Dec 12, 2009

The Belle of the Ball

The George Washington Bridge Bus Station (GWBBS) once dreamed of fame. She had been encouraged to, because the men who created her in 1963 obviously suffered from incurable optimism, and a very strong idea of how things should be. To Robert Moses, she was to be the gateway to upper Manhattan. She was raised to take in all the traffic that poured off the Bridge and politely show it where to go: “Cars this way please, Heavy Vehicles go there, and Buses come to me.” She was trained to wave goodbye to the thousands of people leaving Upper Manhattan for Jersey and other points East: a warm goodbye that would make them want to come back to the greatest city in the world.

A girl needs a dress, they said, and so Pier Luigi Nervi was invited to come in and wave the fairy-godmotherly wand. He created an elaborate concrete canopy in his Italian high engineering style. A central spine of columns rising up along the median supports two enormous wings that span the 186 foot wide highway. Writing when it was opened, Milton Bracker of the New York Times called it “the spine of a Mesozoic monster.” Later writers have been more kind, likening it rather to a butterfly perched atop the Cross Bronx expressway. Each wing is made of 13 triangular sections of concrete, laid out over a triangular filigree of beams. Triangulation seems to be the theme here. Triangular grids, tapering columns; a conscious avoidance of the right angle, of anything that would relate to the modernist glass boxes springing up all over midtown. Contrary to Bracker’s unfortunate prehistoric association, this was to be the bus terminal of the future: its capsule-like waiting areas curiously reminiscent of the first Starship Enterprise.

Today, one rarely sees passengers looking up to admire Nervi’s concrete pavilion. This isn’t because it isn’t beautiful, in its own way. It is because they just can’t see it for what it is. How could they? Nothing that they have encountered while walking into the bus terminal hints to them that an unappreciated gem sits above. Nervi’s butterfly is only the tip of the iceberg. Before passengers coming in from Manhattan see the concrete ball gown, they must go through two levels of rather matronly undergarments: A lower level of bus platforms which is also the connection to the Subway station, and a middle level concourse with the obligatory retail space.

As the GWBBS approached middle age, someone at the Port Authority decided she needed some Botox. This was applied in the form of a nearly $14 million dollar investment between 1999 and 2004, mainly to rejuvenate the middle level concourse. There is now shiny signage, a newspaper shop, a cafĂ©, Off Track Betting, and that crowning glory: a Terminal Barber Shop. But it hasn’t really worked: perhaps because nobody thought of replacing the rather aged ceramic tiling on the walls. Or because they didn’t consider that the false ceiling was as far removed as possible, architecturally, from the ventilated Nervi pavilion above.

Another reason why that pavilion is invisible is because the GWBBS isn’t in the ballroom; she is almost in the Bronx. Her sister at the Port Authority Bus Terminal receives the business commuters and tourists pouring in and out of busy Manhattan, connecting them to Times Square: the navel of the world. The GWBBS sits at 178th street: her passengers are the lower-income denizens of the Upper reaches of Manhattan. These passengers have been trained to a very low expectation from urban infrastructure. They are used to the Subway stations at 175th and 185th streets: run down, water damaged, low-ceilinged, dimly lit places. The two lower levels of the GWBBS are all they expect out of a bus station. A Terminal Barber Shop? It must be so much more than they ever dreamed of - they must be thrilled!

Yet, what the GWBBS does for them on a daily basis, barber shop or no barber shop, is nothing to be scoffed at. On a map of the area, the GWBBS looks rather like an intravenous syringe, with expressways and roads streaming into it like tubes, carrying a steady flow of traffic in and out. Granted, the syringe is plunged into an unglamorous part of the urban body, but that does not make it any less vital. Every day, an estimated 17,000 passengers get on and off 950 buses under the expert supervision of the GWBBS. She dutifully does the best she can for each one of them, decked out in a dress they will never look at.

A cloud of melancholy hangs around the GWBBS. This frumpy matron was once Cinderella, very briefly the envy of all, at a ball that ended all too soon. As she continues to cheerily and uncomplainingly sweep the house, the knowledge of her story makes her beautiful in my eyes, once again the belle of the ball. And if reports of a proposed $152 million dollar renovation are to be believed, it appears that Prince Charming might be on his way with the Glass Slipper.

You can go to the website of the George Washington Bus Station here.
A collection of photographs of the Station (mostly by me), can be downloaded here. (pdf,3.2MB)

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