Remembering the towers

by Brooks Riley

I was there when they first went up. From my south-facing bedroom on Morton Street in the village, I watched them grow, floor by floor, to a height unimaginable for that time. When they were finished, I began to measure their height against their distance from my bedroom. If they fell over, would they reach me? Not only was I ignorant of structural engineering, I never gave a thought to what would happen to the people inside if they did fall over. Years later I would learn that they didn’t fall over, they fell down. This time my thoughts were with those people inside.

The twin towers were not a pretty sight: In-your-face architecture for a nation with a chip on its shoulder, they served as metaphors for America’s perpetual declaration of might and size.

Their incongruous ground-floor gothic arches brought to mind to Joseph Campbell’s asserti0n that the height of buildings reflects a society’s priorities. For centuries, churches were the tallest buildings in a city. WTC and other 20th century skyscrapers exemplified the shift in a world gone secular and commercial. How appropriate that those arches, inadvertent homages to bygone beliefs, were the only things left standing after 9/11, looking eerily like the remains of a bombed out cathedral.

WTC-bashing was a perennial pastime in the early days. At Windows on the World, a restaurant on the top floor of one of the towers, I understood immediately why Frank Lloyd Wright considered the Harkness Tower in New Haven as the ideal place to live while he was teaching at Yale, because it was the only place in town where he wouldn’t have to see it.

Inside those towers, you didn’t feel grand and powerful, you felt small and insignificant, like one of the masses on those multi-storied cruise ships that have abandoned nautical elegance in favor of container ship utilitarianism.

After years away from New York, I landed in Newark late on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the 8th of September 2001. From the taxi into the city, I marveled at how those towers reflected the setting sun, their monolithic dullness transformed by light. One week later, I landed again in Newark and took another taxi into the city. The sun was setting, just as it had a week earlier. This time there was nothing left to catch the light. Then I wept.