While New York City boasts hundreds of iconic landmarks and locations, no New York site encompasses the history, beauty, and community of New York better than Grand Central Terminal. Thousands of commuters pass through its halls each day while clueless tourists disregard disgruntled businessmen and snap photos of the constellation-covered ceiling as if they were cats mesmerized by glittering lights. From famous celebrities to lowly beggars, all people can observe the grandeur that’s been one hundred years in the making. However, beyond all the “excuse me” and “don’t approach me” looks there lies a history within the walls of Grand Central that spans time periods like the Great Depression, the Cold War, and events like the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In what seems like a less eventful era, today Grand Central is not only a hub for traveling in and out of Manhattan, but also a marketplace for high-end shopping that appeals to tourists and native New Yorkers alike. However, Grand Central Station isn’t important to me because of its age or sales of overpriced cheese. Grand Central symbolizes a turning point in my life. While I am merely one of millions of people that have rushed through its halls, I still feel a sense of belonging when I step off the subway or Metro-North train. Grand Central Station is more than just a place to catch a train: it is gateway to opportunity, a rendezvous for strangers, and a portal where past and present collide.
In 2013 Grand Central Station celebrated its centennial anniversary. Grand Central was a small station in 1902, riddled with defective signal systems and only four main lines that served three different railroad companies. When a tragic accident occurred killing fifteen people instantly and injuring thirty-six, two of whom died in the next week, it was decided that a newer, bigger, and better Grand Central had to be built. The accident was caused by two colliding trains that hit because a train engineer hadn’t noticed the signal that another train was stopped ahead of him. According to Sam Roberts, a critically acclaimed author, “the new Grand Central Terminal was built, in a way, by accident” (8). Taking almost a decade to complete, Grand Central cost 80 million dollars to build (2 billion dollars today) and boasted 123 tracks that covered 69.8 acres of Manhattan’s Midtown soil (“A Century of Transporting New York”). It is the world’s largest rail terminal and houses the world’s busiest commuter railroad, Metro-North, which services more than 82 million people a year (Roberts 11).
Aside from the facts and figures, Grand Central Station, which is actually a terminal because trains terminate in its many tunnels, is truly a grand place to visit (Roberts 15). It was the first place that I visited on my New York checklist in February of 2013, and the awestruck feeling I had that day meant more than just being astounded by the beauty of Grand Central itself. When I came to New York City for the first time, I was a confused senior about to graduate high school, unsure of where I was meant to spend the next four years of my life. I’d been accepted to Fordham University and offered a scholarship, so I decided to take Fordham’s offer without even having visited the campus. I told myself, “What the heck? If you hate it, at least it will be a free place to stay in New York City for a year.” My life long dream had been to go to the University of Notre Dame and join the cult that is the Fighting Irish. When I was denied admittance, my parents urged me to do “what my heart told me to do and go where I knew I felt at home.” It’s safe to say that I didn’t really follow their advice when I decided to go Fordham since it was the furthest place, literally and figuratively, from home that I had applied to. After my rather rash decision to attend this university, my parents decided it was only right that I visit the place I’d be living during one of the most important times in my life. When we arrived in New York, my uncle, who lives in the city, told me to make a list of the places I’d like to visit aside from Fordham itself. Honestly, I didn’t really care where we went as long as I could see Central Park and get some shopping in. He suggested that Grand Central Station be the first place we go since we could catch a train straight to the Fordham campus from there.
Once we arrived at Grand Central, I stood in the center of the Main Concourse, breathless. I looked up to see picturesque constellations that I knew only from movies and magazines. I felt the air move as commuters flew past me, their coats flapping past my obscenely large tote that was the first indicator of my tourist status. I whispered a quiet “Wow” as I realized that this would be a place I could visit anytime I wanted when I went to school in this amazing city. In this space where so many paths literally crossed, I could feel my own life taking a new course. I was headed in an entirely new direction; instead of being confused, I was now ecstatic to start my life as a college student. I stood there for at least ten minutes just watching; I watched the people, the clock, the changing times that flashed across screens, and the flashes of cameras. I was distracted abruptly from my reverie by my mom who wanted to walk around the various shops that sold all sorts of marvelous goods. I’d never need any of them, but I already desperately wanted everything in the halls of Grand Central so that I could affirm my status as a New Yorker. We then headed downstairs to the dining concourse (where I unfortunately discovered my newest weakness, New York food) and caught our train whose second stop was Fordham University.
After that day, there was no question whether or not I belonged at Fordham. I had fallen suddenly in love with a city and a school after passing through the halls of Grand Central, and the realization of what a blessing I had been given hit me like the 12:55 North White Plains train. It may seem odd to think that simply going to a historical landmark catalyzed a change in my outlook on life, but I truly feel that being in a place that is literally a crossroads with so many ways to go finally pushed me to realize that I had indeed made the right decision. Tony Hiss commented about a similar feeling he had in Grand Central: “Just walking through the vast main concourse of Grand Central Terminal [ . . . ] almost always triggers in me a spontaneous and quiet change in perception” (3). Like Hiss, I left Grand Central more keenly aware of myself as distinct and important, even among all the travelers and tourists. I was more aware of new smells, noises, and images because I had been bombarded with them in the Main Concourse. I was ready to take on new challenges and meet new people despite the fact that I was scared of leaving my home. However, I was now more invigorated instead of frightened because I knew that I belonged in New York.
Aside from my own story, Grand Central has inspired many stories both true and fictitious. Before I experienced Grand Central for myself, I’d only known the landmark from depictions in animated movies such as Madagascar and scenes from iconic films such as the 1978 version of Superman. Aside from these examples, Grand Central has been the setting for many other movies and books. Grand Central is mentioned in novels that include Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (Begley). Another iconic work of art inspired by Grand Central is By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart. It is a prose poetry novel that is considered a masterpiece by the Wall Street Journal (Weinman). Another account, from the novel Living on the Edge of the World: A Teenager’s Survival in the Tunnels of Grand Central, provides a completely different view of Grand Central. The author lived in the tunnels of Grand Central in the 1980’s when the terminal sheltered many homeless people. She recalls doing drugs in the tunnels:, ”when you’re smoking, the shadows move. Only they’re not real shadows, they’re black spots you sometimes get in front of your eyes. Take a hit and stare at the black spots a minute and they seem to be moving shapes” (S. and Bolnick 189). Obviously, Grand Central is not a pristine monument to the “purity” of New York City.
Another aspect of Grand Central’s identity is its resilience. Grand Central has not always been the polished and pretty place depicted in movies. In fact, it was literally nasty; the terminal went through an intensive cleaning regimen that ended in 1998 to remove years of grime built up from all the smokers in the Main Concourse (Begley). In addition to its uncleanly past, the terminal has a historic past when many homeless people lived within it. To add to Grand Central’s less glamorous biographical facts is the time in the late 1960s when it was nearly destroyed to make way for a 59-story skyscraper, but was saved by the efforts of Jackie Onassis Kennedy (Roberts 160). All of these stories—fictitious or not—reveal how Grand Central has continuously influenced so many lives. Grand Central has not always been the majestic and iconic terminal that no one would dare want gone. Its resilience symbolizes New York as a whole. Like Grand Central, New York has come back from the Great Depression, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Superstorm Sandy, and it’s still considered the capital of the world by many. Grand Central looks beautiful now, as does New York City, but each possesses a character that has been developed from years of hardship that no movie, novel, or personal story could ever encompass. And yet those movies, novels, and personal stories would be incomplete without Grand Central.
I now know that Grand Central Station is more than just a “grand” place because it is more than just some famous landmark to check off my bucket list. Its story is more than just the evolution of a train station. In fact, a story about Grand Central without the many personal accounts about it would be incomplete. My experience there might have been one of the least important events to ever take place within its stone walls, but it will always be one of the most pivotal moments in my life. And that’s what I find wonderful about Grand Central. I cannot even begin to fathom how many pivotal moments have taken place there. How many engagements, epic movie scenes, realizations of the need to get clean, or decisions to do something new have been made in this historical transportation hub? Countless lives may have been changed in Grand Central because it is a communal place where it does not matter whether you are rich or poor, old or young, pretty or ugly. Grand Central may be remembered for its secret passageways, iconic construction, and numerous movie scenes, but I remember it for something so much more fascinating. I remember Grand Central because it has stood witness to so many lives throughout its 100 years, including mine. It has inspired, mystified, and even annoyed millions of people, and yet it still stands today ready to inspire new stories for years to come.
Begley, Sarah. “Grand Central Terminal: 100 years, 100 facts.” The Daily Beast. com. The Daily Beast Company, 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
“A Century of Transporting New York.” MTA.info. Metropolitan Transportion Authority, 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Hiss, Tony. The Experience of Place. New York: Knopf, 1990. Print.
Roberts, Sam. Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America. New York: Hachette, 2013. Print.
S., Tina, and Jamie Pastor Bolnick. Living at the Edge of the World: A Teenager’s Survival in the Tunnels of Grand Central Station. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.
Weinman, Sarah. “One Writer’s Impassioned Journey” WSJ.com. The Wall Street Journal, 6 Nov. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.