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Observations: Clinging to the building blocks of history

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image The former Pan Am WorldPort Terminal at JFK International Airport in New York as it stood, amid the beginning of disassembly, on June 30, 2013. Photo Mitch Traphagen

I’m beginning to wish that we had something that said, “We were here and we believed.”

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

There are some things in life that we cling to just because they are powerful statements of our presence, and more, perhaps, of our willingness and ability to dream. The building blocks of human history are scattered around the globe as churches, military forts, and even smaller things such as the Liberty Bell. Buildings, however, are always favorites for preservation, even occasionally in Florida where bulldozers tend to have fairly free reign and history tends to be measured in years rather than centuries or even decades.

My first experience with the former Pan Am WorldPort Terminal at JFK International Airport in New York was not a pleasant one. I arrived there a decade after Pan Am had ceased to exist, and when Delta had taken over. More importantly, I was there just weeks after 9/11 and the old terminal was struggling to adapt to the new, stringent security measures that resulted from that tragic day.

Things changed very rapidly post-9/11 as my wife and I stood outside of the WorldPort Terminal on a cold winter day, waiting in a very long line for our turn to go through security. Once inside, we were greeted by a somewhat cavernous space exhibiting a good bit of chaos. Given the excessive amount of time it took to clear security, like most other passengers, we ran to catch our plane.

But it wasn’t always like that. Opened in 1960, the WorldPort was a symbol to international fliers on Pan Am of the technological and cultural prowess of the United States. It was no drab, utilitarian building at just any airport in just any city, the WorldPort spoke loudly that this was a nation with the means and outlook to build a terminal that looked like a flying saucer; that we were a nation looking to the future and the WorldPort was the sky port to the world’s greatest city.

It was a place where international travelers were greeted by flight attendants who were not required to be the daycare center flight attendants of today, but instead had the luxury of being cultured conversationalists to travelers who actually dressed up in their finest clothes for the occasion of boarding a plane bound for a distant, exotic locale. In those days, almost any locale was exotic as relatively few people had the privilege to fly.

The terminal, however, was quickly outdated. It was far too small for the much larger Delta and it wasn’t designed for today’s security. It was designed to walk in, perhaps look around for a bit and board your plane with almost no interruption.

Last week, despite the efforts of a group dedicated to saving the unique, aging terminal, Delta began dismantling the WorldPort. Once the destruction of it is complete, it will be replaced by nothing more than asphalt — a parking lot for idled jets, something the airline says is much needed at JFK. Currently moving jets out of the way is an involved and time-consuming process.

It seems that as a nation we are becoming almost painfully utilitarian and the results carry the potential of numerous negative repercussions. Yes, a drab building can be cheaper and more efficient but we need something to feel good about, something to dream about, something to point to and say, “We created that just because we could. This says we were here and we believed.” That mentality doesn’t fit in with austerity, however, but it certainly seems to lend itself towards a race to the bottom.

The JFK Sky Train, built to connect the many thousands of passengers in the airport with New York City’s subway system blocked the view of the WorldPort several years ago. And now it is abandoned, fenced-off, and slowly being taken apart piece by piece, another monument lost to progress and relegated to a comparatively ephemeral history.

But seriously — it’s an airport. Its function is to move thousands of airplanes and transfer millions of passengers as quickly and safely as possible. It really is hard to make an argument that an airport is some sacred ground worthy of any preservation. Besides, the Port Authority did save the TWA Flight Center at JFK — it’s a cool building but it doesn’t seem to be getting much use, sitting somewhat forlorn in its emptiness separated from the other terminals by a multi-lane road.

Yet whenever I drive down U.S. Highway 41 through Ruskin and see the old Ruskin Theater falling further and further into disrepair, I can understand why some people would want to save the WorldPort. It represents something bigger than any one of us — it was a statement. Like a futuristic, flying saucer-shaped terminal at an airport, a theater must have said, “We have arrived.” To be honest, I don’t know that the Ruskin Theater was ever much of a statement but when I moved here in 1994, a semblance of a box office was still in place out front. In my mind, I could — and still can — see a brightly lit neon marquee, along with a fluorescent-lighted box office, complete with deep red carpeting inside, a snack bar with buttery popcorn, Raisinettes, and Junior Mints, and ushers wearing white shirts and dark suits, graciously willing to help those who need it down the sloping aisles towards their seats in the semi-darkened theater, with velvet curtains still closed before the latest, greatest Hollywood blockbuster fills the giant screen.

I don’t know if much of that was ever a reality at the Ruskin Theater but I know that with every passing day the dream I have of seeing something like it is a day further from reality. The building is not looking very magical these days. On the plus side, the very cool Ruskin Drive-In still remains. And there is the historic Tampa Theater, complete with signs explaining to patrons they must seat themselves as all of the ushers have long-since died, but I don’t want to have to drive all the way to Tampa for that. And while the Ruskin Drive-In is a regional treasure, sometimes it’s nice to get away from the car now and again, especially in this city where far too much time is spent in cars in the increasingly thickening traffic.

I would so love to take in a live performance at the Firehouse Cultural Center on a Friday night and stand at the ticket booth beneath the neon marquee at the Ruskin Theater with my wife on a Saturday night. How cool would it be to wait in line or sit in a theater before the show with people we know, talking and making human contact in a way that Facebook could never possibly replicate or even remotely equal?

I really don’t know why we let times like that slip away from us. I’m afraid that in the process, we’ve lost not only human contact, but also some of our willingness to dream and think big. What is known as progress has taken the Ruskin Theater and is now taking the WorldPort Terminal. Perhaps it’s for the best. Nothing lasts forever after all, and neither meet the needs of the present, let alone the future. But sometimes I wish things could stay just a little bit longer. And more and more, I find myself wishing that we had something to reach for, something to dream about. I’m beginning to wish that we had something that said, “We were here and we believed.”

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