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16 December 2002

Kick the advertisements out

Our city halls and railway stations are being defaced by commerce and lack all sense of civic space.

By Tristram Hunt

There are few testimonies to the triumph of the capitalist will more elegant than Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The brainchild of the legendary US robber baron “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, its every marble and iron detail exudes the pioneer spirit of enterprise and thirst for commerce which made New York the 20th-century capital of the world. Yet it is also a peculiarly democratic civic space, its long concourses and arching roof more a celebration of the public sphere than the individualism of private enterprise. And its troubled history can tell us much about what is wrong with modern Britain’s urban environment.

Grand Central’s foundations were laid in 1869 to provide the shipping magnate Vanderbilt with an East Side terminal for his Hudson River and New York Central railroads. As commerce and rail traffic expanded during the late 19th century, the terminal underwent a redesign and gained its landmark features: the stately Main Concourse and the reserved, grandiose wait- ing rooms.

With electrification and the growth in suburban travel, the station expanded into two levels, providing opportunities for glamorous balconies, which were then connected by a series of sweeping staircases. During the Roaring Twenties, this modernist emporium played host to fast society with its newsreel cinema, art gallery and fashionable restaurants.

Sadly, it didn’t last. The postwar growth in car travel, combined with fierce competition from Pennsylvania Station, sent Grand Central into steady decline. By 1968, the city authorities stood ready to rip it down. It took an impassioned plea from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – an unlikely patron saint of public transport – and the intervention of the Supreme Court to save the historic site.

Yet it was a pyrrhic victory. With revenues falling, the station authorities needed to boost their coffers. They chose to molest the architecture with a profusion of billboards and gaudy advertising. The noble, civic spirit of the original enterprise slowly ebbed away. A giant Kodak sign hung on the East Balcony, while a vast Westclox clock dominated the Main Concourse. The station shrank in stature as it deteriorated physically, with water leaking in from the roof and graffiti disfiguring the concourse. Businesses fled the precinct. It appeared like any modern British train station.

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Then, in 1996, something marvellous happened. Disgusted at the state of this landmark building, the New York authorities, together with the train companies, started to clean the station up. The waiting rooms were first to receive the treatment. The grotty benches were ripped out and a new space developed named “Vanderbilt Hall”, which served as a public venue for art shows and parties. Meanwhile, the Main Concourse was scrubbed down and refitted. The concourse’s majestic Sky Ceiling, darkened by layers of accumulated fumes and smog, was stripped bare to reveal an extraordinary, long-forgotten mural depicting the entire Milky Way.

Yet what truly transformed the station was the decision to rip down the adverts. Out went Kodak, and with it the suffocating, commercial profusion of billboards and hoardings. The concourse was reclaimed as a truly civic space. Now, as you climb up the staircase into the vast hall, underneath the mural’s stars and watched by the arms of a non-branded iron clock, you once again sense the thrill of arriving as a citizen of a great city.

In the heartland of materialism, there is not an advert to be seen. And it feels incredibly enriching. Once more, the station has become a fashionable hang-out, with oyster bars and chichi restaurants that attract New Yorkers from across the city. Could anyone seriously imagine crossing London or Liverpool to King’s Cross or Lime Street specifically for lunch?

The chronicle of Grand Central is a model for urban rejuvenation. In Britain, the public control of our public space is declining at a remarkable rate, and with it its civic dignity. What were previously arenas for citizenship are now forums for the crass branding and infantile gimmicks of advertising executives. As they catch our eyes, they diminish our public sphere. Few areas now exist without a hulking billboard or glimmering neon sign. More innovative advertising strategists now think in terms of their brands colonising civic spaces that seem to reflect the corporate values – without an explicit display of promotional material. The South Bank in London is increasingly the terrain of British Airways, with the Millennium Eye at its centre.

Our great civic squares – the pinnacles of municipal citizenship – are being insidiously encroached on by corporations and commerce. In Leeds, the City Square, complete with its wonderful Black Prince statue, celebrating the vigour of the 1890s, is now overshadowed by a vast PricewaterhouseCoopers skyscraper. To Birmingham City Council’s eternal shame, Chamberlain Square, in the birthplace of municipal socialism, is defaced by the sickening sign of a McDonald’s right across from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Thankfully, the statues of Watt and Priestley look the other way. Even more worryingly, government advisers recently recommended the relaxation of countryside advertising laws in order to “boost rural incomes”.

Yet there is now a golden opportunity to rebuild some civic spirit. As well as the central railway station in Leeds, St Pancras and King’s Cross in London are currently undergoing extensive renovation. How wonderful would it be for the new not-for-profit Network Rail to prove its public-minded credentials by banning adverts from the concourses and platforms. Railtrack missed this opportunity with the crass redevelopments of Manchester Piccadilly and London Paddington. But what a true act of veneration it would be to the great Gothic edifice of Scott’s St Pancras to have its civic space hallowed by withdrawing adverts. And how wonderful it would feel to arrive at King’s Cross or Leeds like a citizen of a great city and not simply a timeless, placeless consumer. If it can be done in New York, the city built on turning a dollar, then surely it can be done in London or Leeds.

Although rail chiefs and city planners would probably not be convinced by such esoteric ideals, there is always the bottom line. Since the removal of advertising and the renewal of the station’s civic stature, Grand Central’s income from restaurants, shops and bars has mushroomed. But do we have any modern Vanderbilts able to make the economic, if not the civic, case?

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