The Trains Ran On Time! Sadly, That’s News

It shouldn’t be a news story when someone leaves his house in a suburb, jumps on a train to Manhattan, walks to a meeting on the upper East Side, and then returns to the suburb, all on the appointed schedule of the train company.

Creepy: The Hudson River tunnels are 108 years old, and they move up and down in the mud.

I did just that a few weeks ago, traveling from my home in Princeton, New Jersey, to an interview at the Cosmopolitan Club on East 66TH Street with an acquaintance of the late urbanist William H. Whyte, the subject of a biography I’m writing. And I did so in the aftermath of weeks, months, and even years of horrendous news about NJ Transit, the tracks it travels on, the 108-year-old tunnels it uses to get under the Hudson River, and the overcrowded Penn Station where it makes its final stop.

Just a few months before my train commute, I heard a presentation by Tom Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association, painting a grim picture of the beleaguered NJ Transit and the “precarious” condition of the tunnels. NJTV just reported that in the past four years NJ Transit and Amtrak trains have been stuck a total of 1,800 hours in the tunnels and on the nearby Portal Bridge. If you have an iota of claustrophobia in your psyche, Wright’s description of the 108-year-old tunnels – undulating up and down in the slime below the Hudson River — will give you the creeps.

In addition to the tunnels and the ongoing problems on the Northeast Corridor, commuters in Princeton had a more basic problem: The connecting line from Princeton to Princeton Junction had been shut down for nearly half a year so that NJ Transit could concentrate its resources on installation of a mandated safety equipment system. By the time I was ready to head into the city the “Dinky” line, as it is known, was back in service.

With the only alternative a bus to the Port Authority or a drive into the city, I decided to take my chances with the train. It was a wise choice, with an unexpected bonus at the end — a perfect example of why even occasional commuters such as myself should appreciate the July 22 announcement by the governors of New Jersey and New York to move ahead with a project (despite continued resistance from the Trump administration) to replace the tunnels, drawing on money not just from rail commuters but from all taxpayers.

It took me less than 15 minutes to walk to the train and buy a senior round trip ticket to Princeton Junction and then on to Penn Station. The price was $15.90 for the round trip – that’s not a typo. In fact, it is a steal when everything goes right. The Dinky left on time, and then connected to the train to Manhattan, also on time.

I brought some reading for the train ride, Paul Goldberger’s “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City,” a book that I soon realized is as much about urbanism as it is about baseball. Arriving at Penn Station I recalled one of Tom Wright’s presentations, when he had referred to Penn Station as the “seventh circle of hell.” It was an ironic moment for me. I was navigating the “new” Penn Station, not the original one torn down in 1963, to interview Margot Wellington, the former head of the executive director of the Municipal Art Society, one of the people who battled to save Grand Central Station from a similar fate in 1978.

A round trip ticket for one senior round trip from Princeton Junction to Penn Station. The price was $15.90 for the round trip. I would pay more if it helped replace the tunnels.

Because I had taken an early train (just in case, given the recent history), I had plenty of time to walk from Penn Station to the Cosmopolitan Club. Walking up 7th Avenue, I passed the old Americana Hotel (now the Sheraton), where I had seen Muhammad Ali in the late fall of 1969. I was walking down 7th to my job at Time Magazine on 50th Street. Off to my left I saw Ali — the greatest fighter of his time who had been banned from boxing because of his opposition to the Vietnam War — standing alone and ignored by passersby on the plaza in front of the hotel.

Operating then, as I do now, on the principle that even celebrities work hard and that everyone likes to be recognized for their hard work, I interrupted my walk to work by introducing myself to the champ – I addressed him as Muhammad Ali, a name that many people still would not use. Ali was waiting for his ride to a rehearsal of a Broadway show, “Big Time Buck White,” a way to earn a paycheck for the now outcast fighter. We engaged in some small talk, and he told me to come to a performance. I did, and was surprised to discover that Ali could act and sing (a little, at least) as well as box. The show closed after seven performances.

I continued north on 7th, past my old neighborhood at Carnegie Hall and Carney’s Tavern (two opposite ends of the cultural spectrum that you could find so closely together only in a dense but healthy urban area) and then to Central Park South. When I reached Grand Army Plaza, at the corner of Central Park South and Fifth Avenue, and under the watchful eye of the Plaza Hotel, I realized I was on track to show up at least 30 minutes early to my late afternoon interview.

I took a seat on bench and resumed my reading of “Ballpark.” I was reminded of what William H. Whyte had said about the Grand Army Plaza: “Most people think it’s a tourist place. It’s not. The office work force uses it. A town that is really good is one that is good to its people, who regularly use it, inside and out.”

At the appointed time, I greeted Wellington, who first met Whyte in the late 1960s, when she was working with the Downtown Brooklyn Development Association, trying to nurture the retail environment and to save brownstones from developers. Whyte, already beginning to study the behavior of pedestrians in the public spaces of Manhattan, wanted to expand his research into Brooklyn. He asked Wellington if she could identify some “perches” from which he could observe the life of the street below. That began a lifelong friendship with Whyte, whom she remembers as “wonderful and witty. He gave me permission to think outside the box.”

As I packed up to head back to Penn Station, Wellington noticed the Goldberger book. I didn’t expect her to be a baseball fan, but she nonetheless had a specific interest in the book. “I hope he mentions Janet Marie Smith in there,” Wellington said. Sure enough, the index referred to a major section on Smith, the architect who helped create Camden Yards in Baltimore and to save Fenway Park in Boston.

Seeing that next train was scheduled (still emphasizing the word scheduled) to leave in about 20 minutes, I hailed a cab and just managed to get on board the train back to Princeton Junction, which once again left on time. The train soon became a “third place” in my work day, referring to the places between home and work as described by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book, “The Great Good Place.”

A businessman in the seat next to me immediately noticed the Goldberger book. The commuter, a devoted baseball fan, had already formed opinions of which parks he liked, and which ones he did not. The one that was most off-putting to him was the new ballpark in Altanta, SunTrust Park. Did Goldberger have anything to say about that park? Once again I consulted the index and found Goldberger’s appraisal: He called the neighborhood created around the stadium a “theme park masquerading as a city.” The stadium itself, he wrote, is “a mallpark as much as it is a ballpark.”

The Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critic and the baseball fan were in agreement. All was well in this “third place” of my day. And the train, especially when it’s on time, is a marvelous thing, and worth supporting through your fares and your tax dollars, whether or not you ride it every day.