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February 5, 2013

The Palace in New York Owned by Everyone

Lessons about the commons at Grand Central Station

While many people don’t know what the word commons means exactly, most understand at an intuitive level what the commons is.

I was reminded of this recently when my colleague Harriet Barlow pointed out a story in the New York Times that drives home the point. It was a profile of Kent L. Barwick a New York City civic leader who spearheaded efforts to save Grand Central Station from being ruined in the 1970s.

Barwick was a well-connected society figure, who worked with people like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to prevent the landmark train station from being disfigured by a proposed skyscraper to be built on top of it. But I would call him a commoner for his efforts to ensure that the majestic building remains a lively, beloved gathering spot for all New Yorkers and tourists to enjoy.

I am not sure that Barwick uses the word “commons” to describe Grand Central Station, but he described the idea perfectly in the closing lines of the story when commenting on “the genius of the place.” He pointed out to the reporter two women who are talking intently as they look up at the beautiful ceiling.

“Someone is looking up and someone else is explaining what all this is,” he said. “That means they own it. And that is such a pleasure to see.”