The new showpiece entrance to Penn Station that added sparkle to the famously grimy transit hub late last year now has structures resembling ancient wonders of the world.
A trio of wooden pyramids was erected atop flat metal security bollards in front of the station’s East End Gateway at Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street — just months after the December 2020 opening of the sloping glass-and-steel entrance to the Long Island Rail Road concourse.
The pyramids, painted in bright pastel colors, look fairly artsy but were installed “to deter unauthorized activity” at the entrance that saw a MTA Police booth added several weeks after it opened, an MTA spokesperson said.
“People were sleeping there all the time,” said Crystal McFadden, a 49-year-old homeless woman who was instead seated last week on a NYPD barricade in front of the entrance. “They don’t be over there no more.”
Installed in May, the pyramids are among examples in the city and around the transit system of what critics have labeled “hostile architecture.”
Other examples include spikes on ledges, barriers on benches — or no benches at all — and so-called leaning bars at bus stops and inside some recently renovated subway stations.
“These designs and related policies are frequently aimed at excluding people experiencing homelessness, as well as youth, vendors and other marginalized groups,” Nate Storring, deputy executive director of the Project for Public Spaces, told THE CITY.
“‘Loitering’ is the catch-all offense that managers of a public space often use to exclude certain types of people from even spending time in the space.”
A Mercedes With Mud On It
Gerard Bringmann, chairperson of the the Long Island Rail Road Commuters Council, said that prior to the pyramids, the bollards doubled as tables or beds and that commuters had complained about aggressive panhandlers outside the entrance.
“Millions were spent to build this thing and now we have commuters avoiding it because they don’t want to be hassled by panhandlers at the top of the stairs,” said Bringmann, who is also an MTA board member. “It’s like buying a Mercedes and then somebody throws mud all over it.”
The $600 million East End Gateway has long escalators and stairs that offer views of the Empire State Building to travelers emerging from Penn Station. The entrance is part of Empire State Development’s larger Penn Station overhaul, which included the opening of Moynihan Train Hall.
Fuquan Ford, 60, who usually panhandles outside another Penn Station entrance, said he avoids the new gateway.
“They’re over there drinking and harassing people trying to go home and going into the train,” he told THE CITY. “So what they’ve done is absolutely correct, get them out of there.”
Some advocates for the homeless say the addition of the pyramid tops — along with other barriers in the city and the transit system — point to governmental and societal failures to provide a basic need for those who lack shelter.
“It’s much easier to erect hostile architecture and criminalize people and push them out of public spaces,” said Jacquelyn Simone, a senior policy analyst with Coalition for the Homeless. “Too often, we are just focused on the optics as opposed to addressing the root causes of homelessness.”
In 2017, the MTA was criticized for installing leaning bars — angled slabs set against a wall that are almost impossible to sleep on — in several newly renovated stations that also had new-look benches put on platforms. The agency did not include any public seating in the Fulton Center, a Lower Manhattan transit hub that opened in 2014.
More recently, there has been some criticism over the lack of public seating inside the Moynihan Train Hall, which opened Jan. 1 to LIRR and Amtrak customers.
The new concourse inside the old James Farley Post Office includes some cordoned-off seating for ticketed passengers and a food hall is supposed to open later this year. But the space closes daily between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., another measure that critics say is designed to keep homeless out of the cavernous building and limited to Penn Station.
“For a flashy new station to not have seating, it just feels a little bit cruel to the commuters,” said Jessica Murray, who researched public spaces as part of her recently completed doctoral work in developmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center. “If people are going to sit on the ground, that tells you something about their needs that are not being met.”
While waiting at Moynihan Train Hall for an Amtrak train to Boston, Linda Santos, 28, sat on top of one of her suitcases.
“Traveling is tiring, in general,” she said. “I would sit on a bench, if I could.”
Storring, of the Project for Public Spaces, said the hardest kind of hostile architecture to spot can be in public spaces without seating.
“It’s always sad when a brand new, multi-million-dollar public space fails to make itself comfortable and welcoming out of fear,” he said.
There’s an entire Instagram account, @hostiledesign_nyc, that showcases images from across the city of public spaces that document “designs against humanity.”
Jeremy Cooper, a native New Yorker, said he set up the account to help people think critically about the design of public space and to question “when and where the city is made for all, or made only for some and only in some places.”
“Hostile architecture can sometimes protect property and be engineered to uphold rules of policies,” said Cooper, 32. “But it really dictates how and when the public can use public spaces.”