A Walk Through Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' New York

April 26, 2011

Margot Adler

Margot Adler
Frederick Cookinham runs five different Ayn Rand tours in New York, two of which touch on Grand Central Terminal.
Spencer Platt
The New York Central Building, now the Helmsley Building, was home to Ayn Rand's fictional Taggart Transcontinental Railroad Company.

The recent film adaptation of Ayn Rand's 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, is exposing a whole new generation of conservatives to Rand's laissez-faire philosophy. And if they find themselves wanting more, they can always read the book — or they can visit New York City and see the Atlas Shrugged setting for themselves.

Rand wrote much of the book in New York, and based many of the novel's fictional sites on real places in the city. Now, New York City tour guide Frederick Cookinham has gathered those places into a series of Ayn Rand walking tours of Manhattan.

The Ayn Rand Walking Tour

A middle-aged Cookinham stands outside Grand Central Terminal in the pouring rain. He holds a sign that reads, "Ayn Rand Walking Tour" — one of his five Rand tours.

Cookinham is a trove of information: he points out where Rand lived, her publisher's office, her favorite buildings, even her favorite architect.

He notes that in Atlas Shrugged, Grand Central Terminal becomes the Taggart Terminal. Then he points down Park Avenue to a green-roofed building that was built in 1927 by the New York Central Railroad Company.

"That becomes the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad Building," he says.

Today, it's known as the Helmsley Building, but in the novel it's where Atlas Shrugged protagonist Dagny Taggart works.

In The City, A Novel Plot Unfolds

Atlas Shrugged is really a mystery. It follows Dagny Taggart, an executive at the fictional Taggart Transcontinental Railroad Company, as she witnesses a bureaucratic crackdown on industry. Industrialists and inventors led by the powerful John Galt strike back on the government by disappearing and effectively draining society of its great thinkers.

Back at the Helmsley Building, Cookinham touches the old wooden counter of a security desk that used to be a newsstand. At one point in the book, Taggart discovers a strange cigarette with a golden dollar sign on it. That old Helmsley newsstand is where she goes to figure out where the cigarette came from.

Outside, Cookinham points to the bleak little alley where Taggart moved her office when she left her railroad company to build the John Galt Line — a clear downgrade.

From the alley, which sits at the foot of the fictional Taggart Transcontinental building and across from the fictional Taggart Terminal, Cookinham reads from the novel:

The windows of the offices of the John Galt Line faced a dark alley. Looking up from her desk, Dagny could not see the sky, only the wall of a building rising past her range of vision. It was the side wall of the great skyscraper of Taggart Transcontinental ... She sat, looking across at the open cavern of the Express and Baggage Entrance of the Taggart Terminal.

The History And The Literature Of Ayn Rand

The next day brings beautiful weather — and more tour-goers.

"I just finished reading Atlas Shrugged six months ago," says Judy Chambers, who is visiting from Ontario. "I couldn't put it down."

Kathy Bliss, from California, loves history but describes Atlas Shrugged as "dated and dreadful."

Bliss disagrees with Rand's philosophy, but Zach Fivenson from Chicago says, "I am a huge Ayn Rand fan, and I believe in a lot of the objectivist philosophy: individualism versus collectivism."

But Cookinham isn't interested in talking politics on his tours. While he is a follower of Rand's philosophies, he's more interested in emphasizing the history and the literature of her work.

"They don't know that she lived in New York. They don't know that she came from Russia. They don't know that she was Jewish and her name was Alyssa Rosenbaum," he says.

He takes the group to the tracks at Grand Central Terminal. As part of her research for the novel, Rand took a private tour of the station and even drove a train.

In Atlas Shrugged, some of the station's tracks sit abandoned, and somewhere on those abandoned tracks, Cookinham points out, Dagny Taggard and John Galt have their sex scene.

If you've ever taken a commuter train out of Grand Central, you may never think of those tracks in quite the same way. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.