The Metropolitan Airport


Today on Gotham, historian Mason B. Williams speaks with Nicholas Dagen Bloom, author of The Metropolitan Airport: JFK International and Modern New York (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

Nicholas Dagen Bloom’s work is distinguished by the depth of its research, by the accessibility of its presentation, and perhaps above all by its dogged impatience with the received wisdom -- especially when it comes to how we think about mid-century modernist urban development. Gotham Blog readers will know him best by his commanding history of public housing in New York, Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2008. In that work, Bloom cut through the fog of ideology that envelops our understanding of high-rise public housing and helped us to comprehend how public housing became, and why it remains, an essential part of New York’s affordable housing landscape. Bloom’s new book, The Metropolitan Airport: JFK International and Modern New York, excavates the history of the no-less maligned John F. Kennedy International Airport. In it, Bloom lays out the roots of some of JFK’s persistent problems -- endless traffic congestion, flight delays, crumbling terminals, noise pollution -- while also showing how JFK became, nonetheless, “one of the most successful and influential of all of New York’s many modern redevelopment projects.”

An Associate Professor of Social Science and chair of Interdisciplinary Studies and Urban Administration at the New York Institute of Technology, Bloom is the author of three books and the editor of several more; among the latter, an edited volume he assembled with Matthew Gordon Lasner, Affordable Housing in New York (Princeton University Press, 2015) may be of particular interest to our readers. Our conversation touches upon the place of figures like Robert Moses and Austin Tobin in JFK’s development; the ways in which the airport’s history reflected racial and class dynamics in the city; and Bloom’s approach to visual sources, which he employs to great effect. This hardly exhausts the book’s range of inquiry; readers will find that The Metropolitan Airport also offers fresh insights into subjects ranging from environmental history to the impact of airline deregulation. In all, Bloom has written a landmark study of JFK. He has also provided a model for how to place airports within the history of cities.
— Mason Williams

Let’s start with a “20,000 foot” question. You begin by noting that airports have not been incorporated into the urban history literature to a degree commensurate with their historical importance. Why do you think this is? How should we be thinking about airports as part of metropolitan history? What challenges did you run into in writing the history of JFK-as-metropolitan-history?

Airports are relatively new, technically complicated, somewhat isolated, and metropolitan in scale. I think many scholars, outside specialists in airport development, also look at airports as standardized places that that have shallow urban roots. Airports are also subject to “creative destruction” that often wipes clear the built landscape of earlier eras; airport managers and most passengers seem largely unsentimental about airport landscapes and buildings (beyond a very few icons such as the TWA Terminal), so there is little of the layering of old and new that often inspires historical questions. Yet, as Metropolitan Airport demonstrates for JFK alone, it is possible to identify distinct airport characteristics in terms of architecture, planning, scale, affect, environmental issues, leadership, business model, customer base, and much more. So there must be many other important stories to tell about other airports and cities, both here and abroad.

The main challenge of writing JFK-as-metropolitan-history is that the connections between airports and cities are complicated once one leaves the airport campus in terms of transit, the environment, residential patterns, business, and so forth. In the case of JFK, for instance, the effects of the airport are usually diluted with wider urban effects, so it is always a challenge weighing what was JFK-specific and what was wider urban impact. You have to dig around to identify the connections, relying on a lot of very “boring” technical consultant and regional economic analysis, environmental battles, local newspapers, and so forth to tease out these connections.

Before reading your book, I had assumed that Robert Moses played only a minor role in the history of JFK. The project starts, like La Guardia, under the jurisdiction of the Docks department; Moses tries to commandeer it after World War II but famously gets outmaneuvered by the Port Authority. Convincingly, though, you put Moses up there with La Guardia and Port Authority director Austin Tobin as one of the three figures who did the most to shape JFK. Why is that the case?

Robert Moses didn’t end up building or operating JFK, so it has been natural to leave him out of the airport story. But as one totals up all the ways in which Moses structured urban development around the airport, it become clear that he was very important, despite losing the battle for direct control. It was Moses, after all, who led the cleanup and redefinition of Jamaica Bay as a recreation/nature reserve; and the Bay under his management quickly become valuable enough in the 1960s to merit preservation in the face of an expanding airport. It was Moses who restricted his parkways to cars, making it very difficult for bus and truck companies to serve JFK and overloading the Van Wyck. Moses personally directed the construction of vast middle and public housing projects around the Bay and the Rockaways, plopping additional people directly under or near flight paths. In combination, these Moses strategies deeply affected the efficiency of the airport and the experience of travelers going to and from the airport, and they helped derail expansion plans of the airport 1960s -- and still impact the airport today.

The key actors, though, are definitely the Port Authority in general and Tobin in particular. Rather than ask about Tobin’s own vision for the airport, which you do a terrific job laying out in the book, I want to ask: What do you think were the key long-term consequences of this managerial arrangement? How might JFK’s history have played out differently had Moses’s Airport Authority won out in the late ’40s, for instance?

The Port Authority was key to the story as they were able to fund the airport’s development off the books of City Hall, thus avoiding the knotty problem of municipal debt limits. The PA aimed to, and largely succeeded, in building one of the best and largest airports in the world for its time, a task accomplished with a minimum of corruption and delays. But the Port Authority was also nearsighted, having built its success on tolls from cars, buses, and trucks. Leaders like Tobin brought this same attitude to airport development, overlooking the fact that while NYC mass transit might have been troubled, it was still functioning and could have been efficient for carrying passengers to the airport. The Terminal City within the airport was also entirely auto-centric, created internal delays and inconveniencing travelers switching between airlines; the AirTrain only opened in 2003, about a half-century after the airport’s dedication. The PA was also very slow to secure the air cargo warehouses and loading areas, allowing for a massive increase in crime that damaged the airport’s reputation. The PA allowed the jet fuel companies to dump fuel in and around the airport, creating a toxic mess, and their record on neighborhood noise is also mixed, at best. By all accounts, the Port Authority was also slow to rebuild or expand JFK in the face of a changing airline industry; in fairness, however, redesign and expansion has been complicated and restricted by pressure from the airlines, surrounding neighborhoods, environmentalists, and larger economic trends.

One of the Port Authority’s great failings, you note, was that it designed JFK according to a post-urban vision of modernity that was just fundamentally at odds with lived reality in New York. They tried to create the City of Tomorrow but the actual historical city
-- in the form of traffic, crime, and much else -- kept impinging. How should we understand this failure of vision and understanding? Should we regard mid-century modernism, writ large, as inherently hubristic -- or were there more specific factors at play in this case?

I don’t view the modernist project, in its broadest urban terms, as a complete failure (as is clear from my work on public and affordable housing). Planning in the 1940s and 1950s for such a dramatic change in transportation and lifestyles was very difficult; leaders did about the best they could while facing an entirely uncertain future and limited budgets. Some projects worked, others didn’t, and some fell somewhere in the middle. Many modernist environments, for instance, have been adapted over time to make them more useful. JFK is almost entirely rebuilt at this time, mass transit has been inserted, and roadways improved. Some experts have even come around to seeing certain utility in the planning model (widely spaced terminals) for a large airport like JFK.

OK: So what did the Port Authority get right? What was it about this project that allowed JFK to become, for all its issues, one of the most successful and influential redevelopment projects in New York’s history?

New York was one of the first American cities to understand the demands of the air age in terms of scale, despite the fact that so much of the city’s wealth had been tied to vast rail and port facilities and there was little evident land available for airport creation (that’s why both of our airports in NYC are built partly on fill at the water’s edge). It was risky to bet that a dense city like New York could lead in the aviation age, but a bet that paid off quickly. JFK’s early leadership in international travel helped retain the city’s importance as a global financial and managerial center, from the 1950s to the present, when it could have become far less important because of the wider forces of decentralization. I devote time in the book looking at how business valued the airport as a global hub.

One of my favorite moments in the narrative is when you note that the Port Authority abridged Emma Lazarus’s poem before inscribing it on an airport wall — they actually cut the reference to “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” because they thought it would be anachronistic. In fact, “The Golden Door” at mid-century JFK is the name of a ritzy restaurant atop the International Arrivals Building. As you observe, this is a public institution that serves primarily the affluent — certainly at mid-century, though less so over time. How should we think about JFK in relation to the history of race, class, and power in the city? How did those dynamics shape the airport’s development?

The Port Authority raced to serve affluent white people because this demographic had the money for what was initially a very expensive mode of travel. Access to and around the airport was also structured around those with the money for cars and taxis. And with the exception of certain affluent districts near the airport, such as the Five Towns in Nassau County, many of the effects of airport operations have been more dramatically felt in modest, and increasingly minority, communities in the city. At the same time, the airport became a jobs engine that in time has become very diverse, from the taxis to airport and airline staff. The airport by the 1960s also served as a gateway for a new wave of migrants from across the globe, as well as a connection to homelands, home products, etc. In sum, the airport may have been created for affluent white residents, but its market and employee base have diversified over time.

The photographs in this book are just fantastic -- especially the ones from the Herald-Tribune collection at the Queens Borough Public Library. How did you go about finding and selecting these photos? Generally, how do you approach visual sources?

I was interested in atypical images of the airport that featured people and other activity on site or in surrounding areas. The mostly vacant, high-modernist photos of JFK terminals are somewhat overexposed at this point, so I went looking for alternatives and found them with the Herald Tribune collection. They were also modestly priced for reproduction and of very good quality. Images, and captions, should add qualities, trends, and context that are difficult to render in text. So, for instance, there are also a lot of maps and adapted charts from the Regional Plan Association.

You’ve now recovered the value of two of the most unloved -- yet essential -- public institutions in New York: NYCHA housing and JFK Airport. Should readers of the Gotham Center blog be looking forward to your forthcoming history of the C train?

I'm writing a book on the contributions of Nelson Rockefeller to New York’s urban and regional planning tradition. Beyond the questionable projects, such as the Nelson Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in Albany and so many highways, there is much to admire in his vision for New York City and State when it comes to the environment, transit, education, housing, and more — issues and approaches that are as vital today as they were fifty years ago. I am impressed, and think readers will be as well, with his administration’s planning, including the MTA, the big affordable housing programs (including those for the suburbs), the Adirondacks, SUNY campuses, and much more. His administration was part of a wave of progressive state planning in the 1960s and 1970s that endorsed more, rather than less, planning for modern societies. As such, these administrations provided a pretty sharp contrast to what was going on in cities in terms of anti-planning rhetoric.

Enlightened, pro-city policy coming from Albany even better. This will be a fascinating book. Nick Bloom, thank you.