On March 8, 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo compared America’s least-loved train station, Penn Station, to “the seven levels of hell.” Here’s the full quote:
It is a disgrace. More people go through Penn Station every day than Newark, Kennedy, and La Guardia airports combined. It’s the most heavily traveled transportation hub in the hemisphere, and imagine what they say when they get off: “This is New York? Looks like the seven levels of hell. I’m in new York?”
First order of business: Well Actually, Governor, there are nine levels of Hell, if you are in fact referring to Dante’s depiction of hell in Inferno.
Now that we’ve gotten bit of pedantry out of the way, let’s interrogate this idea for a bit. I mean, everyone agrees that Penn Station is awful, but A) is it hellishly awful, and B) if so, what about Penn Station’s awfulness warrants this specific comparison?
Is Penn Station Hell?
Here’s the thing: Hell is just not a great metaphor for Penn Station. See, the key thing about Hell, as understood by Dante as well as modern Christians, is that it’s a place for eternal punishment for sin, with no escape. Penn Station, on the other hand, is by design meant to move people in and out. It’s a transit hub. Even on its worst days, you can at least walk in and out of the place.
So let’s put the whole “eternal damnation” thing aside for a moment. Both Penn Station and Hell as depicted in Inferno are unpleasant subterranean places with a bunch of different levels. That much is true. But the levels in Dante’s Hell refer to specific sins and punishments for those sins:
Each level is full of sinners who were damned for the sin corresponding their level. The deeper the level, the more serious the sin. Again, this does not map particularly well to a shitty transit hub. Yes, it has layers, but the deeper ones aren’t necessarily worse than the ones above it. The commuters that pass through aren’t condemned to do so because of their sins.
All that being said, Penn Station is so viscerally awful that you can’t help but look for sin in relation to this place as causes for, results of, or simply in association with, its awfulness. So let’s humor the Governor and his imperfect analogy and try to map these different sins to activity occurring in (or near) Penn Station. I’ll be the Virgil to your Dante. Come with me across the River Acheron, or in this case, the stream of vomit and human misery running along West 34th Street.
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Level 1: Limbo
Limbo is a weird place. It’s part of Hell, and you can’t get out, but it’s populated by the “guiltless damned” rather than those who have actively sinned against God. These folks, through no fault of their own, were either never baptized or never exposed to the good news about Jesus Christ.
Actually, “guiltless damned” is a rather fitting way to characterize the vast swaths of commuters who pass through Penn Station without incident every day. They contribute in no way to its awfulness; they aren’t guilty of anything in particular; and yet they are forced to utilize it. The same probably goes for low level transit agency employees; their parent institutions may shoulder some of the blame, but they’re not decision makers in this matter.
Level 2: Lust
This level of hell is for those who just couldn’t keep their pants (or free-flowing robes of antiquity) on: Cleopatra, Achilles, and your cheating ex-boyfriend, to name a few.
If you’re looking for sexy sin at Penn Station, you’ll actually need to go outside the station itself and explore the neighborhood for the nearest strip club. You won’t have to walk far, though:
To be fair, none of these establishments are actually within Penn Station. But we’ve already acknowledged that the metaphor is a stretch, so allow me to wander a few blocks away to make this work, OK?
Plenty of options nearby UH WAIT WHAT IS THIS:
Be my guest; open a Private Browsing tab, figure out what’s going on here and how this doesn’t run afoul of New York State law (to say nothing of God’s Commandments), and let us know in the comments.
Level 3: Gluttony
In this level, the gluttonous are forced to lie in fifth as their punishment. So perhaps it’s fitting that when the New York Times managed to find someone who didn’t mind the subpar dining options in Penn Station, well, this happened:
“I don’t get the rationale behind changing it,” said Chando Mapoma, inhaling stew chicken during his lunch break from a job in Midtown Manhattan. “I’m not trying to come here to wine and dine.”
A cockroach, about as long as a MetroCard, sidled up beside him, twitching across a seat cushion at the counter of Island Dine. “That’s a worry,” Mr. Mapoma said calmly, forking at some rice.
Cerberus also resides in Level 3, so we might as well map the cockroach onto this mythical beast. Cockroaches are real, and therefore far more frightening than Cerberus.
Level 4: Greed
Greed actually maps quite well to Penn Station, although you actually need to look up to find it. Madison Square Garden sits on top of Penn Station and is regarded as a major obstacle to any total overhaul of Penn Station. The owners have long opposed any plans to relocate the arena to another site, and a few years ago, in a sign of defiance to such plans, spent $1 billion to renovate the arena.
Appropriately enough, the 4th circle is the only place in Dante’s hell where you will find, effectively, sports:
Here, more than elsewhere, I saw multitudes
to every side of me; their howls were loud
while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push.
They struck against each other; at that point,
each turned around and, wheeling back those weights,
So did they move around the sorry circle
from left and right to the opposing point;
again, again they cried their chant of scorn;
and so, when each of them had changed positions,
he circled halfway back to his next joust.
(Oh, and the owners of Madison Square Garden also own Cablevision.)
Level 5: Anger
Penn Station inspires a lot of justifiable anger. If you’re not angry at the subpar conditions of Penn Station and the transit infrastructure that serves the station, you’re probably not caring enough.
What’s less justifiable is the anger that passengers feel towards each other and the mostly innocent transit agency employees when things go wrong, or just get too crowded. Everyone gets it; we have a bad train station. Let’s not make it worse by being ugly to our fellow human beings, who don’t want to be here either.
Level 6: Heresy
This is where things get interesting. In Dante’s Hell, heretics are guilty of advancing beliefs in opposition to those of the Church, and in turn, God. In Penn Station, heretics would be those who oppose the reigning authority: Governor Cuomo. But here’s the thing: although the Governor has announced an ambitious plan to renovate Penn Station and make other investments in New York’s aging infrastructure, government watchdog groups constantly criticize the Governor for not prioritizing mass transit. Most recently, the Governor has come under fire for leaving a $7 billion funding gap in the MTA’s latest five-year capital program. To which the Governor might reply, “O ye of little faith.” To which his opponents would say, “Exactly.”
Level 7: Violence
Penn Station has the unfortunate distinction of being in the police precinct with the highest per-capita rate of violent crime in the city. This is probably the result of a statistical fluke; there are lots of people in this part of town, just not a lot of residents. Penn Station doesn’t have a reputation of being particularly dangerous. That being said, in November 2015, a rush-hour shooting in the subway station adjoining Penn Station resulted in one fatality and helped contribute to a highly debatable narrative that the City overall is getting “more dangerous.”
Level 8: Fraud
If you’re coming out of Penn Station looking for a taxi, beware of scammers who claim to expedite the hailing process and collect the taxi fare. They’re just taking your money for nothing in return.
This is a clear example of fraud at Penn Station, for sure, but to be fair, Penn Station isn’t really at fault. That being said, getting scammed for a ride in a scuzzy yellow cab after riding in a scuzzy train and getting off at a scuzzy train station does add insult to quite a lot of previously incurred injury.
Level 9: Treachery
The last circle of Hell is reserved for the worst of the worst sinners: those guilty of betraying a special, trusting relationship.
This is perhaps the ultimate sin related to Penn Station: betrayal of the public good. Remember, Penn Station used to be something other than a shithole that a Governor could casually compare to Hell. It started its life as an architectural masterpiece; a grandiose beaux-arts temple to train travel.
After years of decay, the station’s owners decided it was too expensive to maintain and restore, and in 1963, they tore it down, in exchange for the lucrative air rights above and the cheaper subterranean station we’ve come to despise over the years.
Private interests may have held the technical ownership of the station, but as a major city landmark, it actually belonged to the public. Erecting the beautiful station in the first place created a special relationship with the public, one that was betrayed with its demolition.
After completing this exercise, I have more of an appreciation as to why the Governor compared Penn Station to Dante’s
seven nine layers of Hell. In Inferno, Dante describes a single place with lots of different negative qualities. Ultimately, Penn Station fits that description as well. It’s a single site, but it’s large enough and awful in so many different ways that it feels oppressively, overwhelmingly evil.
At a level of detail any more specific than, the specific don’t map well at all, but for the Governor’s purposes, they actually don’t need to. He got the number of layers wrong. The number of layers isn’t important, though. It is important to mobilize the public and lawmakers around a sense of urgency, and if it requires using a ham-fisted seven hundred year old literary reference to give commuters a station that at least doesn’t make their lives worse, then by all means, let the Governor talk about those seven levels all he wants.
Penn Station deserves at least one more classical allusion and that is that is Labyrinthine. Some of this might be expected because it is the confluence of Amtrak, the LIRR, New Jersey Transit, and of course, the New York Subway.
Transiting from one system to another is not easy as they are all hidden from each other with only cryptic signs to lead you from one to another. Going from one area to another, particularly from a train to the subway requires navigating stairs with luggage and then going down long passageways.
And right at the heart of the maze is the main waiting area which as absolutely no concessions to comfort or ergonomics. People just huddle with their necks craned underneath the quaintly antique flip board waiting for the track announcement. As soon as one is made, it triggers a mad rush to the narrow meat-processing line-like escalators down to the tracks. I can think of no better metaphor for the chaotic random journey of the damned.