'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Last Day of the Transbay Terminal 

The Transbay Terminal in San Francisco will be closed today so that it can be demolished to make way for a new high density housing and transportation project in the financial district. According to the Transbay Transit Center:

San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal was built in 1939 at First and Mission Streets as the terminal for East Bay trains using the newly opened Bay Bridge. For the first time, San Francisco was directly linked by rail to the East Bay, Central Contra Costa County and even Sacramento. The Terminal was financed and operated as part of the Bay Bridge, and was paid for by Bay Bridge tolls (which were then 50 cents per automobile, or about $7.75 today). At the time, trucks and trains (primarily the Key System) used the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, and automobiles operated in both directions on the upper deck.

The Terminal was designed to handle as many as 35 million people annually with a peak 20-minute rate of 17,000 commuters. Ten car trains arrived every 63.5 seconds. In its heyday at the end of World War II, the terminal’s rail system served 26 million passengers annually. After the war ended and gas rationing was eliminated, the Terminal’s use began to steadily decline to a rate of four to five million people traveling by rail per year. In 1958, the lower deck of the Bay Bridge was converted to automobile traffic only, the Key System was dismantled and by 1959 the inter-modal Transbay Terminal was converted into a bus-only facility, which it currently is today.

As you might expect, the Terminal has predominately served middle and lower middle class workers who cannot afford the cost of bridge tolls and parking in the City. In its heyday, the Terminal was an architectural and social representation of the Bay Area's collective identity, a utilitarian Art Deco structure, with large numbers of people going through the facility to travel together, first on trains, then on buses. Now, it is an artifact, one that brings to mind the imagined sights, sounds and smells of San Francisco before the onrush of gentrification in the 1960s, one that served as an uncredited backdrop to the independent minded working class city described by people like the young Hunter Thompson.

On Thursday, I took the day off to go to the Terminal for a brief walk through. Most of the buses were stopping at other, temporary locations to pick up passengers, but a few were still coming through the facility, and a small number of people entered the building and went up the stairs to wait for them at the designated, sheltered stops on the second one. To its credit, the Terminal has served as a sanctuary for the homeless, who have slept on the old, rounded 1930s style benches on the first floor. If I were still single, free to do as liked for the day, I would have pulled out a book, and spent several hours sitting on the benches and reading, watching the trickle of people arriving to catch their buses. Later, I might have gone up to the second floor, and watched the coming and going of the buses, as they entered from the east and departed to the west, circling back, in many instances, to take people back to their homes in the East Bay.

But, I'm not. I had brought my young son along, and that's too much to expect of a him unless he's taking a nap. So, after about 45 minutes, we went back to my car, and traveled across the bridge to the East Bay, where we spent the remainder of the day playing in the Berkeley hills. All in all, it was a special day, as I always enjoy taking my son around to see things like the Terminal, even if he lacks the ability to comprehend why I consider them so important. One wonders if the new terminal will have the durability and compelling social identity of the old one. Will my son be taking his children to see it upon discovering that it, too, is about to be replaced with something different, something that reflects the how the City has, yet again, been transformed? Someone, I doubt it.

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