Proving Grounds: On the World Trade Center

Proving Grounds: On the World Trade Center

Proving Grounds: On the World Trade Center

How the World Trade Center turned Manhattan into a planned community.


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.

In Divided We Stand, his 1999 “biography” of the World Trade Center, Eric Darton excavates the epic story of how the mighty towers came into being. He views them not as an isolated citadel but as part of a larger system of authority and ambition realized through real estate. “Within the compass of their spectacular thrusts, our skyscrapers hold an accumulation, story by story, of the city’s strivings, conflicts, and contests for survival and domination,” he writes. “In their design and materials, their scale and proportions, their financing, their intended purposes and ongoing consequences—in the sorts of human interactions that do and do not take place within, among, and around them—Manhattan’s commercial spires offer themselves up as a living language of the city’s struggles, writ large.”

Certain quirks about Darton’s way of telling that story can grow annoying—in particular, his use of the second person to describe his encounters with the trade center (visible outside his Chelsea window) and other artifacts of New York’s built environment. But these indulgences are forgiven because of his insights, especially his explorations of the interplay between architecture, engineering, finance, city planning and culture that shapes any built environment, nowhere more so than Manhattan.

Above all, Darton wants to excavate the ideals and ideologies that formed the cultural bedrock of the trade center. The architect Daniel “Make No Little Plans” Burnham, of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; J.P. Morgan and his Wall Street fortress, the “cathedral of commerce” better known as the Woolworth Building; the determinist technocracy promoted by the Regional Plan Association; the brutal utopianism of Le Corbusier—the towers could not have been built without their example, Darton emphasizes. This long historical view disappointed many readers who rushed to buy Divided We Stand a decade ago hoping to glean specs on steel fabrication and elevator technology as the remains of the trade center lay smoldering. Darton doesn’t even discuss the planning of the structure until the fifth of eight chapters, and its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, doesn’t make his debut until Chapter 6. As for the feat of constructing the trade center, Darton dispenses with it in three pages.

Darton is more interested in what he calls “the World Trade Center as a narrative for public consumption,” and how the roiling New York City of the 1960s and ’70s produced and then responded to the gargantuan and vaguely terrifying new monument anchoring its downtown. For those curious about the mysteries of economic and political engineering, and especially the forces that have displaced industry and diversity from New York’s urban core, Darton lucidly navigates the history as both a cultural text and a set of actors and actions we must strive to understand. The cast includes those who sought to destroy the towers as well as those who erected them. What is it about the structures’ ascetic geometry that might have inspired the 1993 bombing? Why, for that matter, did New Yorkers view them with dread more than awe?

Divided We Stand adds fresh nuggets to the embalmed story of the World Trade Center. The center was built on the site of the Hudson and Manhattan railroad terminal buildings—themselves, it turns out, once the world’s largest block of offices, 2 million square feet contained in twin (yes) towers. Yamasaki was also responsible for the dismal Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, so poorly designed for its purpose that it had to be blown up. Originally, the trade center was supposed to rise on the east side of the financial district, not the west. But equally striking is how different the Lower Manhattan landscape was before this urban renewal project took hold. The area was, as it had been from the earliest days of European settlement, a seaport, and the “world trade” that took place there landed with a thud onto docks and workshop floors as well as into accounting ledgers. As Darton carefully documents, the dispersal of Lower Manhattan’s maritime economy to other ports in the region was no accident; it was part of a coordinated project to purge the area of the industry and docks controlled by organized labor in order to make way for a colony of financial workers. Just one of the many paradoxes of this history is that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the World Trade Center site, helped to undermine the port commerce it had been founded to manage.

New York wags used to call the twin towers “David” and “Nelson” after the two Rockefeller brothers who were instrumental in their creation—one was the governor of New York; the other, the president of Chase Manhattan and the state’s most powerful banker. Urban renewal, Rockefeller style, was of a stripe distinct from that of Robert Moses: whereas Moses sought to build parks and highways and housing to elevate a worn-down city into a modern and mobile metropolis, the Rockefellers moved to secure the supremacy of the city’s financial center. The trade center, like the Chase Manhattan tower to the southeast, was part of a strategic effort to retain Wall Street’s eminence as a business district.

Darton brashly calls the trade center project “the twentieth century’s most spectacular act of full-frontal real estate.” With adjacent Tribeca today a warren of multimillion-dollar lofts and spacious pied-à-terre for Hollywood stars, it’s easy to forget that when the World Trade Center rose, Tribeca and the nearby waterfront was still an active industrial and commercial area. The site was home to Radio Row, a collection of electronics shops and hundreds of other businesses. The Port Authority and its unflappable chair, Austin Tobin, justified clearing out existing enterprises by citing not only the jobs the project would create but the power of the trade center to raise real estate values throughout Lower Manhattan. Along the way, Tobin promised a “100 percent public facility” in which “every tenant” would be “engaged in public activity”—this sham promise being necessary to establish the power of eminent domain over private property owners.

The completion of the trade center in 1973 couldn’t have come at a more awkward time, as the city’s population shrank and corporate headquarters fled the business district for space-age office parks in Stamford and White Plains, an exodus the building of the towers was supposed to curb. With millions of square feet of prime office space lying vacant, Governor Rockefeller signed a lease for state workers to occupy Tower 2. (My mother was one of them, with a spectacular seventy-second-floor view.) New York City was nearly bankrupt, but the Port Authority was exempt from property taxes on the trade center and made only modest payments for city services. The trade center was made possible by massive subsidies from both the city and state.

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By the time the World Trade Center opened for business, a pattern had been set. A quasi-governmental authority could seed major speculative real estate projects and claim as its public purpose the creation of residential and office space for the financial sector’s elite. The trade center spawned a second mega-development, Battery Park City, built on the earth excavated and dumped into the Hudson River to make way for the twin towers’ deep foundations. When New York City found itself frustrated in its attempts to attract development to this isolated wasteland, it struck a deal to transfer control of the project to the state, which in turn created a special authority controlled by the governor. As they had done with the trade center, the Rockefeller brothers brought significant motives and means to the project. Nelson used $600 million in state bonds to jump-start private investment, and Chase Manhattan was a major stakeholder. And so in the 1980s and ’90s, with the help of billions in public bonds, Battery Park City sprouted the World Financial Center (now home to Goldman Sachs and American Express) and thousands of apartments in luxury high-rises, hugging a gorgeously landscaped waterfront esplanade. Most of the affordable housing associated with the project (and there wasn’t much of it) was exiled to the Bronx.

When jets hit the neighboring twin towers, Battery Park City was still a work in progress, pocked with empty lots and held together by residents’ intense protectiveness of the neighborhood’s quality of life and removed from Manhattan’s cacophony. A neighborhood built from the ground up—in which most residents are high-income professionals and to which local business owners must commute—is not an urban community in the traditional sense but rather a vertical settlement, one that must craft its own institutions of interconnectedness. New York City had never seen anything like it. Until Battery Park City, urban development projects financed through government borrowing had been built for the working and middle classes. This was partly a practical matter—demolition through eminent domain was an option only for projects that had a defined “public purpose.” But more broadly it reflected a commitment by federal and state governments to invest public resources in modern housing and transportation, as antidotes to crumbling and crowded slums.

Starting in the spring of 1999, sociologist Gregory Smithsimon sought to understand what kind of society might come together in a class-segregated urban zone of the sort that had previously existed only in the suburbs. Inventively, he adapted the observational methods of the urban sociologist William Whyte and turned them onto a class that usually existed outside public view. Whyte (not to be confused with the urbanist journalist William H. Whyte) spent four years living in Boston’s North End in the late 1930s, observing the social organization of this overwhelmingly poor Italian-American neighborhood. The resulting book, Street Corner Society (1943), set the course for a branch of sociology known as “community studies,” which has almost always focused on marginalized urban social worlds. Two well-known works in this vein are Sidewalk (1999), Mitchell Duneier’s account of Greenwich Village street vendors, and American Project (2000), Sudhir Venkatesh’s study of the residents of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. Whyte built close relationships with informants and subjects to document their social dynamics, a method Smithsimon emulates but never fully commits to. What he’s really after in September 12, his account of the history of Battery Park City, is a broad analysis of residents’ political actions to defend their most unusual home.

Smithsimon has built his book around a thesis about the social construction of urban space, and in particular space claimed almost exclusively by the upper class. A place and the people who identify with it are engaged in an extended dialogue over time, Smithsimon asserts, through cycles in which space shapes the social world that grows on it, followed by subsequent periods in which the people take action to ensure that the place retains its distinctive form and character.

In 2002, with the waterfront neighborhood just re-emerging from the rubble and blight of the 9/11 attacks, Smithsimon strapped his toddler daughter into her stroller, journeyed across a pedestrian bridge into Battery Park City, wheeled into one of the esplanade’s playgrounds and began talking to the parents there to see how they saw themselves. In between anxious ruminations about the wisdom of returning to a place they feared would be harmful to their children’s health, he heard strong ideas about why parents chose to return to Battery Park City instead of fleeing to the suburbs or Brooklyn Heights. Again and again they talked about all the qualities that make Battery Park City such an anomaly in New York City: not just the manicured playgrounds and waterfront views, and the strange quiet that accompanies life on dead-end streets, but above all their community’s physical separation from the rest of Manhattan.

Much of Smithsimon’s account focuses on that gulf, both geographic and psychological, and the political mobilization of Battery Park City’s resident professionals to keep their neighborhood isolated from those who might wander in across forbidding West Street. During 9/11 reconstruction, residents fought plans to submerge West Street’s traffic to allow for easy crossing from the trade center area to Battery Park City; and rather than allow a tour bus parking garage on their side of the highway, they had the chutzpah to insist that the garage be located under the future trade center memorial.

Smithsimon asks how the residents acquired such a sense of entitlement, and finds much of the answer in the political favoritism with which this unusual space was blessed. Like the Port Authority, the Battery Park City Authority doesn’t pay city taxes even though it relies on city services. Its payments in lieu of taxes were supposed to end up in an affordable housing development fund, insisted on by Governor Mario Cuomo and subsequently raided during the tenure of his immediate successor, George Pataki. Without the burden of paying for city services, the Battery Park City Authority was able to plow large sums into maintaining the esplanade’s truly remarkable parks, which are organically gardened and enriched with a constant supply of play and arts programs.

Smithsimon surprisingly doesn’t discuss the transience of Battery Park City’s population in a global economy, in which residents’ ability to hold on to their status and income depends on their willingness to shape their lives to their employers’ needs. This is not a place for the super-elite but rather the loyal workforce that makes Wall Street possible, and that must play carefully by its rules. To the extent that the area has diversity, it comes from a scattering of on-site affordable housing, spouses who work in nonfinancial fields and high-income members of other professions fueled by the finance economy.

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In appendixes to their books, Smithsimon and Darton include diaristic accounts of the 9/11 catastrophe, and unexpectedly these reverse the personalities of the books themselves. Smithsimon, who was not in New York City on September 11, reprints articles from the community newspaper Battery Park City Broadsheet, which convey in intense detail the havoc that rained down on the neighborhood and carry an emotional weight that’s missing from the rest of September 12. In contrast, Darton’s diaries from the summer and fall of 2001, added for the anniversary edition, are littered with strangely mundane observations and snippets, and only on October 4 does the bereaved biographer sit down to write his account of the day his subject died.

In the diaries, Darton processes over time how the towers’ destruction alters the biography he had written a decade earlier. He finds striking parallels between the life histories of Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who built the trade towers, and the terrorist Mohammed Atta, trained as an urban planner, who was instrumental in destroying them. Both men were alienated minorities within hostile cultures who found meaning in severe and abstract ideals that crushed prior reality. Ironically, one of the provocations that set Atta on the road to Al Qaeda was resentment of the urban renewal shredding poor neighborhoods in Cairo. Yamasaki, a second-generation Japanese-American, avoided detention in the United States during World War II but nonetheless suffered discrimination as he pursued his pathbreaking career. “How far does a structure have to veer from fundamental considerations of human life and safety before we can recognize it as a manifestation of terrorism?” Darton asks. In the midst of blind celebration of the fallen towers, he feels compelled to admit his loathing of the World Trade Center, a stance never so directly articulated in the rest of the book. “You still believe the trade towers were an awful thing—like knives stuck in the liver of the city—and you’re glad they’re gone.”

This was a brave thing to confess in 2002. A decade later, with overreaching skyscraper construction now a staple of Asia’s surging urban economies, one might hope that Darton’s relief would endure. As Darton reflected in 1999, it is “inconceivable that the World Trade Center could be built today.” Instead, New York and other American cities have replicated the invasive model pioneered in Lower Manhattan, substituting friendlier architecture for the parvenu phallus. Right now Atlantic Yards is rising ominously in downtown Brooklyn, a state-sponsored project immune from local planning reviews and entitled to seize private property based on dubious claims that the area had been blighted. Out of the media spotlight, the city is seeking a developer to flush out hundreds of small auto and industrial businesses to make way for a convention and hotel complex north of the Mets’ ballpark. And World Trade Center 2.0 is rising on the site of the old, with the help of $3.2 billion in public subsidies and undeterred by questions about who will occupy most of its 5 million square feet of office and retail space.

Private money usually drives government actions that displace existing businesses and residents, with the absurd “public purpose” of building luxury real estate. But in the new trade center project, that central role is being played by the Port Authority. Such obliteration no longer requires the use of eminent domain; hundreds of small businesses serving a predominantly African-American clientele had to flee downtown Brooklyn after a Bloomberg administration–sponsored zoning change in 2004 permitted high-rise residential construction on side streets formerly home to small storefronts.

Such transformations have their intended effect: remaking not only the immediate development zone but a sizable radius around it. One suspects that if Smithsimon conducted his research today, Battery Park City residents would be far more open to efforts to bridge the moat of West Street, which separates them from an expanse of luxury restaurants, boutiques and toy stores in Tribeca and Soho. Once, Battery Park City had offered a unique opportunity to build a large volume of luxury real estate in an exclusive enclave. Today, the city’s planners routinely permit such developments—most recently, on the Hudson west of Columbus Circle—and much of Manhattan has the feel and function of a planned community.

Outside the five boroughs, few remember that 9/11 altered the city’s political landscape for the decade to come by making possible Michael Bloomberg’s otherwise inconceivable victory as the successor to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Bloomberg has done more than any mayor before him to use the city’s power over land use and subsidies to remake much of Manhattan and targeted areas of Brooklyn and Queens as zones for high-end residences and commercial space, at the expense of existing, less prosperous enterprises and tenants. This isn’t to diminish his administration’s record in building affordable housing (mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn) and helping to turn around distressed neighborhoods; but Bloomberg’s strategy has left New York City with a dismally high unemployment rate for those outside the white-collar workforce, and Manhattan has the highest level of income inequality in the nation. A lost New York City lies buried beneath the mass grave, invisible to the throngs flocking to the World Trade Center memorial.

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