My son was uptown that morning, up on 105th Street. Not that he has
much to do with the financial district, anyway, but I was glad to be
able to squeak in to find that out, before the phone lines became
completely impossible. My friend who works in the World Trade Center was on a business trip to Wilmington, Delaware that day, so she wasn't there either.
So, I have been spared any personal connections with that day's tragedy.
Except that I haven't.
This week I got an e-mail from a colleague who reported to work on the 78th floor of the north tower that morning, but decided to go down to the 44th floor for breakfast with his associates. His story of hearing the crash and making his way down the stairs was hair-raising. He spent the entire trip comforting one woman with claustrophobia and another with asthma. And a friend of mine who lives in New Jersey has been telling me of the funerals he’s been to in his town during the last couple of weeks.
It’s very difficult to get one’s mind around what happened at the World Trade Center this month. The numbers are too great. All you can do is see it in pieces - the pieces of lives that were affected.
But that’s sort of like the buildings themselves. It was always very hard (for me at least) to really grasp how big they were. You could only do it in pieces.
I first went to New York City during the summer of 1967, when I was in college. It was very exciting to be there, of course, and the financial district, wedged into a tiny corner at the southern tip of Manhattan, was particularly strange and intriguing. It was a network of narrow streets, each laid out by seventeenth century cows, and each with massive walls of buildings on either side. It was easy to get lost down there, where the neighborhood extended from river to river.
The Staten Island Ferry cost a nickel back then, and what a ride it was! You got an unbelievable view of the jagged skyline. Most of the buildings had been built earlier in the century, so they were mostly stone, with decorated tops. Many crested with a pyramid and a spire that reached for the sky. A particularly jarring effect, though, was the presence, right in the middle of the traditional buildings, of a gleaming glass and metal slab. It was the Chase Manhattan Bank building, and at that time, it was the only modern building in the bunch. It was reminiscent of the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It was only slightly taller than the others, though, so you still recognized that you were seeing a lot of tall buildings.
About the time I moved to New York in 1969, however, they started a major building boom in downtown Manhattan. In the course of a couple of years, half a dozen buildings were built on an empty strip along the waterfront on the East River. Suddenly, the skyline had a lot more rectangles.
One of them was particularly amusing. The architect thought that lobbies were a waste of space that should rightly belong to the public, so this building didn’t have one. There was a central core for the elevators of course, but most of the area that would have been lobby was open courtyard, with fountains and sculptures. There was even a Claes Oldenburg vending machine, complete with padding. When you put in a coin, it laughed. (It did dispense the drink, however.) Oh and the building did of course have a British Sopwith Camel biplane on the roof. The architect just thought it needed that.
Another building had a neon-lined passageway to get to the elevators.
At about the same time also, they razed half the neighborhood. All the buildings along the narrow streets west of Broadway were torn down, and the entire area was cleared.
This was preparation for the building of the World Trade Center.
The World Trade Center towers are my personal buildings. In 1972, when they were being built I was going to the NYU business school across the street. Every day as I went to school, I saw the progress, both as the skyscrapers themselves climbed into the sky, and as all the ground facilities were being built. Every day the passageways to the subways were a little different.
I suppose the only time I really appreciated how big the buildings were was after they’d built maybe twenty or thirty stories. A thirty-story building is a pretty tall building, after all, but the cross section of these things was a full acre! This was a massive structure! This didn’t connect with the pictures I had seen that showed how the towers were supposed to be two tall, skinny buildings. This was their idea of skinny?
One day at lunchtime, I went into one of the towers and managed to get up to the 80th floor without anyone stopping me. The floor was empty, except for construction equipment, and there was no glass in the windows. Basically New York City was spread out below just for me! The site was nothing other than completely incredible.
(This was one of the few places in the city where you could actually see the Sopwith Camel on its foreshortened roof runway!)
Eventually, at the base of the towers, they built one of the world's most wonderful malls. Among other things, near the bank of escalators taking passengers down to the PATH trains to New Jersey, there was a restaurant that used construction equipment - scaffoldings, wiring, pipes, and such - for its decor. When the restaurant opened, the area outside it was still under construction, with plywood walls directing people from the buildings to the subway, and to eat there was to eat in the heart of the construction site. Then, when the lobby was all shiny and finished, it still looked like a construction site inside. This was specifically for the construction groupies.
A few years later, when I was working for Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, we had a visitor from a Polish pharmaceutical company, and my Polish wife was assigned as official hostess. As part of the tour, we got to take the fellow to Windows on the World at the top of the north tower. What an incredible place to dine!
I confess, in spite of the mall and Windows on the World, I was not thrilled with the architecture. As it was finished, it became clear that this was a very austere, forbidding structure, with not much consideration for human beings or human scale. The arches around the lobby gave it a kind of religious quality, and in fact one of my friends likened this to the European cathedral that tried to inspire awe of God -- only here they were trying to inspire awe of commerce.
And I never did really grasp the size of this thing.
Look at it from the plaza and you couldn’t tell how big it was. It just seemed to stretch out forever. Look at it from a distance and you still couldn’t tell how big it was. The buildings weren’t tall. They just made everything else look short. Perspective simply didn’t make sense from there.
From the Staten Island Ferry or the Empire State Building, the New York skyline was no longer composed of tall buildings. There were only two tall buildings. All the others suddenly looked very modest. A friend likened it to a telephone pole in the middle of a cornfield.
I never did really comprehend the size of the World Trade Center. It did, however, become a fundamental part of the way all of us looked at New York City.
When we were growing up, there was stability in our surroundings. The bank building had always been at Fifth and Main, and would always be there, as far as I knew. The same for the Dairy Queen, the High School, and all the other buildings and features that made up my world. It was simply the way things were.
Things were never like that in New York. Don’t see a neighborhood for a while and, when you come back, suddenly there’s a brand new building there. At the very least, all the stores are different. Every week, it seemed, the jackhammers were out, a building was coming down, and another one was going up. I was always amazed to see them build buildings in places where I didn’t remember there being places.
There was a joke in those days about a little girl who went out for a walk and came back to say, “Daddy, the big blue building is gone!” As it happens, she had simply gotten lost. The big blue building was in fact still there.
“Daddy, the World Trade Center is gone.” Wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out that we’ve simply gotten lost.