New York stories on a perfect platform

 

A hundred years old today, Grand Central Terminal has absorbed a century’s humanity

For many New Yorkers, it was the photographs of an evacuated Grand Central that drove home the realisation, one evening last October, that Hurricane Sandy was on its way. Without people on its marble concourse, the city’s huge rail terminal was a place that looked, somehow, lost. It had been cleared out like this only once before; in 2011, when Hurricane Irene looked to be headed for the city. Much like this time, the closure turned out to have been an unnecessary precaution, because, although its train lines were badly hit, the building was unscathed; the storm’s trauma was elsewhere. Still, those photographs of the empty terminal remained strangely unnerving, in a way that none of the rest of the prehurricane kerfuffle had been. They’re unnerving even now, months later; Grand Central without its human whirl.

It was never meant to be empty. It was designed not just to be full of people but to be given form by people; it was not one of those architectural marvels whose creator secretly wished that visitors would stay away and leave it to its perfection of proportion and line. The vision of Grand Central’s chief architect, Whitney Warren, was for a terminal that would be all about the crowd. Turn-of-the-century New York was a human maelstrom, teeming and diverse; Warren sought to offer a more ordered idea of urban existence. No more of the chaos of the old Grand Central Depot, little more than a train yard, in which a young lady such as Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (The House of Mirth opens there) could find herself, to the disapproval of her suitor, Lawrence Selden, right in the middle of a throng. In the new Grand Central, someone like Lily could hang around as much as she pleased.

Not only did Warren’s Beaux Arts blueprint, tucking the train tracks discreetly away, allow for all the amenities of a luxury hotel, such as restaurants, salons and lavish dressing rooms, it also created an intricate spectacle out of the human crowd. What had been an unpredictable stampede elsewhere in the city became, in Warren’s carefully engineered spaces, a graceful dance. The passengers wove their way around the concourse, they people-watched from the galleries and they gazed up to the ceiling, arching high overhead, painted with all the stars and signs of the zodiac. It was a seemingly spontaneous choreography, and, just as the elegant marble hid the train tracks, it hid the reality of what it was doing, which was to impose order – you might say manners – on huge numbers of people. There it was, on February 2nd, 1913, in all its patterns of weaving and reweaving, turning and traversing, the world’s first flash mob.

Unsurprisingly, this daily dance of spectacle and observation has proven irresistible for photographers and film-makers over the years. Perhaps the most iconic images of Grand Central are the black-and-white shots by John Collier that were commissioned, surprisingly, by the Farm Security Administration, as were many of Walker Evans’s most famous photographs. They show the concourse pinioned by great shafts of sunlight; the air, thick with cigarette smoke, helped, as did the absence, in 1941, of surrounding skyscrapers. In North by Northwest (1959), Alfred Hitchock sent Cary Grant, in dark glasses, running for the famous 20th Century Limited service; the final scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) is an elaborate Prohibition-era dance towards that same train. And when Terry Gilliam staged an actual flash mob in The Fisher King (1991), where else would he do it but here? Taking, as it happened, too long to shoot the scene; the huge waltz ended up including commuters from the morning train.

Conserving the concourse

Who wouldn’t want to turn a camera on the place? Whether you push in from 42nd Street or trudge up from the grime and ruckus of the subway, the sight of Grand Central’s concourse does something to the soul. It’s impossible to believe that in the 1970s, until the intervention of a conservation effort headed by Jackie Onassis, it almost went the way of its Beaux Arts counterpart, Penn Station, which was demolished in 1964 and replaced by a building for which “bunker” is too grand a term.

Grand Central: all that marble the colour, as John Updike described it, of caramel; those staircases, modelled on the Paris Opéra; those windows, themselves like the side walls of beautiful skyscrapers; those chandeliers, like golden birdcages dreamed up by Fabergé. (There’s also a mammoth sculpture over the main entrance, depicting Minerva, Hercules and Mercury; it was carved by John Donnelly, an Irish immigrant who was the pre-eminent architectural sculptor of his time.) And the sounds: the call to the trains, the spry voice of the announcer seeming as though it’s addressed to you alone: “Your 4.45 to Poughkeepsie is now on track 102.” The inimitable echo: 1,000 footsteps on marble every minute of every day.

And yet there’s this: when first Grand Central opened, there were many who were not welcome within its flash mob. Anyone who could be categorised as belonging to an actual mob, for example. Not the Mob – the Mob, it may be presumed, got a strategic welcome mat – but the mob; the city crowd, frenetic and swarming, that was still out there in the New York streets, regardless of how beautiful an urban diorama Warren may have created within the walls of Grand Central. For immigrants and labourers, there was “special accommodation” within the terminal, so that the citizens – that is, the other passengers – would not have to come into contact with them. The dressing rooms of the rich were hidden away. Of course this was 100 years ago, but then it’s only recently that a private tennis court was taken out of the space above Vanderbilt Hall, the terminal’s opulent former waiting room, and it’s only recently that certain benches, often used during the day by homeless people, were deemed no longer necessary.

After all, there are the stories of a city, and there are the stories that a city tells itself about itself, and in many ways Grand Central has been one of those stories. Fiction set there is often the fiction of characters who are unable to see certain realities; who are dazzled by the glow of the things in which they fervently want to believe. So John Cheever’s teenage narrator in Reunion (1962) arranges to meet his estranged father here; his young hopes, stacked as high as the vaulted ceiling, can only go one way. In another Cheever story, O City of Broken Dreams! (1948), the Malloy family come to New York in search of fame; as she steps off the train, Alice wonders if the “frosty glitter” of the platform is the dust of trodden diamonds.

In the early Richard Yates story A Glutton for Punishment, a businessman readying for a date uses a “gleaming subterranean dressing room” at Grand Central; washed, shaved and with his suit pressed, he emerges a more polished version of his usual self, but also a little poorer, for in the heady gladness of it all he has tipped the attendant more than he can afford. (Years later, the man understands that his wife, the girl he hurried to meet, has made a life from an “orderly rotation of many careful moods”; if there is a poet of Grand Central, it must be Yates, whose novels and stories are born out of the very tension between that place’s everyday treadmill and its gilded promises.)

And in homage to Cheever, Richard Ford’s story Reunions (2000) is another study in self-delusion at Grand Central, an account of a wrong-headed attempt at reconciliation, during which the narrator allows himself to be unwisely reassured by the “eddying currents” of the crowd. “I had been wrong,” he chides himself at the story’s end, “about the linkage of moments.”

Early-morning dance

Because, in Grand Central, we may all of us seem linked for a moment, but who knows what is really going on in any one of those glimpsed lives? The last time I passed through the terminal was on a Friday in December, going to the Bronx for the funeral of my husband’s uncle. As we headed for our track, the arriving trainloads from Connecticut were spilling out on to the concourse, weaving themselves into its choreography, doing their steps of that every-morning dance. It was 9.15am.

Hours later, as news too horrific to countenance came out of a Connecticut school, the image of that sea of commuters flashed across my mind; ghoulish, of course, to wonder as I did – was one of them a mother? A father? – but impossible to push the thought away. And on the train back to Grand Central that evening, a young woman opposite me read something on her phone, and her face twisted with sorrow. Our eyes met and I shook my head – I didn’t need a translation – and she shook hers.

In the Biltmore Room, an old chalkboard schedule lists the cross-country trains that once arrived at 42nd Street: the Knickerbocker, the Missourian, the 20th Century Limited. Once known as the Kissing Room because of the many welcomes bestowed here, not least upon returning troops, this space houses little activity now, apart from some shoe-shining and newspaper-buying. Still, there’s a nook here that is perhaps my favourite of all in Grand Central: the little windowed booth where the dozens of pairs of shoes resoled by Eddie’s Shoe Repair sit, in their brown paper bags, all fixed up and ready to go. Ready to echo across that marble again. Wharton’s Mr Selden would be horrified, of course; resoled shoes? But Selden doesn’t live here any more.

On track: Three railway wonders, from Grand Central’s older,more remarkable brother to Gustave Eiffel’s Madrid landmark

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai:Grand Central’s older and more remarkable brother, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Formerly known as Victoria Station, it was designed by Frederick William Stevens and opened in 1887. A dome, turrets, arches, wood carvings, stone lions, stained-glass windows, a gold-starred roof and an intriguing mix of Gothic, colonial and Indian influences compete for attention with the teeming numbers boarding the trains. In November 2008, two Pakistani terrorists shot 52 people in the station in one of a spate of attacks across the city.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow:A yellow-painted baroque ceiling with ornate plasterwork, marble pillars, stone vaulting and dazzling chandeliers: you could be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in a magnificent ballroom instead of a concourse on the Moscow underground. Built in the 1930s, it harks back in time visually to prerevolutionary Russia, but the eight mosaic panels, dotted with precious stones, tell the story of the Russian fight for freedom and independence and include Lenin’s Speech on Red Square. The panels showing Stalin were replaced in 1963.

Estación de Atocha/Atocha Station, Madrid:The largest station in the Spanish capital, Estación de Atocha was first opened in 1851, but destroyed by fire. Rebuilt by a team including Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Paris tower, it opened again in 1892. Today, the station is a mixture of old and new: the original structure has been converted to include a marvellous tropical garden, shops, cafes and even a nightclub; while the business of catching trains takes place in the new part, designed by Rafael Moneo. The station also includes a monument to victims of the terrorist bombings of commuter trains in Madrid in 2004. - GEMMA TIPTON

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