Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Amtrak’s 30th Street Station was slated to lose its iconic “split-flap” display. But Philadelphians had other ideas.
One of my most distinct memories from my college years in Philadelphia is sitting in the sanctum of 30th Street Station, the city’s stately train station at the eastern edge of University City. I’d be there, waiting for a train, listening for the flutters of clickety-clacks that punctuated the hollow silence. The sound told me that the iconic split-flap display board showing the train arrivals and departures of Amtrak trains was being updated. It was a comforting sound, and as the tiles flipped-out the new letters and numbers, it felt as if a reset button had been pushed and the next moment was somehow newer and shinier.
Most of these old-school display boards have been scrapped in recent years; Amtrak recently announced that it planned to replace this analog technology with a digital screen, just as it had done at stations in Boston, Baltimore, New York, and all the other cities it serves. But Philly residents and lawmakers objected so vehemently that the rail agency seems to have relented.
This happy news comes from Representative Brendan Boyle, a Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania, who advocated for the preservation of the sign in a phone call to Amtrak’s CEO Monday.
Boyle recounted his phone conversation on WHYY’s Radio Times yesterday. “Three different times, he said he was optimistic to preserve the sign there and relook at this and figure out a way that they can keep a sign and at the same time achieve their goal of an upgrade,” Boyle said.
To be fair, the sign is not in great condition. As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Inga Saffron notes, it runs on a Windows 95 (!) and desperately needs to be integrated with more current software. Its parts are aging—its manufacturer, the Italian company Solari, no longer makes replacements. Amtrak has understandably argued that it’s a headache to maintain.
“The idea is to improve the passenger experience through more dynamic and easier to read information at points throughout the concourse,” Amtrak representative Mike Tolbert told Billy Penn in a statement. “There are also ADA benefits as the audio and visual information will be synchronized.”
But Philadelphians appear unswayed by the practical arguments. Lovers of the sign have brandished pleas, petitions, and hashtags. But the knock-out blow perhaps came from Saffron herself, the Inquirer’s Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, who argued in favor of preserving the sign in a recent op-ed. Her big points: aesthetics and function don’t have to be at odds, and keeping the sign as is or replacing it with an ugly blue TV screen aren’t the only two options. There are alternatives! If the American office of Solari can’t spruce it up—and they told her they can—there’s also a local company that makes easy-to-read, laptop-controlled split-flap signs. And if you’re still wanting for reasons: It’s also more energy-efficient.
At the end of the day, Saffron argues, this clickety-clackety old technology is now a design icon—flappy signs are coveted by artists, mounted in expensive homes, and appear in high-end restaurants. Milan’s modern airport proudly uses one. The 30th Street board is “an integral part of the ceremony of travel.” To preserve it would be to preserve a key American cultural artifact:
The split-flap board is part of Amtrak’s heritage, but it belongs to Philadelphia, too. The very first train under Amtrak’s control left 30th Street Station at 12:05 a.m. on May 1, 1971, bound for New York. The board in 30th Street Station doesn’t just provide updates on arrivals and departures; its survival is crucial to telling the story of rail travel in America.
Philly has changed a lot since I went to college there; new buildings have popped up, old haunts have closed down; Gritty is now a thing. It would be nice to know that at least one small beloved feature may be held in place, for a little while longer.