Hemispheres - August 2001
Terminal Bliss / New York's JFK
By David Butwin
This 1940s aviation icon is the arrival and departure point for
millions of international travelers to and from the United States.
As a $10 billion makeover gains momentum, new terminals, stunning
art, and tastes of the Big Apple are just the start of impressive
improvements.Thirty or 40 years ago, it stood for all that was chic
and desirable in international air travel. If you went to Europe,
the Caribbean, or Latin America, you flew out of JFK (then Idlewild)
and bragged about it. Alas, wear and tear, thickening highway traffic,
and the rise of Newark International all took a toll. By the ’80s
the bragging had long stopped. And then a funny thing happened:
The airport began to grow and glow again.
Have you seen it lately? You wouldn’t know it—not because
of ongoing construction or the soon-to-be-finished aerial tram that
loops impressively about like a Roman viaduct, but because the old
aerodrome is shining withpromise, once again representing the latest
and sleekest in facilities. Suddenly, travelers are stepping into
a new terminal with edgy artworks and Harlem-on-my-mind soul food.
The once mighty airport that slipped to 20th-busiest in the world,
with 33 million domestic and international passengers, is back.
JFK Airport, opened in 1948, was fitted with longer runways than
LaGuardia so that prop aircraft of the day could carry enough fuel
for transatlantic flights. It was christened New York International
Airport, but everyone called it Idlewild for the old Idlewild golf
club that had stood on this marshy tract in the southeast corner
of Queens County. It was officially renamed John F. Kennedy in December
1963 in the wake of the president’s assassination. One by
one, new terminals sprouted on an expansive oval, breaking new ground
with their jet-age design. Most were named for their airline tenant,
and the number grew to nine.
In the late ’90s, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,
which also operates Newark and LaGuardia, began a long-running $10
billion reconstruction. The terminals would have numbers instead
of names, and terminal 1, the first to rise, in 1998, was an airy,
soaring takeoff on a classic hangar. It was followed a few months
ago by the bigger and even bolder terminal 4, a $1.4 billion structure
with riveting artwork. There’s more ahead. Terminal 7, a class
act in its original form, is undergoing major expansion.
Step outside and you see the concrete hulk of AirTrain, which will
soon whisk passengers from terminal to terminal and beyond the airport
to Long Island railroad connections with New York City. You may
have to duck around a hardhat site, but there is no missing the
fresh, can-do spirit of the place, symbolized by the ubiquitous
red-jacketed customer service representatives who seem the embodiment
of the Giuliani-era New Yorker—always refreshingly ready to
That’s Entertainment / With even just an hour or two to spare,
take a gander at the new terminal 4, not only a shopping mall and
restaurant row but an art gallery in disguise. If you need a light
workout, you can hike there from the two United terminals, 6 and
7; otherwise, grab the frequently circulating red-white-and-blue
terminal bus. The stroll passes another museum piece—terminal
5. Designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and
opened in 1962, the stunning white wafer with the soaring winglike
lines was perhaps the greatest triumph of the man who also designed
Dulles International and the St. Louis Arch. Today, you are struck
by the modest size of the place. Renovation is nigh.
Terminal 4, as revolutionary in its own way as the Saarinen building
was 40 years ago, is a soaring white eggshell with slanting white
stanchions propping up the three floors like the struts of bygone
aircraft. Looming above the departure lounge is Alexander Calder’s
mobile Flight, a stylized flying machine that used to hang in JFK’s
old arrivals building. The new arrivals hall sports a ceramic copy
of an Arshile Gorky gouache drawing made by the surrealist-abstract
expressionist (and christened by Amelia Earhart) in the 1930s as
a study for his fantastic murals.
The real scene stealers are three new works meant to embody the
New York experience. In Travelogues, created by the design team
of Diller + Scofidio, a sort of postmodern cartoon strip strung
along a sterile corridor shows flashing images of suitcase interiors.
Curtain Wall, an abstract work by Harry Roseman, performs a kind
of illusory magic—a wall of white curtains folds delightfully
into clouds against a blue backdrop. In New York Streets, Deborah
Masters has created a 100-yard panel of brightly painted relief
sculptures depicting 28 scenes of city life.
If you have kids in tow, head for the waterfalls and big sculpture
in terminal 1 or the Lego play station near gates 5 and 7. You’ll
also find a kids’ play area in terminal 6. Or visit terminal
8 (while it lasts). Opened in 1959, the building with the red-white-and-blue
window across the front landed in Guinness for having the largest
stained-glass window in the world. Check out the two murals by Brazilian
artist Carybe. Here kids can play Where’s Waldo by picking
out the historical figures in the murals.
Going Shopping / Even in its first heyday, JFK was never confused
with Fifth Avenue, but things are improving. Terminal 4’s
retail hall, which is said to stretch for four New York City blocks,
is a growing avenue of enticements. You descend via a grand staircase
to a wide buzzing corridor lined with shopping and lounging outlets.
On either side of a 10,000-square-foot duty-free emporium are shops
like DKNY, with the latest women’s fashions, and I Santi,
which lures you in with the rich smell of fine leather products.
Terminal 1 also has the goods, with new outlets of the posh boutiques
Ferragamo and Hermès. And terminal 7’s departure level
has a spanking new concession area.
Dining / While it’s no match for New York City, JFK nevertheless
tempts with a varied and satisfying roster of dining choices. In
terminal 7, the plush restaurant Latitudes serves creative California
specials—fish, steak, chops, a sandwich of grilled tuna with
BLT on panini bread, and fried chicken with basmati rice. There’s
a wine list of 30 to 40 half-bottles, and Latitudes has two cozy
Chili’s in terminal 3 is a friendly branch of the Mexican
chain. In ter-minal 9, T.G.I. Friday’s is another lively offshoot
of the chain launched on Manhattan’s East Side 30-plus years
Terminal 4’s dining and retail concourse offers two table-service
restaurants: the gleaming Bar Avion, a cross between a Paris bistro
and a chic first-class airport lounge, and Delancey’s, a classic
old-time NYC saloon.
Scattered along the hallway are some novel variations on the fast-food
mode, with clusters of tables and counters set out in the center.
Sylvia’s Grill is a tiny branch of the illustrious Sylvia’s
at 328 Lenox Avenue in Harlem, which will celebrate 40 years in
business next year. Choose from fried pork chops, smothered pork
chops, and fried chicken and ribs, but be sure to have peach cobbler
for dessert. Belly up to Erwin Fried Glatt Kosher restaurant for
knishes and corned beef sandwiches. Cucina Express features light
Italian dishes and baked goods; Mesa Picante has tacos, burritos,
nachos, and the popular Mexican drink aqua fresca, a blend of mineral
water and fruit; and Souper Bowl Asiana serves up everything Asian
in a bowl.
Another option is the upstairs food court in terminal 1. Three walkup
outlets and a sit-down Greenwich Village Bistro (sandwiches, salads,
New York steaks) are arrayed around a dazzling steel sculpture depicting
flight. On the very fringe of JFK, a five-minute taxi ride or free
shuttle bus ride away, Claudine’s at the Holiday Inn JFK serves
American and Continental dishes. And if you have more time, hop
a bus, cab, or subway to Manhattan. The city that never sleeps also
never stops eating. You’ll fare well by just grabbing a New
York Airport Service bus in front of any terminal and going directly
to Grand Central Terminal for $13. Try the landmark Oyster Bar in
the vaulted lower level or head up on the balcony to Michael Jordan’s
Getting Down to Business / Every terminal at JFK sports a series
of kiosks with computer monitors offering 5 or 10 minutes of free
time; after that you just swipe a credit card. In terminal 6, retreat
to a series of 10 three-sided booths and log on to free computers.
In the refurbished terminal 7, a swank new business counter has
been installed in the departure lounge with a slew of Internet connections.
A business center has opened in the east end of the retail hall
in terminal 4. It has two private work suites each with access to
a computer hooked up to the Internet via DSL line, a laptop connection
for your own computer, a phone, fax, and printer. There is customer
service support at all times, as the terminal is open 24 hours.
Getting Grounded / With half a day on your hands, consider the cluster
of hotels just outside the JFK grounds. At the just-opened Courtyard
by Marriott JFK Airport (Tel: 718-848-2121), rooms come with high-speed
Internet access and two-line speakerphones with voice mail and dataport.
The airy gym has a half-dozen aerobic machines. Another winner is
the 386-room Radisson JFK Airport (Tel: 718-322-2300); rooms are
$90 for the day with all the business hookups. The Holiday Inn JFK
(Tel: 718-659-0200) charges $110 for the day; there’s a full-service
business center just off the lobby and a health club with the only
pool in the area.
Step outside the terminal two years from now and the sleek AirTrain
will sweep you to trains and subways headed for Manhattan. Meanwhile,
you can hop a taxi to the big city for $30 (plus tolls), or grab
a New York Airport Service bus in front of any terminal (Tel: 212-875-8200;
$15 to designated hotels). Drive time can be 30 to 60 minutes or
longer, depending on traffic.
Savvy travelers put their money (just $1.50) on the New York subway:
Hop a 10-minute yellow-white-and-blue free shuttle outside any terminal
to the Howard Beach stop, and then grab the A-train subway to the
city. It’s a 30-minute ride into lower Manhattan and another
15 minutes to Midtown for Broadway and shopping.
Getting Gone / Some non-urban pleasures await on the fringes of
JFK. Only a five-minute cab ride away, Aqueduct Race Track is the
scene of thundering thoroughbred racing (end of October to the beginning
of May; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday).
Anyone with an even passing interest in our feathered friends will
be dazzled by the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest
and richest avian habitats (330 species) on the eastern Flyway,
a short drive from JFK on Cross Bay Boulevard.
New York’s splendid beaches are well within reach of JFK.
With four or five hours to blow, head for Jacob Riis Park in the
Gateway National Seashore not far beyond the bird sanctuary; there’s
a historic bath house, boardwalk, and beach. About the same distance
east of JFK, Long Beach is a cozy suburban beach town with a boardwalk
and some of the softest sand ever to tempt a toe. Traffic permitting,
you’re only 15 minutes from the LaGuardia environs, which
include the National Tennis Center (site of the US Open), Shea Stadium
(New York Mets), and the Queens Museum of Art in the historic New
York City Building, a relic of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.
Along with modern and contemporary art, there’s the "Panorama
of the City of New York," a cool scale-model replica of NYC
Details, Details, Details / For more information on JFK go to www.panynj.gov.
JFK’s customer service number is 718-244-4444.
David Butwin is a New Jersey writer and a regular at all New York
All information is current at publication. But changes do occur.
Please verify information before your trip.