NEW YORK DAYS: Dutch have courage to tame JFK

  • @dusborne
It is true the Dutch once ran Manhattan, but that was three centuries ago and ended with their man, Peter Stuyvesant, being thrown out. So who is to say that today they are any more able to tame the city? Particularly when their big idea is to put flies in the urinals.

Mayor Giuliani is not about to vacate Gracie Mansion for Wim Kok. But in a gesture of despair over its own management failures, the Apple has invited the Dutch to take responsibility for a place that is the epitome of the metropolis. It seethes and perspires and is a temple of chaos and inefficiency. We are speaking of the international arrivals building at JFK airport.

If you have flown into JFK, it is likely that your first minutes on American soil were a bit of a shock. JFK might have been grand when it opened in 1957 - then it was Idlewild - with its fountains and cocktail clubs. But now it invites obliteration by a powerful bomb.

Even after the ordeals of customs, delayed baggage, and the search for the taxi line, there is still the 30-minute-going-on-two-hour ride through Queens to Manhattan. (Did you really imagine there would be a train to take you there?). America turns out to be a land of peeling-felt roofs, unkempt cemeteries and billboards. Only the pot-holes are bigger and better.

Of the seven terminals, none is more dysfunctional than number four - international arrivals. Built originally to accommodate 2,000 passengers an hour, it now must handle three times that number and 50 different airlines. It has become the antithesis of the glamour once associated with flying.

In spite of being on a domestic flight, I recently suffered Terminal Four when I and my family flew Carnival Air to Fort Lauderdale. First there was no Carnival check-in desk - not one. How were we to know a pair of lonely Iberia counters were going to transform themselves into Carnival an hour before departure? Suddenly the fire sirens go off, red lights flash and my son, quite reasonably, is nervous. Shouldn't we evacuate? Then it stops. A security guard seems not to have noticed and no explanation is offered.

Next it is upstairs to the departures level. Here, by the small food court, where my son explodes a sachet of ketchup over himself, rests the large, hopelessly old-fashioned, indicator board (all clattering names and times, it would have seemed modern in Waterloo twenty years ago), showing the arrivals times. Never mind that those who might find it useful are in arrivals one floor below. Departures information is on suspended television screens - but the nearest one to where we are is a 10-minute walk away.

All this finally defeated the New York Port Authority, which has handed the place over to a Dutch-American consortium, Schiphol USA. With the help of nearly $1bn raised by a city bond issue earlier this year, the group intends over the next four years to rebuild Terminal Four in the image of Schiphol Airport outside Amsterdam. The Port Authority is excited: Schiphol is regularly ranked as one of the world's best airports while JFK is perpetually regarded as one of the worst.

The vision is simple: a pleasant, unclogged terminal that passengers will enjoy rather than endure. There will be shops and cafes and even - though the nature of New York politics must make this unlikely - a raised rail link to the Apple's core. There will also be those urinals.

It was to the Wall Street Journal that the project general manager, Jan Jansen, offered this illustration of Dutch-think replacing Yank-think. He intends installing urinals with tiny black flies etched in the porcelain, as at Schiphol. The idea is to give a fellow something to aim at and to keep the flow in the pan. "Fine, laugh at me. It works. It gives a guy something to think about".

I wonder. In Holland the flies doubtless survive as gleaming beacons. In New York, I fear there will be quickly be obscured by debris, gum and spittle. There is a tidiness about the Dutch, even in the conduct of bodily functions, that I do not often observe in New Yorkers.

How sparkling do we want JFK to be any way? So it lacks a certain elegance. So does the city. If the purpose of an arrivals terminal is to pamper and induce shopping, turn it into Schiphol. If instead it is to prepare the arriving traveller for what lies in store outside - noise, disorder, crowds, rudeness, colour, energy and confusion - then the Dutch makeover may be an error.