period of train traffic, is needed based on the project’s governance structure, as well as to clean and maintain the space, Doug Carr, executive director of the project’s state development entity, said following a Dec. 30 ribbon cutting by Cuomo. Cuomo has directed the Moynihan project.

On multiple visits to Moynihan since it opened New Year’s Day, there were few if any people visible inside who appeared to be homeless. But just across Seventh Avenue, in subterranean Penn Station, there were dozens: Some begged. Some slept on the floor. Most just walked around or were sitting down. Ramona Phelps sat alone and escaped the cold.

"I was told that it would be better for me to stay over here," said Phelps, 59, who’s been homeless since 2007 and recalled how Penn Station personnel have nudged her to keep out of Moynihan. She sat below a police desk, in a folding chair, her belongings piled nearby in plastic bags atop her wheelchair.

Those who stay for long periods or sleep in transit facilities often do so because they can face harsher conditions outdoors or even in congregate shelters, according to Jacquelyn Simone, a senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless.

"Why do we have so many people who feel like they have no better option than the transit system?" she asked.

"Too often, there’s this false equivalency of the discomfort of people who are fortunate enough to be stably housed to have to witness poverty," she said, "versus the actual survival needs of people who are unsheltered. And we should feel uncomfortable, and do something to change it, when we witness poverty."

There were 57,016 people per night living in city shelters as of November, according to the coalition’s latest available data. There are 3,857 people living on the street or in transit facilities, the city government has reported, but the coalition has long considered this to be an undercount.

For decades, "hostile architecture" has been wielded primarily against homeless people — and skateboarders — according to Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard.

"The tools of the trade," in addition to a lack of seating, include spikes, ledges with specially designed brackets, metal dividers and uncomfortably slanted surfaces, Kayden said.

Lorraine Diehl, author of the book "The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station," said she’s sympathetic both to the plight of homeless people and to the dilemma faced by transit hub operators.

"No one is saying that the homeless shouldn’t have a place to be — there’s no question that they should — but it seems to me that it’s not a problem that is being solved by using Penn Station as a shelter," she said.

Matthew Gorton, a spokesman for Empire State Development, the state entity overseeing the project, did not answer emailed questions or otherwise provide comment.

Transit hubs weren’t always ostensibly hostile to those looking to stop and stay a while, particularly when staying overnight at railway stations was more common in the golden age of train travel. Rail stations remained somewhat hospitable, even as long-haul rail travel declined, supplanted by other modes of transportation like the automobile and plane.

In the 1970s, people then often referred to as "vagrants" lived at Penn and could pay 25 cents to rent a locker and 25 cents for a wash-up-and-change cubicle in a restroom, according to a 1973 Newsday article, which described the "dozen or so habitués with more guts than money."

Grand Central once had oak seating in a waiting room that was later removed, Kayden noted. In 1990, that room, which could hold about 600, was closed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority after the space had "become a haven for homeless people," the authority wrote in a 2008 news release.

The original Penn Station — the grand Beaux-Arts style building that opened in 1910 and, to the perpetual embitterment of preservationists, was demolished in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden and office space, and a replacement station — had a seating room on either side of the building, originally one for women and one for men, Diehl said.

Those seating rooms weren’t restricted just to ticketed passengers, and there were long wooden benches without the sort of dividers that now make it all but impossible to stretch out at Moynihan.

Diehl, who grew up in the 1940s nearby, on 30th Street and 9th Avenue, said that back then, homeless people didn't congregate inside Penn Station — or even in the neighborhood.

Until laws against vagrancy and loitering began to be struck down in the 1970s by the U.S. Supreme Court, the police could more easily clear out and arrest so-called undesirables — homeless people or even those who just looked out of place. Over the next five decades, both that court, and New York State’s highest court, have chipped away at such laws, and nowadays people can’t legally be shooed away simply for being, or seeming, homeless.

On Moynihan’s fifth day open to the public, Theda Joy Reid, 80, was at Penn Station’s Long Island Rail Road concourse, hunched over a garbage bin to salvage trash.

Not too long ago, Reid said, she’d been evicted from her home in the Mastic-Shirley area, and now stays at Penn when she can’t find a cheap enough room to rent.

No, she hadn’t been inside Moynihan yet, she said, but yes, she’s heard about and seen it — from afar.

"It’s beautiful and lovely. Couldn’t get better construction, work or design," she said.

She just wishes those in charge of Moynihan could give people like her a break.

"It’s cold outside," she said, two winter hats pulled over her head. "Very cold outside."

More news