Man on Wire

Man on Wire

“You sure must drink a lot of coffee.”

“I haven’t had a drop since I started this job.”

“Wow. How do you do it, then?”

“I’ve never fit in and staying up all night is easy for me. May as well get paid for it.”

I knew from a young age that I never fit in with the other kids. Not only did I sit down in front of Sesame Street but I’d also watch the evening news and The Nightly Business Report when I got a chance. When I was in the library in elementary school, I’d grab whatever reference book or Encyclopedia struck my fancy and go through it until I found something that stood out to me. When my parents got  lost behind the wheel, I was the one who knew where we were and which directions would get us back on track. I was intellectually hungry to know how, where, when, why, and what made people tick. Much of that curiosity was satisfied when I went to New York alone for the first time in early ’94 and drove out to California alone a little over two years later. There were no words to describe what it was like to see the words, pictures, and stories in books and depicted on television come to life right in front of me, as I got to use my knowledge and take my learning to another level by experiencing new places firsthand.

One of the moments I’ll never forget was the first time I drove out at night alone. I had just gotten my license and a pair of wheels (not much else functioned properly on that vehicle) but on a night not much unlike tonight, I took her out for a spin here in town. It may not have seen like much to anyone else but to be out alone with the buildings illuminated by artificial light, with hardly a soul to be seen, and with the top down on a room-temperature night was something that struck me as totally new and totally comforting at the same time. Most of all, I wasn’t tired like so many people were when they had to be out late for work or socializing. I begged to stay up past my bedtime when I was little to watch Sha-na-na or Dance Fever and even though they had been off the air for years by that point, the little boy that resented going to bed early finally got his due and loved every minute of it.

Looking back, it was easy to see why I loved that night and so many others like it since. Every job where I’ve had to be up during the day had been a struggle for me – from getting out of bed, staying awake and alert for the full 8 hours, and conforming to an office environment that never felt quite right, even on the best of days. One thing I learned during the struggles of a daytime vocation was that I had to keep myself stimulated in order to feel alive. No, it didn’t involve illicit substances or death-defying juvenile antics, but I had to read, write, learn, listen, and respond to as much as I could and add it to my base of knowledge, so I could find new fields that explore on my own time.

Even with all the books I have here at the house, all the pages bookmarked on my computer, and all the places I’ve been lucky enough to visit in the other 46 States that I don’t regularly get to, there’s so much more out there that I haven’t been able to have my senses come into contact with. The older I get, the more I realize that what I’ve learned will probably pale in comparison with what still currently remains unknown to me. For example, there’s the World Trade Center and a chapter of its history that I only recently started to inquire about further.

Several times in the 1980’s, I had the chance to go to the observation decks on the 107th and 110 floors. I remember the absolutely massive escalators leading up from the PATH terminus, the elevators having “Welcome” written in several languages for the tourists, photographs of each of the 4 views with the major buildings highlighted for the sightseers, the electric fence around the edge of the outdoor observation deck to thwart jumpers, and an autograph on the northwest corner of the South Tower, with a simple marking on it. Later on, I realized that someone had crossed between the Towers on wire around the time my parents got married, but I never read any further into it.

Three months before I graduated from Columbia, I stumbled into the auditorium at the Student Center where I had reviewed notes for class during many a lazy afternoon. That day, they were screening Man on Wire with a Q and A afterwards with one of the deans. It was free and open to all and even though I missed the first 15 or so minutes of it, I put my books away, sat down, and stayed until the end of the discussion.

I would tell everyone out there reading this to go rent it on DVD and watch it straight through, but that’s not why I’m writing this entry today. For starters, this isn’t a blog about movie recommendations and furthermore, I hadn’t been to a theater in years before watching that documentary; so therefore, I have almost nothing to use as a frame of reference. Most people I know have seen so many movies that they know what they like and don’t like and what they think of the most popular films in recent years. I’m the exact opposite as I have little use for Hollywood right now and spend my free time pursuing other forms of mental stimulation.

All of that is besides my point, however. Like so much else in life, it wasn’t the crossing that was amazing as much as the story behind it. It’s impossible to envision someone being able to freely walk into the construction site down at Ground Zero today once night sets in but Philippe Petit and his assistants did just that when the original World Trade Center was under construction in the 1970’s. The whole operation was so meticulously planned that the details behind the “artistic crime of the century” were nearly amazing as the actual act itself. Mastering the art of tightrope walking, gaining access to the construction site, learning the layout of the towers, and accessing the roof seem difficult enough, not to mention having to breach whatever passed for security back in those days. It may seem like a lot of preparation for an event that may never have happened, but when asked about it afterwards, he had this to say in his defense:

“When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk!”

And so he did.

It’s so difficult for me to look at those pictures nearly 40 years later. It’s not because the towers aren’t there anymore, or because the landscape of Lower Manhattan has changed, or the color resolution has changed 1000% for the better, or even because the air of today’s postindustrial Gotham has become cleaner than clean itself. It’s because I keep thinking that he’s absolutely, totally insane for what he did.

But there’s no doubt that he isn’t.

Sitting on the physical edge of 110-story towers as if it was a simple ledge is something that no one else would ever want to do, but he wanted to do it. He had a goal, a way to attain it, and the patience to follow through. Who am I to criticize him? There was a time when picturing machines heavier than air gliding effortlessly around the world, or messages being sent to anyone, anywhere, anytime at the click of the button, or even diseases invisible to the naked eye being wiped off the face of the Earth would have seen eternally impossible but someone had the courage to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries past the known realm to see these ideas become reality.

No matter how preposterous it seemed or how much effort was required to carry out the dream.

From what I have read, some have criticized Petit for what they perceive as his enormous ego. I never thought it was big at all and unless one completely clouds out friends, family, and spirituality, it’s almost impossible to have one’s Freudian impulses out of whack. It was ego that sent explorers across the Atlantic in search of riches, new lands to conquer and ultimately, a new home away from crowded, feudal Europe. Ego led to the writing of a document that separated us from a country intent on plundering our wealth of resources instead of treating us as equals under the law. Years later, ego led to the laying out of the “greatest grid” of streets in the greatest city in the republic which had the courage and daring to break away from the largest colonial power the world had ever seen. A few generations later, ego after ego took part in the greatest race for height of the 20th century, which ended in the construction of two massive towers that were over 95% full on the day they were destroyed at the dawn of the 21st century. Each age of individual gain involved less and less physical space that had to be conquered than the one before it but involved more mental blocks that had to be overcome, as the World became smaller over that time but the contents of it became larger and more complex, and therefore, presented more challenges for those that wish to rise over them.

All of this came to a head on August 8, 1974 as millions watched mesmerized during Petit’s 8 walks back and forth between the towers over a 45 minute span. One Police Officer who watched knew that he’d never see anything like it again but little did he know how utterly prophetic his words were. It was apparent that day that no one would ever string a wire between the towers and use them as a means of crossing the 1,300-plus foot height of their rooflines again. What was not obvious that day was that we’d never push a boundary like that on U.S. soil in anyone’s lifetime.

Sure, new companies have been formed and new inventions have come along that have revolutionized the workplace, the standard of living, and the way people interact with one another, but so much has changed in this country that it’s increasingly hard for one big idea or one big person to come along and challenge the conventional wisdom of the day. Groupthink, conformity, increased domestic surveillance, and a security state have all led to a dearth of creativity that will hurt America for generations to come; assuming that the Republic even survives in its current state for that long. Toss in another fiscal collapse similar to what happened 5 years ago and it could be the end our way of life forever.

A few weeks ago, I went into Bryant Park after a night out at work which saw me interact with the usual cast of characters that I come across during a typical shift. None of them measured up to the person I had gone to see in the reading room that day. Vivacious, humorous, and uplifting, the 63 year-old that spoke that sunny afternoon was there to promote his latest book, which dealt with knots. Seems like a simple premise until you realized that the person had been tying and retying knots for decades and that that person was none other than Philippe Petit himself.

It was one of those days that stuck with me for a long time after I paid for Why Knot? and To Reach the Clouds. Once again, something that I had only seem in film and print had come to life before my eyes, much as the places in New York and America had for me during my jaunts away from my cozy suburban abode. The crowd that grew was much larger than anyone had anticipated as those walking by through the park or on their way back to the office after lunch realized who was speaking and how he had everyone’s attention who was in attendance. Most striking of all were how many people that were in the park that day were *not* aware of the speaker at all but rather, were on their phone/Blackberry or idling the time away in the midst of a presentation by one of the most engaging personalities ever to set foot in the Big Apple.

When it came time for me to have the books autographed by him, I mentioned that I was surprised that he wasn’t left-handed. Not only is yours truly sinister in the way my brain is wired, but nearly all of the women that I’ve most admired and have been attracted to over the years and many of the notables that I’ve emulated were in the minority when it came to which hand they’d place a writing utensil in. Philippe mentioned that he was indeed right handed but thought of himself as more ambidextrous than just about anyone else.

Surely, who would argue with that?

Before I left to shoot my first rounds of Petanque in weeks, I told him wholeheartedly that he was beloved in New York. While I’m sure he’s been told that more times than I could count, I’m sure it’s something that one would never get tired of hearing. Personally, it would be something I’d want have someone  tell me, though I wouldn’t be sure for exactly what I had done with my life and my God-given talents.

And that’s where the problem lies.

The old Chinese saying is that a journey of a thousand miles begins with single step and for me, the problem is figuring out what direction that, and the thousands of others that come past it, would be in. Years of reading, writing, and schooling have shown me that for all that I know and have codified, that there’s much out there that I have yet to learn and accomplish. Every time I think about how hard it is, I pull up the picture of the view down from the South Tower of the World Trade Center as Petit took his first step and danced among the clouds on that Summer morning decades ago.

I’d give anything to experience that feeling for myself someday.

Man off Wire

Man off Wire

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