I had to be there.
Today is the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal and I made sure to swing by for a little while this morning and enjoy the party.
There was an orchestra warming up in the middle of the terminal when I arrived. A crowd was quickly forming and security was tight with police officers and National Guardsmen patrolling the place.
The luggage area was filled with displays detailing the history of what is quite possibly my favorite New York City landmark.
I am certainly not knocking the Statute of Liberty (She’s officially in Jersey), Central Park, the Empire State Building or any of the many museums, art galleries, or theaters that this city has to offer.
It’s just that Grand Central Station has a special place in my heart.
I remember the terminal back in the bad old days of the Seventies, when it was essentially a massive homeless shelter.
On a cold winter’s night, people with no place to live would move into station in search of shelter and very aggressively ask for change. I recall one freezing night in particular when the homeless outnumbered the travelers. It was a bad time for Grand Central and for New York, as well.
I want to make myself clear: I am not saying the homeless should be chased off the streets and locked up in pens. We’re all a little closer to being homeless than we would like to believe, so compassion is paramount in dealing with this problem.
But you cannot allow a major transportation hub and a magnificent work of architecture to be turned into a giant flophouse. That’s not a solution; that’s a surrender.
The First Hundred Years
Back then there was usually some foul odor in the air and the ceiling way overhead was blackened with decades’ worth of filth and grime.
Nobody went there except the commuters, of course, and they only hung around long enough to get their trains and run like hell back to the suburbs.
Ed Koch was the mayor of New York for many of those dark years and, while I wasn't a fan, it seems sadly ironic that such a charismatic New Yorker would die on the same day we celebrate the centennial of one of the city's greatest treasures.
The terminal was in danger of being torn down in 1968, but a group of concerned citizens, including Jackie Onassis, fought to save this magnificent structure from the wrecking ball.
Grand Central was refurbished and when I moved back to New York in 1998, I went to a celebration commemorating the station’s rebirth.
There were shops and restaurants in the station. That atrocious black ceiling was scrubbed clean and the original night sky shade of blue-green was restored—complete with lighted starts and outlines of constellations.
I actually encourage out-of-towners to visit Grand Central now, instead of warning them to steer clear of the place.
If I’m anywhere in the vicinity of the terminal, I’ll make a point of walking through it just to take in the atmosphere, watch the people rushing by, and admire the beautiful surroundings.
Grand Central is more than just a location to me. It’s a living, breathing place that bears witness to millions of stories passing through its doors.
I didn’t stay for very long today this morning. The terminal was getting crowded and I had to get back to work.
On the way to the subway, I noticed a man who appeared to be homeless leaning against a closed ticket window and wolfing down a sandwich. Festivities notwithstanding, we still have more work to do.
But the renovation offers an important lesson for all of us. Just like Grand Central, people can be salvaged, too. You can always shake off the grime, get back on track and resume your journey.