The fire near the top of the World Trade Center’s north tower seared a new thought into those of us gaping at it from the streets of Lower Manhattan: the strong steel edifices surrounding us, sheathed in glass and stone and shimmering in the sunlight, were as mortal as we who stood in their shadow, and as the people who would have to somehow escape the biggest skyscraper of them all. Chatter rippled through Nassau Street. An airplane did that? Suddenly an explosion ripped to the left of the north tower, a wall of heat and flame. A terrifying stampede. What happened?
One of the oddities of September 11, 2001—for those of us who lived through it south of Chambers Street—was that while the rest of the world stood riveted to televisions and websites replaying footage of the attacks from dozens of camera angles, witnesses who were there that morning had an all-consuming yet wildly incomplete view of events. When we weren’t running, a thicket of other skyscrapers blocked much of the view. As a cloud of thick dust billowed through the streets, workers streaming out of buildings could not fathom its contents, except that in some horrific way it had something to do with the fires.
In the years since, New Yorkers have become accustomed to this kind of disorienting double vision. Perhaps nothing has been so strange as seeing their proudly iconoclastic and cosmopolitan city be yanked to center stage in gaudy demonstrations of nationalism, and tourists who had stayed away for years for fear of crime suddenly flocking, in T-shirts festooned with flags and yellow ribbons, to the place they called “ground zero.” This year, to mark the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks, chunks of World Trade Center steel draped in American flags have migrated to town squares all over the country to serve as mini-memorials—pieces of New York City scattered like bread crumbs across the national landscape.
The label “ground zero,” which originated with the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan, suggested that the attacks obliterated a wide area of New York City. The truth, remarkably, was that the immediate physical damage of the World Trade Center’s collapse was confined to a small area, sparing even the Century 21 department store across the street. But in another sense, the erasure of Lower Manhattan has become very real. The global political passions that have defined these sixteen acres of New York City have overshadowed the history of the place itself, and continue to define it. In 2010 Islamophobic activists hounded an Islamic cultural center planned nearby into retreat. More recently, a Christian religious artifact—a cross formed by World Trade Center girders, found “miraculously” among the rubble—secured a space in the museum that will stand on the site of the fallen towers. Now that the memorial has opened to the public, the transformation of the zone from a spectacular but also stubbornly mundane place to do business into a shrine to Muslim-battling martyrs is complete.
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Two recently published books—one new, the other a revised edition of a work written when the towers were still standing—seek to return to Lower Manhattan its own story, a good part of which is about the way the construction and destruction of the World Trade Center have shaped the realities of real estate development in this most crowded center of capitalism. The towers, after all, were built because of a unique exercise of political and economic power whose relevance to the story of American cities has only grown in the decade since the towers fell. It was once extraordinary, and is now routine, for quasi-governmental agencies to deploy massive public resources in the service of private real estate developers, with the shared goal of replacing eclectic urban business districts with planned and profitable havens for a corporate workforce. Unlike an earlier wave of urban renewal, whose public purpose was realized in public works, this one blatantly aims to turn urban centers into exclusive havens for wealth. The World Trade Center, followed by neighboring Battery Park City, tested the approach successfully within the proving ground of New York City’s financial district.