Daniel Patrick Moynihan, late a Senator from New York, can still pack them in. He’s been gone for two years now, but on May 2 dozens of New Yorkers-including the woman who holds his old Senate seat-gathered in the James A. Farley Post Office building to pay homage to his last dream.
Were he still among us, the Senator would not be surprised to learn that his notion of turning the Farley building into a new Pennsylvania Station has been more deliberate than speedy. He often despaired of the time and effort it took to complete public-works projects in the New York of his later years. To the argument that completing this project ought to be easy, since the building is there and so are the tracks, he no doubt would have replied: “Ah, but you have not reckoned with the ways and means of Washington and New York in the third century of American independence.” Or something like that.
The conversion of the Farley building remains unachieved despite the availability of federal funds. A year or so ago, the Senator’s daughter, Maura Moynihan, founded a group called the Moynihan Station Citizens Group, to help persuade lawmakers that the pit now known as Pennsylvania Station does no justice to the city or to the memory of the landmark that once stood where today rests a tomb called Madison Square Garden.
On May 2, Ms. Moynihan’s efforts to finish her father’s work received a much-needed morale boost when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton headlined a fund-raising event in the old post office. Donors who paid $1,000 a ticket heard Ms. Moynihan tell a story about her father that most newspapers will deem unfit for print-although it was published in all its glory in the staid columns of the Congressional Record.
In 1999, during humdrum hearings held by the Senate Public Works Committee, Senator Moynihan interrupted the then head of Conrail to inquire about the gravesite of the recently deceased Charles Luckman, the architect responsible for what replaced the old Penn Station. Moynihan was told that Luckman had been buried in Richmond, Va.-but why did he wish to know?
“I want to piss on his grave,” the Senator said.
In his last years, Moynihan saw in the Farley building that rare chance for civic redemption: an opportunity for the city to reclaim a portion of that which was turned to dust and rubble four decades ago. Everybody (save the current leadership of Amtrak) seemed to agree, but little has been done.
That will change soon, Mr. Bloomberg told the crowd, many of them holding glasses of white sangria mixed with undisclosed “special ingredients” to create a cocktail known as, yes, the “Moynihan Station.”
“Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor dark of night” will delay the process any longer, Mr. Bloomberg vowed.
Ms. Moynihan hopes the Mayor is right. But time and inertia are formidable foes.
“We have to hear the sounds of jackhammers in the Farley building soon,” she said. “The funds for the station have been sitting around for six years, and the maxim regarding federal funds is ‘Use them or lose them.'”
Senator Schumer, who served with Moynihan in the Senate for two years, said the late Senator was “frustrated” in his later years by “the inability to build on a grand scale” in New York. Sounding much like the man whose course at Harvard he audited as a freshman in 1967, Mr. Schumer condemned what he called a “culture of inertia” in which “critics get undue weight, even if they represent only three people.”
He credited the Senator’s daughter with embarking “on a crusade to see that the culture of inertia does not prevail.”
But that culture is not unique to New York.
Republicans in Congress-fans of neither public transportation nor the Northeast corridor-have shown a marked disinterest in using the funds that the Senator set aside for the station-conversion project. So Ms. Moynihan hopes that Mayor Bloomberg’s interest in the project may help highway-loving Sun Belt Republicans see the merits of a grand rail station on the West Side of Manhattan.
“We are delighted that the Mayor was here to support this effort,” she said. “Let’s face it, if the Mayor’s office wasn’t behind this, it would be a lot more difficult. As my father once said at a contentious hearing about the station, ‘Everybody must hold hands and come together.'”
Such intimacies may come in time. For the moment, getting a few score people in the same room to hear two Democratic Senators and a Republican Mayor reading from the same page is familiar enough.
Even as speeches were read and promises made in the Farley building, across the street the huddled masses of Penn Station-yearning to be free of the station’s low ceilings and regional-airport décor-were filing into the pit. A hub for commuters, Penn Station also is New York’s rail portal to the world beyond the tristate area. Amtrak’s long-distance trains, which once served Grand Central Terminal as well, now run exclusively from the pit. It’s an unsatisfactory point of entry and departure for a city that prides itself as a world capital.
“When was the last time you heard somebody say, ‘Let’s have a drink at Penn Station?'” Ms. Moynihan said.
Well, they said just that on May 2. Perhaps one day the friends of Penn Station will return for a nightcap.