I’ll admit, I sometimes too feel like the world’s a cold and forlorn place, closed off, unrecommendable, with nothing beyond the most pedestrian or sallow gifts to offer – and then the weary, fetid soul: that oft befuddled, tired soul, no mystery so much as an incessant and repetitious recurrence.
Most of the time I’m feeling pretty good though.
I was kind of wondering the other day: what’s the heart of Midtown? This was coming off of an earlier musing: what the hell is Midtown? That one might be, ultimately, unknowable. But for the first one, I figured 42nd Street would be a decent guess. I was only even asking the question because it was so hot out and I was thinking how inhospitable Midtown is: absorbing and radiating out its own internal heat, and then, following that (some what perversely) – standing, expectant, on its edges – I was thinking how one could feel compelled, driven almost, to delve into its thick, sun-blasted canyons of as if on some type of vision quest. Does that make sense? I was already pretty sweaty and delirious by now.
Heading east on 42nd Street, from the Hudson, there’s the feeling of moving from new to old, from empty towards full, from the threshold to the established. The crux is probably somewhere near Fifth Avenue, closer to Park. In fact the crux, possibly, is Grand Central Station (officially Grand Central Terminal, but who cares, right? We’re sweaty). Grand Central is nestled firmly, snuggly, in the city fabric, in its stream – a rock really – which is impressive because in truth Grand Central is a door: an exit, a passage out of the madness. And it’s a throw back too: the largest train station in the world (44 platforms, 67 tracks) at a time when rail travel ain’t exactly what it used to be. Still, Metro-North remains one of the busiest commuter rails in the U.S., with about 140,000 people passing through Grand Central daily (compared to close to 600,000 over at Penn Station).
Grand Central wasn’t built for Metro-North though; it was built for the much larger and more extensive New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, the New York & Harlem Railroad, and the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad. The first two of those railroads, at least, were owned by “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt: who got his start (and nickname) running ferry service in the harbor out of Staten Island. He created Grand Central in part to physically consolidate his different rail lines; the first depot was opened in 1871 (by all accounts already obsolete when it was finished), with renovations to follow in 1898 and 1900. The big change came though only when it was decided (with much public and governmental coercion) to electrify, sink and then cover up the entire railroad yard and tracks all the way up Fourth Avenue to 96th Street. Out of that idea the current Grand Central Terminal, and also Park Avenue, was born.
The Terminal, completed in 1913, was a huge, expensive, ten year long endeavor, that played out as a bit of a power struggle between the two architectural firms involved: Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore, with Warren & Wetmore seemingly winning out (and being primarily responsible for the Beaux Arts style and details of the building). One of Reed & Stem’s big contributions though was the use of viaducts to run Park Avenue around Grand Central Terminal, which I guess is pretty blasé today, but honestly, is pretty wacky. It’s kind of like the past’s idea of what the future would look like, you know: let’s just run elevated roads around buildings, no problem, they’ll probably all be doing it in 30 years. So there you go. There’s basically a highway circling Grand Central Station like a belt, around the second floor or so – a highway – and no one even talks or gives a shit about it!
Anyway, sorry. The interior of the terminal, of course, is very beautiful (you can’t see the highway) and famous, but probably everyone knows that already. There’s been a move in recent years, beginning with extensive restorations in the 90s, to make Grand Central a destination in its own right, which is bearing fruit today: nice restaurants upstairs ringing the Main Concourse, gourmet shopping at the Grand Central Market, and then a host of cheaper options in the Dining Concourse downstairs. It’s pretty cool: I mean, the building’s here already, we should use it. I think it would be fun to get dressed up real nice, like an old-fashioned, classy 1920’s look, and sit down in the Dining Concourse with a couple different newspapers, ex-pat style, and just drink Fernet. And then, you know, go and eat at like Chipotle. Also the Oyster Bar (since 1913!) lists where all their beers are from, including Budweiser, which I think is great. Like, “Hey, what do have that’s from St. Louis?” “Man, this is delicious!”
And a whole lot more of other things. There’s way too much about this place to fully delve into: the railroad’s history, the architecture, “Commodore” Vanderbilt himself, Park Avenue and the skyscrapers and developments that run along it. No lack of tangents there: more than enough to get you going. A map of our curiosity would possibly look a lot like New York City, except with way fewer straight lines and angles, and also, to read it right, you’d have to be physically running and maybe adding on to it, incessantly, just as you go, and also, probably shouting. But it’s cool though; I mean, we’re already sweating, right?
(Originally posted Aug. 11th, 2011 on Takethehandle.com)