Strange Birds

(Part Nine in my series on my six years in New York)

As most New Yorkers do, I have a complicated relationship with JFK International Airport — my complex, many-times-removed, mostly-imagined, ex-inlaw relationship with the Kennedy family notwithstanding.

I find airports to be the most romantic places on the planet, which is perhaps a strange thing to say.  Airports are where people are most vulnerable — they are frazzled; scared; eager; hopeful.  They are embarking on an adventure; they are coming and going.  The airport is one’s last moment on terra firma; the last chance to say “no.”  Airports are beginnings and ends; they are inherently exciting (for better and for worse), regardless of their drabness and naugahyde seating caked in old food and unidentifiable gunk; notwithstanding their universally grey appurtenances and industrial lighting.

I suppose airports also reflect the values, the culture, and the moment in time of their construction.  Sometimes, they are almost caricatures of a culture (Copenhagen, Frankfurt, and Newark immediately come to mind as examples).

But perhaps JFK is the best example of them all.

In 1942 in Queens, construction began on a modest airport that would become Idlewild Airport, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took over and filled land that had originally been swampland and Idlewild Golf Course.  This marked a transition time in the history of airtravel, and also marked a shift in the mandate of the Port Authority.   As expenses mounted and the popularity of airtravel grew, the Port Authority looked for ways to make the airports (both aging LaGuardia, and the under-construction Idlewild) revenue-generators.  They charged use fees; they lured in retail shops and restaurants to transform the airport experience.  This was a shift in the identity of airports themselves, too.
As Idlewild was completed and into operation, airlines were displaced.  LaGuardia had served as the area’s major international airport for that first generation of airtravel and was now to undergo a major rennovation.  Permits were revoked and international airlines were forced to relocate to the new facility.  Each airline was originally slated to operate out of a common terminal; this was later scrapped as not having the foresight to accommodate later expansion.  Revised plans gave every airline, or associated group of airlines their own terminals.
The original designs of the individual terminals were breathtaking works of midcentury modern art — at least in this girl’s opinion.  (If you come to my apartment, it looks a bit like the ’60s threw up, so you can take what I say with a grain of salt).
Many, if not most, of the original buildings have either been demolished, or altered beyond recognition — the romantic era of airtravel gone by the wayside; replaced with the utilitarian travel of the milennium.  Interestingly, most of these buildings remained unharmed until the 1990s-2000s, so I remember many of them, in their ante bellum state.
For instance, I remember stumbling sleepily off an American Airlines flight one November night, accidentally exiting at the Departures door under the facade of stained glass — then having to re-exit on the level below, the scaffolding for the redesign already in place to begin taking down the iconic Robert Sowers-designed wall.
The glass had been, at one time, the largest stained-glass installation in the world.  It later was made into commemorative key chains for American employees.
But the treasures and tragedies at JFK do not end with the colorful wall of glass, now destroyed.  PanAm, in its glory days, had built the WorldPort (Terminal 3), completed in 1960, which was a curious terminal with a flying saucer roof contraption.  The thing was at once strange, and beautiful, and believe it or not, it is still in operation.  You would never know you’ve flown out of it, but you most likely have if you’ve flown Delta.  (The terminal changed hands in 1991 when PanAm went bankrupt).
The building has fallen into tragic disrepair, and last summer, Delta announced plans to move all operations into shiny, new Terminal 4.  (There is, by the way, nothing I like about Delta.)
And finally, glory of glories, the building with which you are probably most familiar, the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center — the iconic, winged, thin-shell structure that is perhaps the hallmark of JFK.
My heart swells every time I see it — for two reasons.  One, it is inherently graceful, beautiful.  If buildings were ballerinas, this one is prima.  Two, there is a large piece of my heart still in Washington, and Dulles Airport is also a Saarinen-designed thin-shell structure.  Where the TWA building is bird-like, however, Dulles’ main terminal, while graceful is also almost-serrated, a bit industrial.  Flight-ready, but fight-ready.  The two buildings reflect exactly what I felt when I arrived in each city.
JFK, thus, is a place rich with history.  It is not, merely, a sprawling, shitty detention center standing between you and your destination.
What is this story of my life in airports then?  What is the point of my long-time affair with JFK — the point of entry to the city with which/whom I have a complicated relationship?
I think this is a story of what is beautiful and possible — not one of escape, or adventure.  Rather, it is a tale of hope, and taking chances, and evolution of people, places, things.  The airport is always evolving; New York is constantly changing.  The tide of passengers that pass through; the valuation and demolition of history — those things are the essence of JFK and they reflect something about the city and the impermanence of it all that I could never hope to capture on the page.
But for me, as a New Yorker, a solo traveller and even in a group, there were days when I would sob with relief in the terminal because all I wanted to do was leave Manhattan…and there were days when I would sob as the wheels touched down because all I wanted was to be home.  I rarely cry at home — but in the airport, I am a different woman; a free woman; a woman who takes risks (though, perhaps, calculated ones); who believes in whatever comes next.
JFK is that glorious gateway through which I pass to possibility.

3 Comments

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  1. Meredith, I love this post! I find grandeur in airports too. One of my favorites is DFW, there are a lot of amazing pieces of art there! I love airport culture, I enjoy people watching and wondering what travelers stories are. I am also a solo traveler and always embracing what’s next and the possibilities. I really appreciate your honesty & venerability in all of these posts.

  2. Having taken some architectural history classes, I anticipated my first trip to JFK quite a bit, expecting to see what you show in the crisp photo there. Sadly, though, there was nothing inspiring or even pleasant about my passage. I was quite anxious to get out of it as quickly as possible. A shame. I haven’t seen the inside of DFW much, as per its jetway-to-curb design, but I can say being on the outside of it is a nightmare of almost certain near-death driving! The outside of Denver’s airport inspired me more than the inside, being retail-typical. I actually preferred the airports that, if they were going to do it, went whole-hog and became shopping malls with a strangely high population of rolley-bags. Which am I thinking of…Atlanta, maybe? Well I liked the neon tubeway, at least. Somewhere in Michigan…Detroit, perhaps, was just awful. A bit like visiting a concentration camp. Orlando is familar and somewhat homey for me, usually colorful and lush, with a more relaxed aire because it’s largely tourists on vacation. I’ve both worked in and flown through some small regional airports, some of which (as you’ve said) retain the romance a bit…I’m thinking of the little airport north of Newport/O.C. I think my favorite is still Chicago, because it’s so bright with invigorating sunlight, and very white-and-blue which is always a cheery combination for me. And the last time I was at London Heathrow, it was on fire. So, y’know, a rather average cross-sampling of experiences all around! Ha ha ha! I always enjoy them far more outbound than inbound, and when I haven’t flown in some time, get a wistful craving for them. Perhaps it’s in the very fabric of my being, but I feel most content when I’m on my way somewhere, and can enjoy the respite solitude of reading a good book by the window.

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