Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Port Authority

Screw The Times.

For Commuters, It's Not Love At First Sight

By JONATHAN MILLER

THE hordes come and go. Come and go. Come and go.

This furiously ordered gallop can be witnessed every day inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Port Authority, for short. Here's how to use it in a sentence: ''Three hours of my life I wasted at the Port Authority, waiting for the 99S.''

The novelist Joseph Heller believed that Hades could be found underneath the building -- a structure with all the subtlety and grace of a grimy shoebox -- and he set ''Closing Time,'' the sequel to ''Catch-22,'' there. In a 1994 interview, the writer called it ''hell on earth.'' For many New Jerseyans, it is their first glimpse of New York. The immense terminal and adjoining ramp -- which casts its shadow over nearly six blocks -- is not an inspiring sight.

Until the mid-90's the place seethed with crime -- about 6,000 incidents a year were reported. Homeless people lived in heating ducts in the ceiling, phone card scammers targeted the hapless, and roving gangs had set up shop in the men's rooms. ''In the early-to mid-80's, you could call this a slum,'' was how Jim Dittmer of Weehawken, a 52-year-old Macy's employee who works on the Thanksgiving parade, recalled it. In 1989, a deranged and half-drunk man demanded money from him while waving a gun.

Situated between Eighth and Ninth Avenues and 40th and 42nd Streets just west of Times Square, it is a squat, featureless building that somehow manages to loom over the neighborhood. Lewis Mumford declared it a ''humdrum job of engineering concealed beneath a mask of wholly perfunctory masonry.'' As Jameson W. Doig, professor emeritus of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, put it, ''By and large it's not anything of great architectural significance.''

Professor Doig, who wrote ''Empire on the Hudson,'' which devotes a chapter to the terminal's construction, said that like most bus stations, the Port Authority was built for function, not beauty. ''Now that I think about it,'' he said, ''I don't know of any architecturally distinguished bus terminals.

''The terminal exists in a purgatory of the public consciousness: most New Yorkers have little reason to enter it, and most New Jerseyans are desperately looking for a way out. New York politicians constantly gripe that New Jersey taxpayers should wholly finance the place. As a result, ambivalence toward the edifice is pervasive. When the bus terminal celebrated its 50th anniversary on Dec. 15, 2000, not a single New York newspaper ran an article commemorating the milestone. (The Record of Hackensack published a column in November of that year and The Star-Ledger an article in December.)

And yet, in the past few years change has swept -- or perhaps oozed -- over the building. Crime has dropped precipitously as a result of stricter enforcement, the homeless no longer have nooks and crannies to sleep in, and some customers actually linger at bars like McAnn's or Au Bon Pain, the coffee and pastry shop.

$50 Million in Improvements

In the 1990's, $50 million in improvements made the place better lighted and vaguely tolerable -- though there are not nearly enough signs to help an infrequent commuter navigate a building the size of an aircraft carrier with the charm of a public lavatory. ''The bus terminal's my baby,'' said Ken Philmus, the director of tunnels, bridges, and terminals for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who in 1991 was charged with figuring out how to make it a less frightful place.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal (in the planning phase it was called the ''Grand Central Bus Station'') opened on Dec. 15, 1950. At the time, the $24 million structure was 10 times larger than any bus station in the world and the solution to choking traffic that had resulted from the haphazard placement of about a half-dozen private bus stations between 34th and 51st Streets.

Mr. Doig, whose book charted the Byzantine, behind-the-scenes maneuverings that led to construction of the terminal, said that the Port of New York Authority, as it was then called, had an eye on constructing the terminal for years. ''The bus terminal was a deceptively complex project,'' he said. First, he said, the project had to overcome political corruption and Robert Moses, the powerful parks commissioner who held sway over the city's Planning Commission, and who had allied himself with Greyhound, which did not want to see the construction of the terminal; instead it was quite happy to keep its terminal near Herald Square. Eventually, Mr. Moses was beaten in one of his earliest and notable failures.

In planning, the engineers had to figure out what to do with the ramps, which jut over and around tenements. There were hundreds of people who needed to be relocated and dozens of buildings demolished, including 38 houses of prostitution. The Port Authority, Mr. Doig said, stood in stark contrast to Mr. Moses' notorious ''slum clearance'' tactics, and did a good job of finding places for people to stay.

''The Port Authority Bus Terminal will promptly be taken for granted,'' wrote The New York Herald-Tribune on Nov. 3, 1950, hinting that it did not think it should be. Yet ''taken for granted'' was probably the best that could be said about it by the 1980's, when lurking vagrants and crack-induced robberies made it a place to be avoided.

Doris Myles remembers those days all too well. A 59-year-old New Brunswick resident who works in the hotel industry, Ms. Myles stood in line outside gate 421 on a recent afternoon with her husband Cecil, 54, a clerk at the United Nations. ''I was afraid of coming through, and I was afraid of bullets flying, there were all these homeless people,'' she said. And now? ''It has changed for the better,'' said her husband, who was standing under a ceiling with gaping holes, exposing pipes, wires and insulation. Flimsy brown paper was tacked up with blue tape, masking other holes -- the result, Mr. Philmus assured, of an overhaul of the ventilation system.

One of the first things Mr. Philmus did upon getting his job in the early 90's, was wander the terminal to see what was wrong. With the crack epidemic raging, and its epicenter near Times Square, there was a lot.

He and others quickly came up with a plan. First, the homeless would no longer be allowed to sleep in the building. Since the terminal is a public building, however, this posed a problem. Officers would ask homeless if they needed social services, but if they returned, the officers could arrest them. Next, officials eliminated spaces -- called the ''niches and corners'' program -- behind stairs and escalators in the waiting areas and, yes, in the ceilings, where the homeless could sleep. Every new store added more glass for higher visibility. Attendants patrolled the bathrooms.

The music was changed from soft rock to orchestral, and Mr. Philmus remains convinced that this shift helped. ''It had an amazing affect on people,'' he said. ''People noticed the change. I don't think it stopped muggings, but it made a difference.''

57 Million Riders a Year

The bus terminal sucks in and spits out 188,000 travelers each weekday, or about 57 million riders a year on 2.2 million buses, making it the world's busiest bus terminal. Most passengers are headed for places like Wanaque and Browntown and Moonachie. A smaller number head to Rockland and Orange Counties in New York, others to Pennsylvania. The rest have plans for points across the country.

Enter Greyhound, whose gates are sunk into the lowest level of the terminal. The walls are pumpkin orange, the ceilings low-slung, the lighting a watery yellow, the air thick and filled with the smell of unwashed bodies. ''I think it's disgusting,'' observed Arthur Ovdissi, 42, of Boston, who was visiting his family. ''It is depressing, it really is.''In the center is a waiting area. Many of those who sit here are semiconscious. A man reads a book titled ''Who Are the Angels?'' One jittery and trusting man with a pink Conway bag, a suitcase and leather coat plopped on the floor turns to Mr. Ovdissi and asked, ''Can you watch this?'' Mr. Ovdissi peers up from The Daily News and apprises the man and his belongings. He nods, with misgivings. The man leaves, and five minutes pass. The jittery man returns with a bag of peanuts.

A few minutes after this, two Port Authority police officers make their way into the waiting area. They pick out the most disheveled and ask them to show their tickets. They approach a dozing Hispanic man with no bags, his head tilted back over the seat. One of the officers kicks the man in the foot. ''Hey!'' the officer bellows, ''Get up!'' Startled, the man leaps up and skitters off.

Such is the ebb and flow of life here. William Jimeno a 37-year-old from Chester was only on the job as a detective at the terminal for nine months when Sept. 11 struck. He was the last living person to be recovered from the rubble, about 12 hours after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Just two weeks ago, a stirring roll-call ceremony complete with a bagpipe, was held in the South Wing to mark his retirement. After all he had been through (he sometimes cannot get out of his bed because of the pain in his gimpy leg), the former detective still seemed awed at the shenanigans that took place in this building. ''You should see what happened in nine months here,'' he said. ''This place is something else.'' Well, what did he see, exactly? ''Simple assaults to shootings, stabbings. It's very active here. Everything you can imagine.''

And even things that are hard to imagine. Last December, a drunk commandeered a bus and drove it for two hours, eventually making his way to Kennedy Airport. In September 2003, a man mugged a 90-year-old from Carlstadt and pushed him down an escalator, killing him. Fugitives are routinely apprehended here, most often attempting a getaway to points across the country.

In the past few years, though, crime has significantly dropped, according to statistics compiled by the Port Authority. Since 2000 the most commonly reported crimes like robbery, assault, larceny, luggage theft and pick pocketing have fallen by 21 percent, though this year, the crime levels have started to rise again, exceeding 2002 levels.Tourists can be found inside the terminal, but they are usually not admiring the fluorescent lighting and the piped-in Vivaldi. They are looking for directions away from the Port Authority.

If they stopped to look, they might find a modernist steel-and-brick building filled with glazed tile, buff-colored Hautville marble, terrazzo and brick flooring. They would also find 40 stores; a bowling alley; a blood center; a three-story, 1,000-car parking deck; a post office and, until it closed in November, the Silver Bullet Saloon, where disheveled types bought beer for $3.25 a bottle.

Once passengers track down the appropriate gate, they make their way through the cavernous building and pile onto the buses, they are funneled onto 1,500-foot ramps that fork like the tongue of some Chinese Dragon, sucking down the metal cans that roll into its maw.

Rehabilitating the Ramps

The ramps curl behind tenements on 40th Street, and then jut over Ninth Avenue, spitting out buses into the Lincoln Tunnel. They are now being rehabilitated, and by next year will be adorned with colored lights to make them a less imposing presence to the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood that surrounds them. When the ramps were constructed in 1950, warming pipes filled with oil were embedded inside -- the technology to this day keeps them from freezing in winter. For those venturing into the city, this is the last stop. Passengers are disgorged onto a carbon monoxide-choked platform on the upper level that rings the dozens of glassed-in departure bays (called ''pass-through gates'').

Passengers clamber down the white-and-red-tiled stairs that open onto the second floor. From there, a network of escalators, elevators and stairs take the hordes down, up, or across to the northern section of the terminal.The building's exterior is a combination of three or four different brick pigments: red, brown and a sickly yellow. (Mr. Philmus euphemistically refers to them as ''earth tones,'' de rigueur when the terminal was constructed.) Dozens of vents dot the otherwise vast expanse of its featureless sides. Improvements that were completed in 1982 expanded the terminal north to another half-block between 41st and 42nd Streets. But the expansion resulted in the obliteration of the only distinguishing feature of the building -- the mod, rounded Eighth Avenue exterior. Today, that architecture is obscured by forbidding, X-shaped green girders supporting a new roof.

The Port Authority manages much more than the bus terminal. The bi-state agency owns and operates the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, all three major local airports, the PATH and the site of the former World Trade Center, just for starters.

So it was that in March 1998, to the surprise of many, the Port Authority announced an ambitious plan to construct a 39-story tower over the new North Wing, a move that was viewed with some skepticism. Cisco Systems had signed on as a major tenant, but when the market soured in 2001, the high-tech company backed out. In the intervening years the real estate market changed, the plan slowly unraveled, and at this point, Mr. Philmus said, it is all but dead. ''Right now, that's off,'' he said.

The deal would have helped. The Port Authority had reportedly planned to sell the development rights for $130 million. Surprisingly, the terminal's operating costs run at an enormous deficit -- $74.5 million a year, according to the agency's 2003 annual report.

The bus terminal is no longer the hobo and hooker magnet and crack-dealing mecca it once was. In one of the most significant symbols of transformation that has overtaken the terminal, one of its last raffish elements recently closed up, to be replaced by, of all things, a French-American Bistro.

Taped to a door near the main entrance on Eighth Avenue is this sign: ''Closing Our Doors! Thank you to all of our customers who have supported us during the past 20 years.'' On a recent afternoon, a man was measuring the bar inside what was once the Silver Bullet Saloon. Another stood on the street, peering in.

Tom Gargan, a 46-year-old with a scraggly beard, had a forlorn look on his face and a cigarette in his fingers. ''I buy cheap property and fix it up for resale,'' Mr. Gargan claimed between drags, but in upstate New York, not the city. The city is too expensive. He was asked what happened to the bar, which attracted a mix of regulars and tourists, and yes, some unsavory characters. It closed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he said, and word on the street was the Port Authority doubled the rent. ''It's a shame,'' he said.

Mr. Gargan had been coming to the bar for 18 or 19 years. ''I just went in and kept going in,'' he said, and depending on the day and his mood, enjoyed a $3.25 Budweiser or a Johnnie Walker Red and water. ''There's so many people closing up and moving businesses,'' he observed, '''cause no one can afford the rent.''

For their part, officials seemed delighted with the demise of the bar. ''That Silver Bullet has been something we've been wanting to change for a long time,'' Mr. Philmus said. ''There's going to be a new restaurant that's going to be noticeably, noticeably improved from where we were.'' Noting that new office buildings are coming to Eighth Avenue across from the restaurant -- including The New York Times, which is putting up a 52-story tower -- he said: ''That's a prime location. It's going to be more like a cafe, more like a bistro. With polished wood and the whole thing.''

At McAnn's, the wood is not so highly polished. One recent day, Richie Clarke strode in and caught the eye of the bartender, who shouted: ''Bud?'' He nodded. ''Could you write it up?'' said Mr. Clarke, a 44-year-old stagehand from Paramus. ''I'm going to be here a while.''

Mr. Clarke, who has worked on sets for ''The Lion King'' and ''The Boy From Oz'' (''Hugh Jackman, he's the nicest guy in the world!''), apprised the bar. ''You got stagehands, ironworkers, elevator operators. Local one elevator guys, six-oh-eight is the carpenters' union.'' U2 played over the speakers while a rerun of the previous night's Knicks game played on the TV.

And there is the unmistakable reach of Sept. 11. Barricades and a checkpoint were quickly set up on 41st Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, which passes under the north and south wings, eliminating a favored taxicab shortcut. The police have also increased their presence, though they will not say by how much. Some commuters speak of a new anxiousness inside the building. Fears of mumblers, rascals and ex-cons, have been replaced with visions of bombs or something even more dreadful.

Right Size for Now

As for the future? ''Right now, it's at adequate size as long as long as New Jersey Transit's Secaucus Junction and Direct Connect grow and continue to grow,'' said Tiffany Townsend, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority.

But there are troubling signs on the horizon, like the impending collapse of New York Waterway, the ferry service that shuttles commuters between New Jersey and New York, and the prospect of a West Side stadium. ''Obviously development there would affect traffic,'' she said. ''It certainly concerns us.''

It may not be pretty. It may not be beloved, but in the end, for all its warts, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, for more than a half-century, has largely done its job, Professor Doig said. ''It deserves some praise,'' he concluded. ''It doesn't get an awful lot.''

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