BY SETH BARRON
On a slushy, snowy December day, the lower concourse of Grand Central Terminal, which includes a mall-style food court, is packed with tourists, commuters, office workers eating lunch—and homeless people, some sleeping upright on benches, some parked at tables with bags and belongings, some wandering around or standing still. Recent reports suggest that business is not good for many Grand Central food vendors. Proprietors point to issues like constant renovation, high rents, mice, and the awkward and cramped space, but they also cite the homeless presence. “If I had known this before I sunk all the money into this space, I wouldn’t have done it,” reports one discouraged restauranteur, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Grand Central Terminal has been here before. After World War II and the end of the golden age of railroad travel, the station entered a long decline that paralleled the fortunes of New York City generally. In the 1970s and 1980s, as public spaces throughout the city became increasingly disorderly and dangerous, Grand Central deteriorated into squalor, with derelicts inhabiting the once-grand waiting room. In 1973, Grand Central’s operators announced that the terminal would begin closing for several hours overnight; they blamed declining passenger service, but news reports also cited “problems with prostitutes, vagrants, derelicts and alcoholics.”
New York’s infamous degeneration throughout the 1980s in many ways centered on midtown Manhattan. Times Square, seedy for decades, became the focus of the city’s sex and drug trades. Bryant Park—nine acres of green space behind the main branch of the New York Public Library—became a notorious site for drug sales, prostitution, and muggings. Aggressive panhandlers and street hustlers accosted pedestrians, turning midtown into a no-go zone for tourists and families. Mobil Oil abandoned its corporate headquarters on East 42nd Street. The company made a brief video of conditions around its offices, showing filthy streets, derelicts, and decayed infrastructure, contrasting these images with others showing the leafy, clean, suburban office park to which it was relocating. Clearly, New York City had to do something to revive its central business district.
The creation of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), with the power to levy taxes on local businesses in order to supplement municipal services like sanitation, security, and public amenities, became key to midtown’s revitalization. Starting around 1980, businesses formed the Bryant Park Corporation, which organized extra park maintenance, security, and public programming to attract office workers to eat lunch there during the day. The Bryant Park Corporation achieved official BID status in 1986, around the same time that businesses a few blocks east were forming the Grand Central Partnership to address quality-of-life problems that had turned the terminal into a way station for homeless people. As the then-largest BID in New York City—covering 70 blocks of prime midtown real estate—the Partnership rebuilt street furniture, hired state-certified security officers, provided supplementary maintenance and sanitation, and, importantly, contracted with nonprofit social-services providers to reach out to homeless people and connect them to shelter.
Efforts to improve the area through the 1990s paralleled a concerted effort on the part of city leadership to reverse New York City’s deterioration. Looking to drive down crime and make public spaces safe again, the NYPD broadly implemented Broken Windows policing, which seeks to identify and contain minor disorder before it spreads and intensifies. Crime, which reached a peak in 1990, fell rapidly thereafter, as police initiated the data-driven CompStat program. Police deterred aggressive panhandlers and scam artists and pursued arrests for low-level violations.
In midtown, major rehabilitation projects overhauled key destinations throughout the 1990s: Bryant Park was redesigned and rebuilt; Grand Central Terminal was thoroughly renovated; and Times Square was “Disneyfied,” through the closure of its notorious sex shops and pornographic theaters. Tourism rose as crime and disorder declined, and major companies, instead of fleeing New York, recommitted to the city’s future. Grand Central became an important fixture on tourists’ “must-see” lists, with upscale shopping and gourmet dining options.
In recent years, though, New York City has begun to fray around the edges. The city has decriminalized a host of public-order offenses, including marijuana possession and public urination. And the problem of untreated seriously mentally ill people has grown acute—even as Mayor de Blasio has directed hundreds of millions of dollars instead to ThriveNYC, a general mental-health awareness initiative. Subways, parks, and sidewalks—increasingly occupied by disturbed homeless people or drug addicts—repel pedestrians.
Grand Central, in many ways the heart of New York’s comeback story, is also suffering from the city’s growing disorder. The terminal is a long way off from its troubled 1970s days; it remains a jewel of New York. But the growing homeless presence in Grand Central signals a troubling retreat from the city’s remarkable resurgence.