Grand Central Terminal celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Its magnificence is more meaningful though when measured against its cross-town competitor, Penn Station.
As someone who has at one time commuted daily for a span of two years in and out of each station, I’m in a good position to compare the two. The New York Times said it well from the architectural side in February 2012. “To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.”
I never appreciated Grand Central until a two-year purgatory in Penn Station reminded me that you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry. New York is a very different city viewed through the grandeur of Grand Central.
The two stations bring commuters to very different parts of the New York metro area. From Grand Central, Metro North serves Connecticut, Westchester County, and the Hudson Valley; from Penn Station, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road serve their respective suburbs.
I grew up in Mount Kisco, a stop on the Harlem Line 36.5 miles north from Grand Central according to the old sign affixed to the ticket office across from the platform. To this day when people ask where I am from I tell them Mount Kisco, a little town about 35 miles north of the City. These days I live in Brooklyn; I take the train back to Mount Kisco once a month or so to visit my country home (otherwise known as my parent’s place).
Grand Central, as a figure of speech, indicates a place of great comings and goings (at least to this New Yorker) like the hallways of a high school at the bell, a hospital emergency room, or a busy office reception area.
The information booth is now manned by a guy with dreadlocks who feeds directions to tourists to Times Square in a voice his microphone renders like a robot with emphysema. I have a 10-pass that I buy just before the recent fare increase. I ask information if I will need to pay the difference onboard. It’s a lightweight question. I'm good to go.
I’m not the only one with a camera. A tourist is taking a picture of her friend whose arms are outstretched in a mid-flight jumping jack pose; the starscape ceiling provides the backdrop. These two from Tokyo are here to take pictures, not trains. They have come to Grand Central as a destination in itself, not as a portal to another place.