Dispatches: Remembering the World Trade Center

New York, uniquely, inspires proprietary feelings in people who don’t even live here.  All over the world, I’ve noticed, people like to think of their cities in relation to New York.  Bostonians speak of the Boston-New York axis, Washingtonians of the Washington-New York corridor.  Los Angelenos and Chicagoans too.  The English consume a diet of newspaper stories claiming that “Swinging” London in “Cool” Britannia has finally surpassed New York in any of a number of areas: art, music, architecture.  (There’s no corresponding competitive discourse in New York media – I guess we don’t suffer from comparative anxieties.)  Even in my hometown of Buffalo, where New York City is often regarded as the great sinkhole of state monies, we took a secret pride in being co-members of the Empire State with N.Y.C.  These perceived affiliations and competitions are a way for other cities to append themselves to New York, to partake of its cultural gravitational field.  Paris is French, Tokyo is Japanese, but New York, to many, is a heterotopia floating off the coast of the United States. 

Manhattan’s grid, and New York’s prolific displays of maps of itself and its subways, streets, and configurations, make it an easy city in which to feel at home.  People produce cognitive maps here very quickly, feel comfortable navigating its terrain almost immediately.  This quality of ease, which is so different, for instance, to the impenetrable ball of yarn that is the map of London, is perhaps the origin of the pervasive sense of belonging experienced by New York visitors and residents alike.  No labyrinthine local knowledges prevent the first-timer from getting from Fifty-Third and Sixth to Twenty-Sixth and Tenth.  Perhaps that famous expression of fealty, “we are all New Yorkers now” should have been, “we are all New Yorkers already.”

I may belong to a minority in remembering the World Trade Center as a poetic structure, but the reasons I do have much to do with how it expressed these signature qualities of New York City.   Visually, the buildings gave the sense of a vertical grid, elongated just as Manhattan is elongated, with an avenue of sky running in between.  Unexpected views of them would often crop up, maybe when turning south from Houston Street onto Sullivan, or standing on the corner of Lafayette and Spring, or while driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike.  Emerging from the Brat Pack-era hangout The Odeon, way downtown, their almost ominous presence suddenly loomed over you.  A perfect visual metaphor, they towered over neighboring skyscrapers the way New York towers over its neighboring cities.  Dark masses illuminated by a bright grid, they signified New York.

I often think about how important it was that there were two of them.  One skyscraper, like the Empire State Building or the Woolworth, somehow remains a building, its mass of steel and concrete impossible to forget.  The twoness of the Twin Towers brought into being relations with the air, dramatized space.  The few places where one tower completely occluded the other (such as the pier leading to the Holland tunnel exhaust, off Spring and West Streets) were uncanny viewing points.  The one visible tower despotically oppressed, rather than symbolized, the city.  One tower was a fascist; two towers invoked psychology, doubleness, complexity.  And because the footprints of the buildings occupied two diagonally opposed squares, they almost always presented themselves to the eye as perspectival, one slightly higher than the other.  The aura of their unevenness brilliantly leavened their austere shapes.  They hovered.

As you approached the plaza, you always noted with pleasure the little arches near the bottoms of the aluminum facade.  These merest bends subtly recalled and paid homage to the Deco architectural landmarks of the city.  They conjured the relation of the Chrysler and the Empire State to the grid itself, represented as the endless lines that clad the trade center’s sides.  The optical illusions those shimmering lines made were almost arrogant: excessive on a building that already inspired vertigo.  For a time, the cavernous lobbies contained a satellite airline terminal.  The sight of those ticket counters was oddly right in buildings that, like airports, constituted entire worlds unto themselves, with the frisson of rocket ships or space stations.  The towers’ otherworldliness made them the unlikely site of a Wednesday evening club night at Windows on the World, frequented by Kate Moss and the rest of the New York glitter circuit of the mid-Nineties.  You’d wander around with a drink and then suddenly come to the windows, through which the shockingly faraway streets below gave a pleasing shock. 

For me, the World Trade Center was part of the given world.  It was finished the year before I was born.  I could never quite comprehend accounts of the debates about Yamasaki’s design choices, about the wisdom of his aluminum minimalism.  To me, they were already there.  They were a late articulation of modernism, in a romantic and slightly whimsical version.  And modernism was a credo whose modernity seemed unquestionable, if you take my meaning.  The good things about New York City for me were (and are) related to its embrace of what it means to be modern, to be in the present tense.  From my family’s decision to immigrate to the United States to my mother’s Audrey Hepburn haircut, my life has been dominated by instantiations of modernism, by dynamic faith in making things new. 

From the time of my first visit to New York, when we visited the WTC and I finally tasted my first long dreamed-of escargot, it never crossed my mind that the towers, along with plenty of other institutions of the postwar period, would prove impermanent.  How could what represented the present become past?  But like other seemingly permanent features of life, One World Trade Center and Two World Trade Center now appear as stupendous legends that lasted for a short twenty-five years.  The gashes that appeared in the buildings, as I stared at them from Chambers and Church Streets, never looked anything other than fixable – it never occurred to me not to assume the towers were invulnerable until they fell.  Even the great, floating sheets of metal tearing away and drifting down from above, or the people I saw leap to their deaths, didn’t convince me that the buildings themselves might not make it.  Surely the emergent chaos those gashes represented could never defeat the entire order.  But it did.

On September 14th, 2001, I flew back to Buffalo on one of the first planes to take off from JFK.  The night before, Abbas, Margit and I had spontaneously sung “New York, New York” at the top of our lungs with a bar full of strangers.  There were about six people on board the Airbus, and I was seated in the first row.  I was heading to a high-school friend’s wedding.  I broke into tears at the sight of the smoldering wreck of downtown, where I still needed to pass a military checkpoint to return to my apartment.  I remember clenching my fists and somberly determining that no passenger would cross the threshold separating me from the captain, on pain of death.  As the flight progressed, it occurred to me that everyone else on the plane was extremely afraid of me. 

It is the world as it existed when I happened upon it that turns out to be the fleeting one.  I’ll be simply part of a shrinking group of people who remember New York with the World Trade Center. 

My other Dispatches.