Time for Flags to Leave the Station

Shortly after 9/11, two American flags were placed in the iconic main hall of Grand Central Terminal. The first, a flagpole standard, was soon joined by an enormous 40-foot-by-20-foot banner, vertically suspended over the center of the room. Although smaller flags have been hung at Grand Central before, according to MTA Metro-North spokeswoman Margie Anders, a flag of this size—nearly four stories tall—is “basically unprecedented.”

Ostensibly, the flags were hung at Grand Central to focus American solidarity and resolve. But four-plus years into a war that, according to a recent CBS poll, more than three-quarters of Americans think is going “badly” and more than 60 percent think we should never have started in the first place, the Grand Central flags no longer unite us; they divide us.

How do large-scale icons like very large paintings, sculptures or, in this case, flags influence public spaces?

Icons visually define their spaces. A public space is never just the “floor” that is available for leisure activities, rallies, concerts, or greenmarkets. It’s always an entire room, defined by its walls and ceiling—literally so, if it’s an indoor space like Grand Central; figuratively, with buildings around and the sky above, if it’s outdoors.

Because we experience public spaces three-dimensionally, we don’t—and can’t—visually separate a large, prominent icon within a public space from the space itself. The effect of the flags on Grand Central’s main hall is not merely decorative. The flags recreate the space itself, making it a different room than it was before 9/11.

Icons emotionally define their spaces. Grand Central’s main hall is the closest we come in New York to a town square. This teeming crossroads pulses, at any given moment, with hundreds of people of every nationality and creed.

Soaring high above this perpetual scene, the barrel-vaulted ceiling, in luminous teal—etched with constellations and embedded with tiny lights for stars—offers one of the best sky views in the City.

What makes Grand Central exceptional is that it’s the one place anywhere in New York where you can stand right in the middle of the most careening rush of human ambition and diversity, yet be completely alone in your reverie. This is the urban embodiment of the American idea of welcome and possibility, and it’s what makes Grand Central’s main hall a great American room.

Icons must be seen to be felt. For its entire history, Grand Central has had two icons: the great gilded, four-faced clock below and the sky ceiling—one of the glories of New York—above. And yet, today, our view of the Grand Central sky is forcibly distracted, mediated, and blocked by a competing icon: a four-story-tall American flag.

The flag always is a contested symbol, since it stands both for general national ideals and specific national policies being carried out in the name of those ideals.

For those who see President Bush’s war policy as an expression of national ideals, Grand Central’s flags “hold together”—they are true.

But for the solid and increasing majority who oppose the war, national ideals are especially hard to decipher in the Grand Central flags, which lord over the main hall as corporatized, Orwellian symbols of state power and pride.

For many, those two flags are billboards for the war.

Indeed, by the time the MTA had special-ordered and hung the large flag, the United States had been on a war footing for days, if not weeks. Grand Central’s flags were always at least partly about rallying national unity for vengeance and war.

Tourists still flock to New York’s twin shrines of patriotic spectacle: Grand Central to the north, ground zero to the south.

But what connection can they make between the flag and ground zero, at a time of ever-waning support for a war that George Bush insists on connecting to ground zero and the flag?

The fact is, if putting the flags at Grand Central was an act of raw, complicated humanity, leaving them there now is inescapably an act of politics—or, at the very least, political correctness—that reduces the large flag, in particular, to a fetish of knee-jerk triumphalism.

My suggestion: Take the current flags down and plant a single flagpole in the floor of Grand Central’s main hall. Make it tall. Raise a simple flag to half-mast, and leave it there until every last combat veteran in Iraq is either redeployed or comes home.

That will bear a more profound and truthful witness to American patriotism than the flags that now hang there ever have.

And it will clear the Grand Central sky, restoring to the space below the American-ness that has never required literal flags to validate it.

Time for Flags to Leave the Station