Let Freedom (Tower) Ring

Rendering of the new WTC – looking northeast

“Hey there, where to?”

“The 4 of us are going down to Bay Ridge.”

“No problem. Want me to take the Battery Tunnel?”

“That’s fine. We don’t mind paying the toll.”

“I’m gonna take the West Side Highway down, traffic should be good.”

Sure enough, we wove our way through the stilettos and roadwork of the Meatpacking District before flying down the Hudson as the sun descended to the west.

“Wow, is that the Freedom Tower? It looks great.”

“Sure enough, it is. It was topped out a few weeks ago and should be open sometime next year.”

“Wasn’t that supposed to be the World’s Tallest Building?”

“When they first planned it, yes. 1,776 feet isn’t anywhere close to what’s going up in Asia but it will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere when it’s completed.”

“I see. Are they putting up an identical one next to it?”

10 years after 9/11, there’s little doubt that the concept of a pair still rings true in Lower Manhattan, even if what’s going up now hardly resembles what once stood on those hallowed 16 acres.

With the possible exception of the Second Ave Subway, there’s currently nothing under construction in the Big Apple that has captivated and polarized so many New Yorkers as the army of cranes hard at work down at Ground Zero. In the midst of economic imbalance that has New Yorkers working harder than ever to pay rents that are at an all-time high, the sight of Lower Manhattan’s skyline returning to prominence has many optimistic about the future of Lower Manhattan and the office market as a whole.

The old saying that time heals all wounds might not hold more than at the site where the Twin Towers once stood. Shortly after the terrorist attacks that brought the original World Trade Center down, many thought that skyscrapers such at those were a 20th century relic and that the whole 16-acre site should be turned into a memorial for the thousands that perished that day. Rebuilding seemed so far off given the 1.25 million tons of debris that had to be cleared away, the human remains that had to be sorted out and cataloged, and the recession that nation was plunged into around the time of the attacks. Tall buildings were seen as the ultimate sign of hubris and arrogance, and who could forget the sight of innocent office workers leaping to their deaths, unable to reach lower stories and setbacks in a structure that was the epitome of modernism gone cold and impersonal?

If time is the ultimate judge of historical events, the act of War that took place on that September day turned out to not be as bad as was first thought. The thousands that were thought to have their lives ended in the towers was reduced down to 3,000 as more peoples whereabouts became available.  Even though the stock market had a few rough sessions, there wasn’t a second coming of the great depression as a result of the attacks. Additionally, the cleanup defied the odds, as it became the only major construction project in modern Big Apple lore to be completed on time and under budget, as the last steel beam from the foundation was removed in March of the following year. All of positives after that were nowhere to be found, as the real problems arose and lingered for years.

There still isn’t a site in the city limits where so many agencies and egos clash on such a massive scale. The Original World Trade Center was a pet project of David and Nelson Rockefeller (some even gave the towers those nicknames) to help revitalize Lower Manhattan. In the postwar years, Midtown was taking over as the economic and business heart of the city. Newer Towers, a more efficient street layout, and easier access from much of the Metropolitan area allowed new office corridors to spring up on 3, Park, and 6 Aves. While the design of the towers left much to be desired, the resulting corporate canyons resulted in a fundamental shift of the city’s economy from manufacturing to the late 20th century buzzword of FIRE (financial, insurance, and real estate) as well as the competition it gave to the Financial District. The Chase Manhattan Tower of 1960 brought an end to the wedding-cake/ziggurat towers that helped romanticize Lower Manhattan’s skyline but it was a harbinger of things to come. By the time of the late 1960’s, the dominoes had already been set in motion.

Enter the Port Authority. Originally created in the 1920’s as an agency to build a freight rail tunnel under the Hudson/Narrows (still not fulfilled to this day), the agency did create a series of spectacular river crossings and port improvements that added to the region’s mobility and economy. They were also the operators of the Hudson and Manhattan tubes, later rechristened as the PATH system. Sure enough, the Lower Manhattan terminus for the line was where else, at Hudson Terminal…which later became the site for the World Trade Center.

Like the United Nations, Lincoln Center, and so many housing complexes around the city, Urban Redevelopment and Eminent Domain were the final piece of the puzzles for the 16-acre Superblock imposed on Lower Manhattan. The old Hudson and Manhattan Terminal, the Syrian Quarter, and Radio Row, along with the streets that ran through the site, were obliterated in order to make way for the 7 Towers and the Vista Hotel that eventually took their place. Minoru Yamasaki’s plan was grand on a scale that nothing in New York had ever seen and it was tragic that like his Pruitt-Igoe complex in Saint Louis, they did not stand the test of time. Although their demises were the result of a different set of circumstances, the imagery of modern architecture failing to accomplish the goal of the betterment of humanity through an international style held sway.

Flash forward to the 21st Century and what we have for the site that formerly housed the Twin Towers called home can be seen above. Even with all the decades and two terrorist attacks since the sites original inception, there are a ton of similarities between the first and current World Trade Center projects. Big tenants will call the site home – Conde Nast has agreed to take space in 1 WTC while Cantor Fitzgerald and Port Authority were the companies that suffered the biggest losses on 9/11. Daniel Libeskind and David Childs were the architects most responsible for the master plan down at Ground Zero and should the site be fully developed, Santiago Calatrava, Richard Rogers, and Lord Norman Foster will be those who leave their imprint on Lower Manhattan. The Rockefellers and the Port Authority will be joined by the victims families, Larry Silverstein, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation as the sides vying for influence over what will ultimately be constructed in Lower Manhattan as well. With so many big shoulders and egos vying for influence in the reconstruction process, it should come as no surprise that the National September 11th Museum, the new PATH terminal, and two of the four major skyscrapers have yet to come to fruition, nearly 11 years after the attacks. The original World Trade Center was complete by 1973, with the exception of the Vista Hotel and 7 WTC Building which were started later and not complete until the 1980’s.

For now, 1 and 4 WTC are like so many other construction projects around New York. They make for interesting conversations between my passengers and I but most New Yorkers don’t think twice and about the larger ramifications of what’s being built around them. I need to admit to myself that people don’t give a second thought to that design of the built environment around them but they need to think about the bigger questions: What do I want to go up where the World Trade Center was? Why aren’t the families of the victims able to go to a museum that commemorates one of the darkest days in American History? Why is the Port Authority allowed to jack up tolls and fees that everyone will ultimately pay for, to cover a project that’s billions over budget and years behind schedule? Do companies need subsidies and tax breaks to move to Lower Manhattan when millions in the city aren’t receiving help for rent and food?

I was not in New York on 9/11 and would have been there the day before on my 25th Birthday, had it not downpoured the entire day. In the days and months after the attack, I read so much on what went into the creation, and ultimately, the destruction, of the World Trade Center. The timeline, sequence of events, and the players involved were each worthy of a story of their own, but when combined, served to write one of the most complex and tragic tales of modern New York. As I see the lights of 1 WTC on each night as I make my way around the city, I can’t help but think that the parties involved and the families who lost loved ones deserve a better narrative than the one that’s being poorly constructed all these years later. For all the glass and glitz being shown to the world, New Yorkers deserve at least a full audit of the finances of all the parties involved in the rebuilding currently taking place.

Anything less would be a slap in the face for those still hurting from the attacks, even after all of this time.

A view down Fulton Street of a red, white, and blue 1 WTC under construction

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