Saturday, September 3, 2011

Twin Towers Tribute

Here is a really nice montage of movies over the past 30+ years in which the Twin Towers have had a cameo role. Video by Dan Meth
Here is a CNN report on Dan’s video, which features snips of the clips from his video, which apparently took
 him 7 months of working on and off to create.  See the Vimeo link above for the actual montage by Dan. 

Before the onslaught of horrifying images of past destruction start inundating us in the media as the 10th anniversary of 9-11 approaches next week, I thought it might be nice to take a fond look back at New York City’s World Trade Center as it stood for 30+ years before the attacks.  This posting was instigated by seeing a video on Dan Meth’s blog, my favorite video cartoonist.  He spent 7 months working on and off to create a montage of movies that feature the Twin Towers in a cameo role.  It is really cool, and it started me thinking about my personal love-hate relationship (or rather, hate-tolerate relationship!) with the Twin Towers, during the time they were being built and afterward, when I lived (and also worked, for many years) in eyesight of them.
     Yes, the Twin Towers featured prominently in many seminal movies about NYC.  They were the symbol of “modern” New York of the fin de siècle 20th century, the way the Empire State Building was the iconic architecture in the first half of the 20th century.  In a strange way, I totally understood how the terrorists, in their misguided misunderstanding of American culture, could have confused the Twin Towers with something that truly emblemized America, represented America, something that was truly important.  After all, if they had been paying attention to the Hollywood movies for the past 40 years, they might be forgiven for thinking that the Twin Towers personified the American Dream and typified the average American's ambitions.  The Twin Towers had a cameo role in hundreds of movies.  A shot of the Twin Towers set the scene, was worth a thousand words. 
In the interests of full disclosure, when the Twin Towers first went up, I hated them and everything they stood for.  I disliked their phallic imperiousness, the way they destroyed a gritty “authentic” part of the city - the low-rise and somewhat shabby Lower West Side, an area known for its electrical wholesale district, some remnants of the old wholesale produce and meat markets, and seedy strip clubs and topless bars.  It was the old NYC waterfront the way I remember it growing up, and I loved that area of dilapidated old warehouses and ancient tenement buildings, some of which stood alone and slightly off-kilter, like the sole remaining tooth in a smile where all the other buildings on the block had already been extracted, and were surrounded usually by the black gums of asphalt parking lots. This was all changed forever once the World Trade Center (WTC) was built. 
In my opinion, the architecture of the WTC was nothing to write home about, either - the aesthetic was unlovable and impersonal and very corporate-boring, and its plaza on a windy day was not only unusable by humans, it was downright hazardous to one’s health.  And I had even less love for the building infrastructure and all its out-of-the-ordinary building codes.  It didn’t have to adhere to typical NYC building and fire codes because technically it was not part of NYC, it was a project of the bi-state entity called the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (or what, when I was a kid, we always referred to as the “Port of Authority,” a meaningless corruption of its original name, “The Port of New York Authority”).  The World Trade Center was built on land (landfill, actually) that was under the jurisdiction of the bi-state entity, and therefore was exempt from all NYC zoning laws and other such ordinances.  As an adult, I designed several multi-floor interior projects in the WTC, and so came to know first-hand about its singular set of building codes and land use regulations that applied to the complex of buildings.  In a word, it was a pain in the butt to do any construction work within the WTC. It certainly wasn't because the rules were more stringent, (they were NOT!) but that they were significantly different from NYC's code and therefore confusing and occasionally conflicting. 
I watched the WTC being built, the same way that 15 years or so later I watched the construction of the whole Battery Park City development.  It was fascinating.  I lived about ½ mile from the site, and for a number of years, could look out my windows and watch the construction progress of much of the Lower West Side of Manhattan. I also walked and biked along the Hudson River to watch the construction of BPC and the park, and almost always ended up down by the WTC.   I still didn’t love the Twin Towers, but they grew on me over time, and after BPC started taking shape, the Twin Towers seemed to have more of a contextual relationship with the downtown landscape.  I reluctantly accepted them as a part of the “new” New York.  Out with the gritty city, in with the slick, sleek, and glossy.  Even as they were being built, they already seemed like an anachronism to me, from some other time in the past where we looked forward to a “space-age” future which would include a life of individual flying machines with everyone whirling about in the air like the Jetsons. 
I was hardly alone in my negative views of the WTC.  Even Lewis Mumford, the renowned architecture and urban planning critic, thought they were an abomination.  He denounced the WTC as an “example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city,” (The Pentagon of Power, 1970).  Aside from concerns about the design of the complex, there were practical problems as well.  The “superblock” concept interrupted the NYC street grid and disrupted both pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow, and the heavily subsidized office space created a glut in the market that was already over-saturated with office space in a financially-troubled city where many corporate headquarters had started moving away to the less expensive, lower tax rates, less crime-ridden and “safer” suburbs, and the southern states. 
In any event, they were there, and I and most other New Yorkers ended up tolerating them.  I saw them every day, worked near them for a time, had clients whose office space was in the buildings, worked on projects in them, took the “E” train which terminated in their vast subterranean depths, went on a few job interviews in them, and rode my bike in their shadow almost every day at certain points in my life.  They were part of my life, my every day mundane existence.  And the thought that one day they would not be there anymore would not have occurred to me any more than the idea that the Hudson River would one day be gone, that is how permanent they seemed to me.  Despite my fear of super-high-rise elevators, I routinely took clients (and visitors from out of town) to “Windows on the World” the slightly dizzy-making restaurant on the top floor, which on many days was enveloped in clouds and swayed about 6 feet or so from one side to the other. 
I do miss the Twin Towers.  It is a great loss.  They were definitely considered by many to be an eyesore, but they were OUR eyesore.  The Twin Towers were how you could orient yourself when you were downtown in the mediaeval maze of streets in the Financial District, formerly known as Nieuwe Amsterdam.  They were part of the compass rose pointing west.  I remember how you could be way out in the far reaches of Queens or Brooklyn, miles from downtown, for instance in the pristine and remote wetlands of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the Gateway National Park out there, flat as a pancake, with geese, mallards, gulls, and diamondback terrapins everywhere, and then look up and see the Twin Towers framing the view.  They were omnipresent.  They were quintessential.  No wonder they figured in so many movies. 

I also remember the time in 1974 that Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist, walked the 140 feet between the roofs of the North and the South Towers on a steel cable and then was promptly arrested.  NYC held its collective breath for the 45 minutes that it took for him to make the journey.  This act was featured as an iconic 1970’s NYC event in the fabulous book “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann, and was also made into a documentary movie “Man on Wire,”

Photo from, which also contains an interview with Petit.

Of course, the loss of any building, even two of 110 stories each, and six more smaller towers thrown in for good measure, pales in comparison to the loss of human life that occurred on September 11th, 10 years ago.  Two former work colleagues of mine who had taken "good" jobs in the WTC perished in that awful day, and every 9/11 anniversary during the reading of the names, I wait to hear their names read off the list of thousands.  Ezra Aviles and Peter Guylavary.  I still wonder about the wisdom of replacing the WTC with the Freedom Tower. 
Ten years ago, I remember looking out my windows on Washington Street, and watching hundreds of zombie-like office workers, some toting attaché cases and briefcases, covered head to toe in grey ash, trudging uptown, since there was no other transportation option that day.  I remember being frightened and not knowing what to do, whether or not to evacuate, and if so, where to go, and how to get there?  How to transport my three cats and all my turtles on the handles of my mountain bike?  I remember obsessively cleaning my coffee machine like a maniac, just to do something mindless so I didn’t have to think about what was going on.  I remember breathing the awful fumes for weeks and weeks, and recalling from my work on the building years before how it was filled with asbestos.  I remember passing St. Vincent’s Hospital and seeing hundreds of missing persons flyers posted with people’s photos and descriptions, and how it took us many days to realize that there weren’t any missing persons, just dead persons.  The flyers became more and more tattered as time went by, but no one removed them.  How all the First Responders had flooded into NYC from surrounding areas and far away, how we all stood along the West Side Highway every evening and cheered the firefighters and others from around the country as they rode uptown after working crazy-long and dangerous shifts at Ground Zero, the newly-minted name for what had been, until just a few days before, the WTC.  I remember the gut-wrenching feeling I got the first time I passed by my corner on the way home and looked to my left downtown and didn’t see the Twin Towers standing there anymore, obstructing my view of the sky, just a smoldering pit, and it smoldered for months.  The strange feeling I got the first time I saw an “E” train enter the station, with the sign in the first car pronouncing it was heading to “WTC,” which existed no more.  How we didn’t know if there would be another attack, or how soon.  When life would ever return to normal (it never really did).


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