Grand Central Terminal Goes Digital

Grand Central Terminal in New York, N.Y., November 20, 2018 (Carlo Allegri/Reuters )

Americans need to keep in mind the aphorism, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This past weekend, Grand Central Terminal rolled out new digital departure and arrival boards, replacing the nostalgia of its split-flap Solari boards with a ubiquitous blue glow.

Grand Central Terminal is a historic landmark, officially classified as such after the tragic demolition of Penn Station in 1963 —  thanks to First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s advocacy, Grand Central Terminal was saved from a similar fate. Today, Grand Central Terminal is both a functioning rail station and a tourist attraction that welcomes all who have the pleasure of entering Manhattan through it. Since it being designated a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, it has been a reminder of New York’s golden era.

While it seems like such a minute change, one possibly motivated by technical or management issues with the previous boards, it’s still disappointing — these days, no place is exempt from “disruption,” even Grand Central Terminal, which is a taste of authenticity not far from the plastic palace that is Times Square. Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, a neoclassical great American station, also had the reaper of digitization pass through it, replacing its old-timey flip boards.

The boards in Grand Central Terminal have been digital since the 1990s, but appeared like the Solari boards — while it still preserves the ethos of the building, people in the 90s reacted apprehensively, afraid that replacing the clicking departure boards marked the end of the era. From the New York Times article Grand Central’s Departure Board, Gone! on July 23, 1996:

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On the day the old board disappeared I was standing next to a Metro-North conductor who stared at the gaping space and muttered, “Now I know why they waited for Jackie O.’s demise to do this.”

Today I stopped a man speaking to a tour group who was obviously more than a tour guide. Indicating the empty space, I asked, “This will be replaced, won’t it?”

There was a pause, and he said, “There will be two boards, one to the left, one to the right.”

“Then you’re saying the original board won’t be back?”

“Well,” he admitted, “the railroad says it’s very expensive to support that kind of technology.”

“But they’re destroying the very Grand Central Terminal they talked us into believing they’re preserving,” I said.

He suddenly looked sad. “Yes,” he said as he walked away. “That’s exactly what they did to me at Union Station.” 

I’ve always maintained that New York City is the capital of the world. It’s the real thing, while everywhere else is Splenda; the real thing, if you can keep it.

Marlo Safi is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.

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