Memories made of movement: Voices of the Transbay Terminal

Benches at Transbay Terminal. Photo by

A couple of blocks away from where the Bay Bridge enters San Francisco, there’s a place that has been called “a civic disgrace.” “A decaying pit of despair.” “The bus station from hell.” Local writers have used all of these words to describe San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal.

Last weekend, critics who wanted the place wiped off the map got their way, as wrecking crews began tearing down the 1930s landmark. And yesterday, San Francisco’s politerati, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mayor Gavin Newsom, broke ground on the new one.

GAVIN NEWSOM: A million square feet right behind me, replacing this 1939 structure that had its day but clearly is no longer that shining example.

Yet for those who spent years passing through this commuter bus terminal, the changeover has stirred up complex emotions. Whether they liked it or not, denizens of the building say the terminal was a place of stability in a world of constant motion. KALW’s S. Howard Bransford visited the terminal to capture some of their voices before the teardown began. And a note to our listeners: Many of the people interviewed for this story refused to give their full names.

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S. HOWARD BRANSFORD: The Transbay Terminal at First and Mission Streets was a symbol of the Bay Area’s future. But that was more than 70 years ago. In recent years, the terminal became more a study in contrasts: Office workers who walked swiftly to their buses, passing by crowds of San Francisco’s poorest people, who slept in waiting rooms and in tents outside.

It’s a few days before wrecking crews show up, and the so-called Grand Central of the West looks like a ruin from another millennium. Soot from the Bay Bridge stains the marble façade. A faded green flower stand near the entryway is all closed up, even though it’s almost rush hour. Inside the waiting room downstairs, past the defunct restaurant, the abandoned nightclub, and the unused jail cell, residents of the terminal pace or sit on long wooden benches, plotting where to go next.

Years ago, drunk and sleep-deprived sailors might have snored here as they waited for a bus or a train back to their local port. Today, you’re more likely to find people like Gary L. Stewart.

GARY L. STEWART: I’m here today and I need a room. My wife is here today, we need a room. It’s bad, man. What are we gonna do after this? We gonna sleep in the doorway and y’all are gonna put us in jail.

From where Stewart is standing, he can see the tour groups wandering by, trying to catch a last look at the old terminal. Watching them, Stewart is already nostalgic for simpler times. Outreach workers want him to leave the terminal for a homeless shelter.

STEWART: I don’t never wanna be in a shelter. I got mental problems. I can’t deal with 100,000 people around me that I don’t really know, I don’t really like. So I can’t deal with that. So why put me in a shelter and put me in trouble? Somebody’s gonna do something I don’t like and it’s gonna be a fight.

Upstairs, commuters speed-walk over the terrazzo floors to the bus platforms, where they’ll ride off to Richmond, Oakland, or in Kathy Boothby’s case, Alameda. She’s been passing through the terminal since the 80s.

KATHY BOOTHBY: I was in it during the earthquake and it scared the heck out of me. I walked through one day after somebody had been shot. So it’s a little scary. I kind of always look a bit over my shoulder every time I come in. So it’s kind of a scary place, but you do what you gotta do. You’ve gotta get home, so it works for me.

A woman named Chloe is dragging a clear garbage bag over the steel stairs leading up to the bus platform. It’s full of what looks like trash, but Chloe thinks appearances are deceiving. She says the bag is full of documents about a spaceship she designed herself. But when it comes to urban planning, she sounds just as grounded as any local politician.

CHLOE: Our economy is supposed to be in jeopardy. The police department in Oakland is laying off people, and there’s been other layoffs in other places, too, and I don’t think it’s a wise use of money. They could take some nice paint and maybe put some sequins on the wall or something. But just to tear the whole building down, it’s going to take them seven years. It may take longer than that.

The plans for the new Transbay Terminal sound like something out of the future. A glass skyscraper will define the city skyline, towering above a rooftop garden designed to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted from buses and California’s new high-speed rail line.

But today’s terminal has none of that. On the indoor concrete platform, a man named Oteese is smoking a cigarette behind a pair of dark sunglasses. Flocks of pigeons pass overhead as he waits for the bus to Treasure Island.

OTEESE: I think I done been in this terminal a thousand times, over a thousand times. Catchin’ that Greyhound, the nightclub that was downstairs in the 70s. Just a lot of people. Still a lot of people that come through here. Everybody goin’ somewhere. Ain’t nobody just sittin’ around. Everybody got somewhere to go that’s in this terminal.

Back on the ground floor, by a bank of old payphones, is a bulletin board for public notices. A missing person flyer still sits behind the glass, and a young man with spiked hair stares out from the black and white photograph. He looks young and full of life, but the notice says he was confused and depressed when he went missing. For now, his image is enshrined here, a fixture in this place of transience. But soon, it too will be gone - just another piece of ephemera for wrecking crews to take away.

In San Francisco, I’m S. Howard Bransford, for Crosscurrents.

Do you have memories of the Transbay Terminal? If so, share them with us.