Terminally Grand? Heritage, Tourism and the Everyday at Grand Central Terminal Courtney Cauthon November 2003 Tourist Productions Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

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Terminally Grand?

Heritage, Tourism and the Everyday at Grand Central Terminal


Courtney Cauthon

November 2003

Tourist Productions

Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

I would like to give a special thanks to Joseph Svehlak for his many wonderful and inspiring tours of Grand Central Terminal. Without his love for Grand Central this paper would not be what it is.

“Travel (like walking) is a substitute for the legends that used to open up space to something different. What does travel ultimately produce if it is not, by a sort of reversal, “an exploration of the deserted places of my memory,” the return to nearby exoticism by way of a detour through distant place, and the “discovery” of relics and legends: “fleeting visions of the French countryside,” “fragments of music and poetry,” in short, something like an “uprooting in one’s origins (Heidegger)? What this walking exile produces is precisely the body of legends that is currently lacking in one’s own vicinity; it is a fiction…”1

Grand Central Terminal. Terminal/terminus/terminally? The forming of a boundary, the coming to a limit, approaching death, the end point: Grand Central Terminal. Constructed at the beginning of the last century Grand Central Terminal has been and continues to be a portal, an entrance into New York City. It sits both literally and figuratively on a threshold. It is the site between the traveler’s reality and the legend, as de Certeau suggests, that is in the continual process of being created as one embodies the acts of travel. Grand Central is both the creator and potential destroyer (the terminus?) of the traveler’s desires. It is the place where the distance traveler and the traveler of the everyday meet and together they “explore the deserted places of their memories.” Architecturally Grand Central is the stage on which these memories, both real and fictitious, are performed. As either an entrance to the city or a final destination for a journey to the city, Grand Central Terminal is a pivotal point in the formation and reproduction of constructed ideals and histories of the city that lies just beyond its walls. In this way the space literally becomes a boundary, a limit, an end point. It is the place that distinguishes certain memories, histories, and practices of the city. Grand Central Terminal therefore becomes a form of New York heritage fully staged both in stone and human flesh. It is a living snapshot of a remembered New York while at the same time it is an active sketch of a future that is yet to come.

Straddling the gap between past, present and future Grand Central Terminal functions as a multiuse site in an attempt to contain and maintain its history. Structurally the site is a city landmark. It is a piece of property designated as holding certain historical value. It references a particular historical time and through its act of stillness, it’s physical presence standing on 42nd Street between Vanderbilt and Lexington Avenues, it narrates a story between the historic and modern New York. Even though Grand Central is a landmarked building it is also a modern working train terminal. It is a place that provides access to and from the city for suburban commuters. Unlike many other historical landmarks and sites within the city Grand Central Terminal is still used for the purpose that it was built. It has not become a museum sectioned off from the city, frozen in time. Instead it is a place that recognizes the significance of its historical past, but at the same time pushes forward in order to be useful and relevant to the modern life of the city. Similar to the viaduct that connects the main terminal to Park Avenue, Grand Central itself functions as a bridge; it is a point of junction between the past, present and future. To be in Grand Central is to in one way step into another historical time, while at the same moment to perform in the present, and work toward constructing a future. To be in Grand Central is to experience, at the same time, the collapse of linear time and the convergence of two kinds of travelers: those of the everyday and those who cover distance. Somewhere within a negotiation of time, space, and people Grand Central Terminal produces and sustains a form of New York heritage.

In order to begin to understand this relationship between heritage, tourism and the everyday it is important to place the site in a historical context. From within this framework one is able work outward in order to examine and analyze how the site has come to function as a place where these three performances (heritage, tourism, and the everyday) are created. An analysis of these performances will be done through the lens of the weekly walking tour of the terminal. The walking tour provides a structure for viewing the site; however it does not specifically attend to the performances of heritage, tourism and the everyday. The tour, though, does gesture toward what it leaves out and it also provides traces that can be gathered and reassembled in an attempt to open a dialogue about the significance of Grand Central Terminal as a symbol/representation/icon of New York City.

At the turn of the last century designs for a new train terminal in New York City were being considered. These designs were to replace the Grand Central Depot that was built by Commodore Vanderbilt earlier in the century. By 1903 decisions had been made to use the designs proposed by Whitney Warren of the architectural firm Warren and Whitmore. However, Whitmore and Warren were to work in conjunction with the firm Reed and Stem in order to complete the project. Warren, who is most credited for the design had been schooled in architecture at the Ecole de Beaux- Arts in Paris.2 This training lies at the heart of the design for Grand Central Terminal. As a type of architectural style, beaux-arts designs hinge on a desire to inspire awe. They work to produce a feeling of grandeur in those who encounter them. The outside façade of the structure is to mirror what is contained within the building and both the inside and outside are to position the body in such a way that it gains a new sense of itself.3 Grand Central Terminal does just this; it functions as a space that creates a sensation of splendor in those who engage with it.

To perform daily tasks at Grand Central is to turn the mundane into something extraordinary. The space resonates with a kind of charged energy. In his book on the history, design, and engineering of the terminal Kurt Schlichting proposes that, “The Grand Concourse, the central element of the building, provides a secular cathedral to the spirit of commerce and the exuberance of travel. It continues to serve as both a gateway to the city and as a magnificent public building that lifts the spirits of all who pass through it.”4 Schlichting’s assertion suggests that the design elements of the building work together in order to reconfigure the bodies that pass through them. The vaulted ceilings of the grand concourse give height and evoke a sense of openness that makes one feel as though they were outside. This feeing is strengthened by the mural of the night sky that covers the entire ceiling. The room draws the eye upwards and its sheer magnitude provides the body with a new sense of scale. The grand staircases on either end of the concourse echo those in the great opera houses of Europe and they offer a place for people to both view and be viewed. To stand on the balcony of either staircase is to place the body in a position of power; it is here that the eye can take in the entire space. The arched windows on the east and west ends of the grand concourse are reminiscent of the Arc de Triumph and signal a grand entrance to the city. These arches, the staircases, and the volume of the space all endow the place with a particular “larger than life” quality. It is this quality that stimulates the overall ambiance of the space and it is from this ambiance that the place has the ability to manipulate the way that the body feels and behaves has it performs its everyday tasks within the space.

More than anything Warren’s beaux arts design for Grand Central Terminal creates an extraordinary space out of the most ordinary of places. The notion of an extraordinary space is a fundamental characteristic of a tourist site according to Chris Rojek who states that a tourist site is, “a spatial location which is distinguished from everyday life by virtue of its natural, historical, or cultural extraordinariness.”5 Rojek continues to suggest that, “[T]ravel sights are usually physically distant from our ordinary locale. The remoteness of the sight requires abandoning our everyday life routines and social place and physically entering a new area. The physical movement to new places and situations obviously invokes the unfamiliar. This, in turn, invites speculation and fantasy about the nature of what one might find and how our ordinary assumptions and practices regarding everyday life may be limited.”6 Grand Central although extraordinary does not require that one travel far in order to be taken to a place of wonder. Instead Grand Central seems to mediate a sense of “abandoning our everyday life routines” while in the process of carrying these routines out. It provides a place where people can meet, eat, gather, shop, explore, and be entertained all within the structure of the everyday life of the city. The extraordinariness of the design and the stories that are attached to the building fester a desire to indulge in the fantasies that creep into the mind as one passes through the grand concourse. In a sense being present in Grand Central is a form of recalling a historical past. It is the evocation of de Certeau’s walking exile and Rojek’s invitation for speculation. Grand Central, although not remote in terms of location, has the potential to take a visitor out of the hustle and bustle of the everyday and into a place that seems distant and removed from the outside city. This removal from the outside is of course not a total break form the outside because Grand Central’s remoteness is always influenced by the city that it stands within. Grand Central is thus constantly in the process of negotiating the fine line between life of the everyday and life of the tourist.

Because Grand Central Terminal sits on the threshold between being a tourist destination and being a site for the production of everyday life “tourism” as a practice becomes structured in very particular ways throughout he terminal. In order to understand the function of tourism in Grand Central it is important to first look at how the “tourists” can be defined. There are three distinct types of tourists that can be found within the terminal. There are literal tourists; those who are not from New York and have come to the site as one of many destinations during their time in the city. These tourists are typically found on the Municipal Arts Council tour or having their picture taken from the west balcony. There are also literal tourists, not from the city, who are using Grand Central not as a tourist destination, but rather as a point of arrival or departure. Their engagement with the space is practical and straightforward. For them the site is a transient space, a space that moves them from one place to another. The next kind of tourist is the everyday tourist. This is a person who uses the space not as a particular destination outside of their everyday experience, but as a destination within their everyday routine. What is remarkable is that the space produces itself in such a way that it shapes a kind of tourist, modern man moving through the world, out of people in their everyday life. The space puts itself on display and asks those who use it to engage with the city in a new way. This is done through the use of exhibitions, the holiday light shows, lunchtime concerts, and the StroyCorps booth. Each of these aspects of Grand Central fashions those who engage with the space as “tourists,” as everyday people navigating the world in search of experience.7

Grand Central, though always a significant space within the city gained a new kind of importance after the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in the 1965.8 This event marks the impetus for a desire to preserve Grand Central Terminal and can be thought of as the event that has brought Grand Central to the place that it is today. The relationship between the two train terminals points towards the reasons why Grand Central currently functions as an unofficial heritage site. Once Penn Station was destroyed, Grand Central was the only remaining train terminal with architecture from the turn of the century. The terminal came to symbolize the industrial and technological developments of the twentieth century. It also signified a way of life that was rapidly coming to an end. Therefore, with Penn Station gone and Madison Square Garden being constructed it was strongly felt that the city needed to begin to understand and appreciate the importance of historical preservation. The controversy that came with Penn Station’s demise prompted the passing of the New York City Preservation Law. This law was to be implemented in order to promote “civic pride in the beauty and noble accomplishments of the past” and it was to work for the creation of historic districts, landmarks and educational programs for citizens who live in and around these places.9 Grand Central Terminal can be seen as one of the great accomplishments of preservation permitted through the passing of the New York Preservation Law. With its ties to the loss of Penn Station and the passing of the preservation legislation it becomes understandable why Grand Central has come to stand as a symbol of civic pride and historical significance.

The renovated Grand Central Terminal, which stands today, is not a heritage site like others one might encounter in the city, such as Ellis Island or the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. These sites one visits outside their daily life, they are destinations on an itinerary established with the overt purpose of learning about a particular moment in history that is believed to be of importance. Unlike these other heritage sites Grand Central Terminal is a working train station. It is a place that is used for everyday the activities of going and coming to work. Although Grand Central, does becomes a destination on an itinerary and a cultivator of heritage, it does this in an obtuse manner. Heritage at Grand Central Terminal is embedded in the everyday activities of those who use the space. The space does not overtly define itself as a heritage site, but in its presentation and though what it has to offer it functions as a place that stimulates a relationship between the past and the present.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggests that, “[H]eritage is not lost and found, stolen and reclaimed. It is a mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse to the past.”10 She argues that this production of culture in the present uses the past as a foundation and through citation of this past creates something new in the present. Thus heritage production is not a recreation of a past event or time, but a re-configuring of this past in the present. During the process of re-configuration things are both added and lost in order to create a version of the original. Grand Central is very much a place that has taken a hold of its historical past and uses that to “add value” to what it has to offer in the present. An examination of the weekly walking tour that takes place in the terminal and the process of renovation may provide a means to better understand just how heritage is produced and played out within the terminal.

The tour brochure for the Municipal Arts Council and many of the tour books state that the free weekly walking tour of Grand Central will, “Meet at the information booth, main concourse.” This seems a rather precarious place to suggest as a meeting point, for although the information booth sits at the center of the grand concourse it lacks a sense of distinct place. The circular information booth would be difficult for any visitor to miss however as a meeting point it does not provide a point of conjuncture, rather provides a radius around which there are an infinite number of possible meeting points. Because the circular information booth acts as a kind of guide though the grand concourse; moving people along curved paths, swinging them around the space as if in a catapult, the way in which it is used as a marker for the convergence of weekly walking tour is interesting. It is interesting because before the tour even begins people are being asked to maneuver the space in a very particular way. They are being asked to experience their own bodies in space; to experience the how the architecture, although still and silent, guides their body in particular ways.

In the grand concourse bodies are in a continuous dance. In his writings on Grand Central, Kurt Schlichting indicates that, “Above all else, Grand Central’s design allows for the steady flow of thousands of people each day to and from the heart of the metropolis. The arrangement of interior spaces composes a clearly laid out pattern of circulation so that passengers move from the street to their trains smoothly and without confusion.”11 The design of the building to choreograph the movements of bodies is more than evident when watching the tour group congregate. Watching from the west balcony, the grand concourse is alive as people wined in and out of one another. Small enclaves of people brake from the rhythm to offer a different pattern. The new pattern is still and it emergences around the information booth. Several small groups of people offer their part to this dance of stillness as they congregate around the information booth at the centre of the grand concourse. These groupings are small, two to four people at the most. They gather with cameras in hand, talk anxiously within their small groups, their gaze shifts from the ceiling, to the clock which presides over the information booth. The clock reads: 12:25.

The small groupings that have formed around the information booth seem to be growing in number. A middle aged man breaks from his initial grouping, his family it would seem, and asks a couple standing near him if they are waiting for the “Free Tour.” The man answers with a “yes” and both return to their respective clusters. As the small groups grow in number they create a tension between the flow of traffic through the space; they resistance the impulse to enter into the flow of moving traffic. As people make their way from the 42nd Street entrance to the escalators on the north side of the concourse they must swing around the crowd that is forming at the center of the concourse. The entire room resonates with the words that William Whyte used to describe it, “Almost everyone is on a collision course with someone else, but with the multitude of retards, accelerations, and side steps they go their way untouched. It is indeed a great dance.”12

The clock at the centre of the dance now reads: 12:29. A middle aged man appears, as if by magic, from the steady stream of moving people. He wears a tour guide badge and waves a handful of flyers. This gesture is used to bring together the small clusters and form one large group. This new group consists of forty-five to fifty people. The majority are out of town tourists who have come to experience one of New York City’s most popular destinations. As the group pulls together those passing by turn and look, the large group is out of the ordinary. It is something that changes the dynamic of the space and this change is highlighted by those who acknowledge the groups presence.

Once gathered the tour begins. It is slightly hard to hear the guide as the vaulted ceilings absorb the voice and the feet on the marble floor echo a hurried song. Even though the voice of the guide dissipates it is impossible to ignore the large clump of people who have positioned themselves on the west side of the information booth on the grand concourse. Standing and straining slightly to hear the details of the restoration project all eyes turn to the ceiling for a moment of revelry. As the group’s turns to the “sky” above, the movement within the concourse continues. Those moving through the concourse must roll off of the still crowd, wined their way around the people, and take a different route. The tour group has claimed a spot and others must negotiate around them. Two men in ties pass and as they do they roll their eyes and remark on the tour and the people with cameras. These two men do not seem to understand that their ties and suit jackets mark them as part of the scene, part of the “authentic everyday New York life,” they are a part of what those of us with cameras have come to see.

The tour continues. It is given by members of the Municipal Arts Council and is therefore framed very much by the mission and ideals of the Council. As stated on the tour schedule the Municipal Arts Council has a mission to “promote a more livable city” it works to “enrich the culture, neighborhoods and physical design of New York City” they are “advocates for excellence in urban planning, contemporary architecture, historic preservation and public art.” With these goals in mind the tour works to mediate a conversation around a kind of “ethical” restoration of history and an integration of history into the everyday lives of the people of New York. This narration offers an active relationship between past and present and may be seen as a means of cultivating a sense of heritage, a kind of belonging and responsibility.

Throughout the tour time is taken to observe the ways in which the building has been restored so that it both functions as a modern building, but retains the qualities of its historical past. What eventually arises out of this context is a sense that Grand Central Terminal is a site of “invented tradition” as described by Eric Hobsbawm in his introduction to the book The Invention of Tradition. Here Hobsbawm suggests that, “’Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.”13 As Hobsobawm works through these ideas it becomes clear that ‘invented tradition’ walks the ambiguous line between fact and fiction. The narrative of the renovation of Grand Central that unfolds throughout the tour illustrates how the terminal positions itself within this ambiguity. For example while in the lobby of The Campbell Apartment the guide explains that during the renovation whenever any piece of the original building was replaced with something new it was marked with the date that it was replaced. So that in the future people will know what is “original” and what is not. This process is one that is on going, any time something within the building is replaced it will be marked. What is interesting about this process is that eventually all that will be left of Grand Central Terminal is a shell, a skeleton of what once was. Each piece of the reconstructed “Grand Central Terminal” will hold a different moment of time. The building itself will begin (has already begun) to reflect the passage of time. In one hundred years when the building is being restored once again each piece of the building can be linked to its exact date in history. Therefore lighting fixture 1999 may become lighting fixture 2099, banister 2000 becomes 2100, marble tile 2003, 2103. It is a never ending process of finding traces and replacing them. The building goes on, however is it Grand Central Terminal? What happens to it? It sits as it always has, but it is both present and absent, both a historical monument and a modern building. It is an ‘invented tradition’ in that it is accepted as what it is labeled, even though this may or many not be congruent with an “authentic” past.

The information provided in the tour places the building in a historical context by emphasizing the restoration process and what this has done for the terminal. This emphasis on the historical and restorative aspects of the building makes the tour an activity that opens the possibilities for the reliving of a historical moment. While the tour is conducted in the present and is continuously interrupted by the presence of the everyday, tourists are taken into a world that walks the traverse between past and present. They are asked to suspend their belief in the present and retreat to a time that they may or may not remember. They are to use the present to recall the past.

Two men join the tour for a short time. This is not uncommon; as they pass by many people will stop to listen to the stories of the place that they are moving through. However these two men grab my attention. As the guide paints a word picture of Vanderbilt Hall, when it was still used as the waiting room for the terminal, the two men exchange a dialogue around their memories of coming to Grand Central as young men and waiting in Vanderbilt Hall. They recall showers that they took in the once functioning shower room and people that they had come to visit. As the tour guide continues the two men seem to quiz one another: “Do you remember that?” “Yes.” “Oh, I don’t remember that do you?” These two men seem to be engaged in a creation, a performance of memory. As the mean are guided by the stories of the tour guide and also the space in which they are standing their stories seem to come to life. The connection between story, memory and space resonates as these men speak. It also resonates as a key element of the guided tour and the event of heritage making at Grand Central.

Throughout the tour the space is brought to life through the use of personal stories and antidotes from the guide. Apt time is also given for those on the tour to add their own personal stories to the space. The use of personal story provides links between past and present and it also creates a space that seems private even though it is public. With this in mind Grand Central can be thought of as a storehouse for memories. It is a kind of memory container, literally played out through the installation of the StoryCorps booth, which is located on the north side of the terminal near the Lexington Avenue. The StroyCorps booth is a small soundproofed booth in which people may be interviewed and have their story recorded. StoryCorps is an organization that works to celebrate, “our shared humanity and collective identity” through the collecting of stories. 14 What the presence of such an installation at Grand Central Terminal does is emphasize the significance of story to the place. Grand Central would not be what it is today if it did not carry with it the stories that it does. The stories collected at the Story Corps booth are stories both of Grand Central and of New York in general and they signify the kind of living archive that Grand Central has become. The booth and Grand Central in general have positioned themselves as holders of memory and cultivators of the relationship between past and present. They are thus cultivators of heritage.

Before the tour ends, back in the grand concourse, the guide makes a statement along the lines of, “You are all tour guides now. Bring others back to Grand Central and play.” This small acknowledgement of the tour participant’s new status within the space and the offering of the space to be used for the enjoyment of play is a generous gesture. It suggests that the site, although a historic landmark, is a public place and should be used by the public for their enjoyment. This offering of the space also allows for each tour participant to now begin or continue a narrative with the site. We can each now insert and create our own memories which can be held within the great walls of the grand concourse. The tour is ends with a quote from Winston Churchill, “We make our buildings and our buildings make us.” This seems a more than fitting close to the architecturally focused history tour of Grand Central Terminal. There is something within the interplay between the human figure and its constructed surroundings that needs to be explored and Grand Central may provide the space to do this.

Even though Grand Central Terminal is no longer the first place that one might encounter when they arrive in New York City, unless of course that they are commuting by train from either Connecticut or Westchester County, it remains a point of destination for people who come to the city whether or not they arrive in or leave from the city by train via Grand Central. People venture to the terminal despite the fact that they may or may not have a place to go. This is supported by the fact that the tour group had roughly fifty people in it. The people come not to leave, but to stay. Grand Central Terminal is not a place solely for those in transit, it is a destination point. It is a point that attracts people for reasons beyond the functionality of the terminal as a train depot. The terminal is a kind of public plaza, a place that functions as a “home away from home.”15

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, who took over the lease of the property in 1978, has been actively marketing Grand Central in this manner, as a public plaza and a multi-use facility. This kind of marketing has reconfigured the ways in which one engages with the space and has helped to make Grand Central a destination point for reasons other than the buildings historical significance. The marketing campaign of the MTA can be seen on the back of Timeout magazines, in subway cars and on posters throughout the terminal itself that read sayings such as: “Yes…Grand Central is your destination for: 5 Fine Restaurants and Cocktail Lounges, New Outdoor Seating, 20 Eateries on the Dining Concourse, Grand Central Market, 50 Specialty Shops, and Even a Museum.”16 From such advertising it becomes clear that Grand Central is more than just a train terminal it is site that can be and should be used for a multitude of activities and for many different people. It is a place to spend the afternoon shopping, eating, meeting people, and learning about the city.

To market the terminal like this shifts the use of the terminal in such a way that debate has been provoked regarding the implications of bringing people to the terminal for reasons other than to take a train into or out of the city. What is interesting however is that the terminal has always been a place for public use and has always been a site of commerce and entertainment.17 Still, the renovation of the space has brought with it current concerns and ideas about what a historical landmark should look like and how one should engage with it. Such ideas have sparked many responses to the renovation of the terminal ranging from it being too commercial and bourgeois to it being a model for future historical renovation and development.

In an article published just after the renovation of the site Herbert Mushcamp of the New York Times suggested that, “Grand Central was built 83 years ago as temple to the manly cult of work: hustle, bustle, button-down collar, the high-powered rhythm of the 9 to 5. It will reemerge as a shrine to rituals traditionally associated with domesticity: dinning, shopping and keeping up the house.”18 This shift in the genderization of the space would be significant in the creation of a useable public space according to William Whyte. Whyte, who has done substantial research on the people’s use of and behavior in public spaces, has documented that the best used public spaces have a higher ratio of women using them than men.19Therefore by creating a place that attracts women the space has a better chance at surviving as a well used public plaza. The shift in the gender identity of the space may also be a result of the change of the makeup of the workforce. In today’s society there are many more women who work and thus use Grand Central not as a place to have a late morning coffee or shop, but as a means of getting to and from work. In this regard Grand Central in its renovation does, “reflect the breakdown of that dichotomy and the gender stereotypes associated with it.” As a project it does “inject into the urban workaday world functions and relationships more commonly linked to homey comforts.”20

The restoration not only signals a change in the gender construction of the space, but also a change in the use of the space by social class. Before the restoration, the space had been rundown and was practically taken over by homeless who would use the terminal as a night shelter.21 This unofficial use of the space has been prohibited and the homeless have been pushed out and room has been made for Starbucks. What is interesting about this shift in social makeup is that it places the concept of “public plaza” into question. As Whyte notes in his book, City, it is the “undesirables” that are continuously seen as being in conflict with public space.22 The undesirables are those who seem to be on the fringes of society and pose a “threat” to the smooth workings of a public space. How though does Grand Central Terminal in its desire to create a sense of heritage, to perform an image of New York, reconcile the purposeful invisibility of one of the spaces inhabitants? The space does not attempt to reconcile this discrepancy. Instead like most public places the “undesirables” are relocated and situated within a frame that is more comfortable for the general public. What is left however is an incomplete picture of the public space.

In regards to the role of tourism in this shifting makeup of Grand Central it is interesting to note that one tourist book (published before the restoration was finished) states that, “Although undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration designed to preserve even more of its former glory, in recent years the station has become an unofficial shelter for the city’s homeless, which may lesson your enjoyment of the green-and-gold zodiac fresco on the ceiling of the Main Concourse…”23 A comment such as this only signals a larger problem. This is the problem inherent in the relationship between tourism and the realities of everyday life. Everyday life is not what the tourist desires to see or experience, even though they may propose this.24 However, Grand Central Terminal is a centre of everyday life. Therefore a tourist at Grand Central may be confronted with the harsh realities of life in the city and in fact have an “authentic” New York experience. This authenticity though is not the authenticity that many tourists want to be confronted with. These questions of authenticity of a sight resonate with MacCannel’s claims of a front and back vision of tourist sights.25 What Grand Central provides is a modified back view of life in New York. At Grand Central a visitor is asked to encounter and work within an everyday setting of New York, however even in this space of the everyday (the backstage of the city) certain people and actions are kept out of sight, hidden so a not to tarnish a memory.

It has been argued that renovations of Grand Central have turned the landmark into nothing more than a glorified shopping mall.26 This may be the case, however it is a shopping mall distinct from those that dot the landscape of middle America. It is also distinct from the stores that line Times Square. Grand Central as a shopping mall is not “Disneyfied.” It is commercial, but not to the point sacrificing its own identity for that of greater cooperate America. Grand Central’s commercial feel is geared toward creating a sense of community by providing local merchants with a place to sell their goods. Along the same lines, one is able to find a wide variety of “fast food” on the dining concourse, but there is no sign of any of the large corporate America chains such as Wendy’s or McDonald’s. In order to find such restaurants one must leave the Terminal and venture across Lexington Avenue. The absence of these cooperate chains is deliberate on the part of the Terminal. In an attempt to provide patrons with a “New York Experience” large chain restaurants have been left out of the terminal and are replaced by local and regional vendors such as “Junior’s,” “New York Pretzel,” and “Zaro’s Bread Basket.” On the dining concourse one should be able to sample a variety of food that has been chosen to represent New York City and its inhabitants. Thus one can eat a kosher meal at “Mendy’s Kosher Delicatessen” or sample Indian cuisine at “Café Spice.”

Apart from the dining on the lower concourse Grand Central also offers world class fine dining at restaurants such as the Oyster Bar. Restaurants such as this and the higher end retail shops that line the east end of the terminal signal the division of class within this public plaza. It is such places that have brought scrutiny to the renovations done at the terminal. And it is also such places that mark the struggle not only in tourism, but in everyday life between those who have the means to enjoy such places, and travel and those who do not. Even though Grand Central must negotiate this division that it sits between, the site itself still holds significance to people from many different backgrounds.

What becomes most apparent at Grand Central is that to engage with the space is to resurrect past memories and bring what is now absent from the space into presence. It is the body which is simultaneously present and absent as it walks, gestures, and stands that signals the ways in which space has been and can be occupied. Through its relationship with its surroundings the moving body cuts across spatiality and temporality. It becomes a medium, which gathers and rearticulates the tactile information that it encounters. Located within the relationship between the body and space, history becomes fragments of time and place that are dislodged and relocated as the body moves. The body works to reenter/reform/re-perform history through its engagement with the space that it occupies. The relationship among the body, space, memory/history is a complicated patchwork of both bodily and spatial practices. This patchwork is held together by the tension between the myth and the reality of experience. It is somewhere within the correlation of the myth and reality of experience that a place is established where memory/history can be formed in the mind and preformed in the body. Grand Central is a site in which these bodily and spatial practices have the opportunity to come together to create a manifestation of what New York once was, what it is, and what it could be. It is therefore through the continuous action of people engaging with Grand Central Terminal that will allow for meaning to be re-incited into the space. It is this re-inciting of meaning that will allow for the space to continue being a public plaza that produces a representation of New York, both past and present.

Standing as one of the best known landmarks in the city of New York, Grand Central Terminal is the physical manifestation of what can be produced from de Certeau’s “walking exile”. It is the memory palace, the house of legends, it is the fiction that is constructed for what is lacking in the lives of those who encounter it. Fiction however is not entirely untrue and Grand Central’s grandness is not completely imposed. It is a grand place within a grand city and until it is at risk again of being lost is will be required to play its part as “Grand.”



1 De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkley: University of California Press, 107.

2 Schlichting, Kurt C. 2001. Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering and Architecture in New York City. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, p.121.

3 Ibid., p. 141.

4 Ibid., p. 146.

5 Rojek, Chris and Urry, John. Eds. 1997. Touring Cultures: Transformations of Travel and Theory. London and New York: Routledge, p. 52.

6 Ibid., p. 53.

7 MacCannell, Dean. 1976. The Tourist: A New theory of the Leisure Class. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 1.

8 Schlichting, p. 195.

9 Ibid., p. 203.

10 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1998. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 150.

11 Schlichting, p. 140.

12 Whyte, William H. 1988. City: Rediscovering the Center. New York: Doubleday, p. 67.


13 Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. Introduction. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1-14, p. 1.

14 StoryCorps website, http://www.storycorps.net

15 Belle, John and Leighton Maxinne R. 2000. Grand Central: Gateway to A Million Lives. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 165.

16 Brochure put out by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Can be picked up at the Station Master’s Office in Grand Central Terminal.

17Belle and Leighton, p. 165.

18 Muschamp, Herbert. “Grand Central as a Hearth In the Heart of the City” New York Times, February 4, 1996, late edition: Section 2. p. 27.

19 Whyte, William H. 1980. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Washington D.C.: The Conservation Foundation, p. 18.

20 Muschamp. February 4, 1996.

21 Belle and Leighton, p.106.

22 Whyte. 1988, p. 156.

23 Zenfell, Martha Ellen. Ed. 1993. Insight Guides: New York City. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 136.

24 MacCannell, p. 91.


25 Ibid., p. 93.

26 Kennedy, Shawn. “Bringing Symmetry and Logic back to ‘New York’s Living Room’” The New York Times, November 26, 1995, late edition: Section 1. pg. 41.


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