In 1882, New York Central Railroad president William Henry Vanderbilt declared, “The public be damned.” Although one might think this sentiment an anachronism that went away with the demise of 19th-century robber barons, it’s actually a perennial problem for democracies whenever private owners own what function as public spaces.
Here’s an example of what I mean. To get to Hofstra from where I live in Lower Manhattan, I take the train from New York’s Penn Station. I always stop first to grab a coffee at the Starbucks along the main corridor inside the station. While waiting on line, I groggily gaze at the large, black-and-white posters with images of the old Penn Station—testimony to the 1910 cathedral-like steel and glass masterpiece, designed by the architects McKim, Mead & White. It was demolished in the mid-60s to make way for the new, ugly Madison Square Garden—one of the drearier venues in which to watch basketball or hockey.
The destruction of the old Penn Station was one of the great architectural murders of history. It led to such public outrage that the New York Landmarks Commission, which at the time had possessed no more power than a mouse’s squeak, turned into a powerhouse institution ready and willing to protect privately owned public spaces from the whims of their owners. It also led to the vigorous involvement of ordinary citizens in exactly what can be torn down or built in New York. After the demolition of Penn Station, for example, the wrecking ball threatened the wonderful Grand Central Terminal. By this time, the Landmarks Commission, now speaking with the roar of a lion, and concerned New York citizens were at the ready. One of the great voices defending Grand Central Terminal against developers’ interests was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who said,
Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters.
In the event, “air rights” above Grand Central Station were granted to a developer and the gigantically homely Pan Am Building (now the Met Life Building) was built above it. But at least the wonderful station itself was saved.
Back to Penn Station, which, unfortunately, didn’t have anybody to defend it against the venal interests of its owners and the unions, who saw profits and construction jobs in the station’s obliteration. All of this was brought home to me when I read about how 50 years ago, 100 leading architects and lovers of the arts, understanding the travesty inherent in tearing down Penn Station, gathered for a final protest outside the building. Calling themselves “AGBANY”— Action Group for Better Architecture in New York—the men wore jackets and ties, the women white gloves. They gathered in front of the station with their protest signs even though they knew that money had already determined its fate. The architects would at least make a final protest on behalf of public beauty over private money
The Penn Station that replaced the old one is among the ugliest, most numbing public spaces you can ever enter. Its long main corridor, infused with artificial jaundiced-yellow light and lined with fast-food places and cheap perfume shops, tells every traveler that a long trudge taking them from one end of nowhere to another end of nowhere awaits. Compare this feeling to what happens in Grand Central Terminal, where people come streaming in from all sides, crisscrossing in all directions. Grand Central, with its stunning, vaulted star-filled ceiling, gives us one of the major tourist attractions in the world; Penn Station gives us the place you want to escape as quickly as possible.
I never bought Locke’s argument about private property—that its justification lies in the labor a man puts into what he owns. (Stood on its head—that to own something truly, one has to put some work into it—the proposition makes better ethical sense.) At the same time, I’m no Marxist. I believe the right to own private property rests at the foundation of a good society and propels civilization forward. It nudges human beings toward progress by spurring them on to improve their own immediate surroundings.
But when private property owners forget that they, like the rest of us mere mortals, are only temporary visitors—tourists, if you will—on this place we call Earth, they easily end up thinking that they can build whatever their money will build, wherever they want to build it. The public, then, is indeed damned. It’s left living with an architectural horror like the current Penn Station until even bigger money comes along with the intent of building something even worse. In the case of the ugly Penn Station that’s squashed by an ugly Madison Square Garden, plans are already underway to replace both of them. Yet it’s hard to imagine what will come next. Of one thing I’m sure: There’s a plutocrat out there somewhere who’s already putting a disaster on the drawing board.