Grand Central Terminal: The Book

Thane Rosenbaum in The Huffington Post, January 24, 2013

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by Thane Rosenbaum

For most people around the world, Grand Central Terminal is not so much a train station as a metaphor for directionless mayhem, traffic run amuck, bodies barely dodging one another -- only a miracle can divert a head-on collision of either man or machine.

Of course, Grand Central Terminal is an actual place where destinations are more seamlessly arrived at and departures more capably performed. Each day 750,000 people are transported in and out of a train station that doubles as a ringside seat to the very epicenter of Manhattan. If anything, given the efficiency and magnitude of its people-moving operations, Grand Central, the terminal, is much maligned by Grand Central, the metaphor.

Grand Central Terminal is now celebrating its centennial year and to mark the occasion, Sam Roberts, the longtime Urban Affairs Correspondent for the New York Times, author of many books and articles about New York, and a true man about Manhattan and the other boroughs, brings us Grand Central: How A Train Station Transformed America, a wonderful book that elevates Grand Central above the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building as the most iconic of all New York City landmarks.

Beautifully written and replete with priceless photographs, Roberts takes his readers on a smooth train ride that begins, ironically, with a rail accident, occurring in 1902, which led the Vanderbilt brothers, Cornelius and Alfred, great grandsons of the Commodore, to spearhead a massive project in urban renewal that would raze the old Grand Central Station and transform it by 1913 into the majestic Grand Central Terminal that we know today.

And over the next century Grand Central would become known for shuttling American presidents and foreign dignitaries, military servicemen and kids heading off to summer camp and, of course, millions of gray-suited businessmen who were memorialized in such movies as North by Northwest, Kill Me If You Can, and, most recently, the ad men from TV's Mad Men.

The station has been the site of ransom demands and mail train robberies, as well as the target of both Nazi saboteurs and terrorist bomb makers. Over the decades people have been born, married, and died within its limestone and steel structure. Roberts reveals the secret passageways hidden both below and above its tracks, the song lyrics and literary works it inspired, how modern time actually began on its Tiffany clock, and how a hole in its celestial ceiling still tricks the eye. Grand Central even played a role in both the civil rights movement and on 9/11, along with once providing a covert getaway for an American president.

Roberts reasonably argues that the creation of Grand Central Terminal was the big bang moment that shifted the center of gravity in Manhattan to Midtown. And he offers up a cast of characters, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who etched their names in the annals of landmark preservation by showing how the politics of city hall can, at times, rival the frenzy and commotion of a train station.

All tracks lead to Grand Central Terminal. Read this entertaining book and climb aboard.