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The Story of Grand Central Station and the Taming of the Crowd

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Grand Central Station, New York City. | Image by Taraji Blue. CC; Click on image for license and information.

“Left or right?” he asked me as we watched the commuter train approach. A group of people nearby moved into position to line up with the door, all likely thinking the same thing: How do I get a seat? “Left,” I said. “These people are going to go right.” He looked at me for a minute and then nodded. We followed the initial surge in and turned to the left where the smaller seating section of the train is located—sure enough, the bulk of the crowd flowed to the right.

“Nicely done,” he said as we settled into our seats. If only it were that easy—these calls aren’t guaranteed: they’re dependent on time of day, direction of commute, the type of commuter rail car, the length of the station platform, whether there are special events (that cause more people to take the trains), and of course, people themselves. Guesses about crowd behavior aren’t certain—particularly when it comes crowds on the New York City transportation systems—but patterns do emerge with regard to how we move in public spaces. In the case above, the majority of people may have chosen to look for seats on the right because there are more seats in that area (there may also be a preference for “right,” but let’s save that for another day). These patterns are the result of both social “rules” as well as contextual rules, which are formed by the design of the spaces themselves.

New York City’s Grand Central Terminal can easily overwhelm the unprepared visitor. It is an architectural giant—a famed remnant of the Beaux-Arts era of the City that imposes its sense of elegance and struggles to remain timeless even as the City morphs around it. Visitors to Grand Central Station would not be faulted for thinking that the throngs of bodies (up to 750,000 per day) moving through the cavernous space are focused on little but meeting their trains or getting to their appointments. The hustle and bustle that characterizes this space is more than a chaotic scramble to get somewhere, however: Grand Central Station represents an early exercise in New York City’s history to contain and tame the Crowd.

People may joke about the unruly state of traffic in New York City today—with the primary charges often leveled against the bright yellow City cabs that have a reputation for recklessness—but things are far better than they were in the late 19th-century. The maturation of the American railroad in this period created challenges in defining spatial boundaries and maintaining their corresponding social codes. Above-ground rails interrupted the relatively subdued pace of foot-traffic (which, truly, was not so subdued) and forced pedestrians to demand a reconciliation between mechanization and aesthetics. Political support for the latter—couched in terms of safety, modernization, and degrees of preservation—would eventually drive the rails underground, but that still left the site of the depot to be dealt with.

Grand Central Depot c. 1880 | Public domain.

Train depots were meant to manage meetings between pedestrians and machinery, but they were rudimentary in their earliest forms and possessed little means of inspiring a sense of security. In its prior incarnation as a depot, Grand Central was essentially a train yard that marked a meeting point for three rail lines: the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroad. The New York Times reported that any visitor to the Grand Central Depot “has considerable terrors, for which ever way the eye turns, a brazen Moloch comes snorting and puffing, ready to crush out the life and hurl away the mangled body of the unwary or the frightened” (1).

Grand Central Depot was meant to physically serve as a transition point for the Crowd, marking a clear departure from the outside and suggesting a shift in behavior was warranted. But walls were not enough to encourage and establish these behaviors:

“One among numerous witnesses attesting to the inconveniences and outrages suffered at the Grand Central Depot stated that the passengers “are passed in like hogs. Just before the train starts—sometimes only ten minutes, the doors are opened and there is a scramble pell mell. Hats are knocked off, people kicked in the shins, trampled on the toes and pushed this way and that. I have seen women treated shamefully in that way. I have known them to be left-behind for two trains after they have been waiting a whole hour, but could not get through the gate” (1).

The problem it seemed was that the interior of the depot did nothing to manage the Crowd—which could resume the same patterns of movement as they did on the street—and believe me, it was just as unruly out there. In the depot, where passengers were confronted with the unbridled power of locomotives, it was necessary to impose some sort of structure to the meeting: the Crowd had to be domesticated.

Between 1899 and 1900, changes were made to Grand Central Depot that were meant to control the flow (and behavior) of the Crowd:

    1. Circulation and ticketing was centralized rather than being left to each individual rail company which created a definite processual experience.
    1. A wider passenger concourse was installed, and gates were used to separate the concourse from the tracks creating a concrete transitional space between the street and the trains.
    1. Immigrants were separated from other passengers which broke the homogeny of the Crowd and reinforced codes of conduct relating to class distinctions.

Grand Central Terminal waiting room, c. 1904. | Public domain.

Each of these changes was meant to remind the people that they were indeed individuals despite their place in the Crowd, and as individuals they still had social roles and responsibilities to fulfill. Moreover, these changes synchronized the Crowd by putting people through the same paces at the same points. But perhaps the most significant change would come from the architectural firm Warren and Wetmore. A deadly collision in 1902 preceded public demand for an even safer, more accessible terminal. Warren and Wetmore won the bid for reconstruction, and the plan they produced included galleries, which added yet another transition area but, more importantly, rendered the Crowd into a spectacle.

This design, which is the one visitors experience today, preserves the Crowd in a central area, providing raised balconies from which there are plenty of opportunities to people-watch. Being placed on display is not lost on the subconscious of the Crowd: what appears to be hustle and bustle are manifestations of many synchronizations happening at once. So what appears to be chaos to the casual observer is actually a play directed by design that makes the Crowd a key feature of the space even as it is minimized by the architectural elements that Grand Central Terminal is known for: the grand ceiling, the large windows, and the deep main concourse. These items add perspective to the Crowd and diminish its psychological power as an uncontrollable mass.

Now, as a commuter I can attest to a resurgence in unruly Crowd dynamics beyond the station terminal—once you’re on the subway or actually in an LIRR car, all bets seem to be off. And I know that several of my friends who travel in-and-out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal can likely report similar experiences once they’re actually on the bus. How can we explain this shift from relative order? Is it that the Crowd is homogenous again, removed from the processes that transitioned its members into this new setting? Does the Crowd then need to be exposed constantly to the pressures of containment? Perhaps, but it is also likely that each context has its own “rules” that govern Crowd behavior—it’s just that in some cases, those rules are more readily enforced by external social and physical factors than in others.

Raynsford, Anthony. “Swarm of the Metropolis: Passenger Circulation at Grand Central Terminal and the Ideology of the Crowd Aesthetic.” Journal of Architectural Education. Vol 50 (1): 2-14.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. annrafalko 3:16 pm 10/17/2012

    I pass through Grand Central twice a day, doing an opposite commute from the normal (I head up to the Bronx in the morning, and back into the city at the end of the day). One of the things I have noticed is how I am sometimes the only one dashing through the crowds in the morning, running for my train. Everyone else is so relaxed, still somewhat asleep as they end their commute in Grand Central. I get my fair share of dirty looks! I think this is such a great article, but I wonder if you meant to say Metro North train in the last paragraph as LIRR trains don’t go into GCT, at least not until the 7 Train extension opens?

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 3:54 pm 10/17/2012

    Hey Ann! I bet you get dirty looks: you’re going against the grain! It’s like those folks who insist on going up on the left sides of the staircases :) I did mean the LIRR because I’m actually an LIRR commuter (and the patterns are similar), but I’ve spent a fair amount of time traveling into and out of GCT.

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  3. 3. ahblid 4:51 pm 10/17/2012


    Just as an FYI, the #7 extension has nothing to do with bringing the LIRR into Grand Central. That is an entirely separate project.

    The LIRR to GCT takes advantage of a tunnel built under the East River several years ago to bring the F train to Rosevelt Island. Crews have constructed tunels from 63rd Street all the way down to Grand Central and even now are building a new, third level to Grand Central Terminal underneath the existing lower level.

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  4. 4. annrafalko 1:06 pm 10/18/2012

    ahbild – My bad. I get so confused between the 7 Train extension and the eastside access projects.

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  5. 5. swmuruga 2:48 pm 10/18/2012

    Editing needed here – it is Grand Central TERMINAL. Moreover You keep switching from Station to Terminal which is even worse in that at some point you did know the correct name. Good article otherwise.

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  6. 6. snessnyc 12:59 pm 10/19/2012

    There are actually even more crowd control elements at play in GCT then the ones that you highlighted. For example, from the main entrance to the tracks is an uninterrupted downhill, facilitating passenger flow: one enters at the main entrance on 42nd St., down the first lobby to the old main waiting room (Vanderbilt Hall), down the next passageway to the main concourse, a circulatory flow to get your ticket, and then continuing down the ramps onto your departing train platform. If your train is on the lower level, you go down the ramps to the lower level concourse and then again down a ramp to your train. Not a stair to be encountered in the entire experience. (Of course, if you arrive by subway you need to contend with stairs.) The design not only physically eases the flow, but it clarifies the traffic – it’s natural to move downhill, and that is exactly what the Beaux Arts design encourages. The terminal design, by easing the passenger experience and reducing the stress of schlepping luggage, further encourages the civil behavior that you describe.

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  7. 7. huler 5:50 pm 10/30/2012

    this seems germane: the dance scene in GST from “the fisher king”:

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  8. 8. dphelps 10:26 pm 11/7/2012

    This program on the Science Network is a fascinating exploration of GCT.


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