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The Story Behind the Towers


On an early spring day in 1961, David Rockefeller, a grandson of John D., the president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, and the founder of a potent organization called the Downtown– Lower Manhattan Association, attended a meeting for which he, over the previous three years, had laid considerable groundwork. His brother Nelson, who fancied the presidency not of the family bank but of the country, and to that end had been elected governor of New York in 1958, was there; also Robert B. Meyner, the Democratic governor of New Jersey. But neither the world’s most important bank president nor the two powerful governors led the discussion. That favor fell to Austin Tobin, the executive director of the Port of New York Authority—publicly less well known than David Rockefeller or the governors, but within his sphere a towering figure.

The Port Authority, the bi-state, quasi-public agency created in 1921 to assess the region’s transportation needs in a way that would transcend interstate quarreling, was an elite organization, in both the bad and the less frequently invoked good sense of the term, with its battalions of dedicated, expert engineers and designers and planners. Among those professionals, Tobin was revered as a virtual god, a conviction that was inculcated in the agency’s staff. Each morning, when Tobin’s limousine pulled up to the authority’s offices at 111 Eighth Avenue on the west side of Manhattan, news of his arrival was radioed ahead to the building’s elevator operators, who quickly donned white gloves for the purpose of pressing the button that would deliver Tobin up to his suite of offices.

Tobin convened this meeting to unveil a project that had been on the drawing board since the late 1940s, and that only now was edging toward reality under the name World Trade Center. Its intention was to house under one roof the various businesses—shippers, importers, exporters—that worked in international commerce and that were, at that point, scattered in various lower Manhattan locations. Tobin was not, that day, showing off the twin 110-story towers that we came to know. This version was the product of Gordon Bunshaft, probably New York’s most exalted midcentury architect. For this trade center, which at the time was located not on the Hudson but along the East River, Bunshaft and his associates at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill devised a diverse and comparatively humble complex consisting of a central building of over seventy stories, a smaller securities exchange, a world trade “mart” of shops and exhibition space, and parking. The next day’s papers, reviewing the proposal, could scarcely contain themselves. The New York Herald Tribune recommended that citizens should “pull out all the adjectival stops at once and cheer.” The Newark Evening News was usually more suspicious of Port Authority projects in which the benefit to New Jersey was anything less than self-evident, but it, too, was supine before the glamour of such a mighty trio as Rockefeller, Tobin, and Bunshaft, praising the plan as “big, imaginative, and architecturally and financially glamorous.”1

But if the Evening News was willing to fall into line, Meyner was not. As New Jersey’s governor, he was ever-alert to the prospect of the authority ramming a New York–centric project down his state’s throat. At the same time, opponents on both sides of the Hudson were raising questions about the plan and organizing coalitions and lawsuits to stop it. This gave Meyner some leverage to back up his skepticism. He took one look at the unveiled project, shrugged his shoulders, turned to Nelson, and asked, “What’s in it for me?” A difficult silence, Eric Darton reports in Divided We Stand,2 ensued.

That is the most basic question of political compromise, and in the case of the World Trade Center, it was exactly the right one. Many people and factions might have raised it about the project—commuters from Meyner’s home state, who depended on a rail line that had just filed for bankruptcy and that some in New Jersey felt the Port Authority should save; longshoremen and stevedores who worked on the then-disappearing Brooklyn docks; retail merchants whom the trade center would displace; public transportation advocates; almost everyone, that is, save David Rockefeller and investors who were concerned, among other things, with increasing the value of commercial real estate in lower Manhattan. In fact they all did ask what was in it for them, but one by one they were bought off or ignored, and the trade center project proceeded, as projects with the backing of the Rockefellers and The New York Times ordinarily do. In time the project grew, at the behest of Tobin and his staff, from Bunshaft’s relatively modest design to Minoru Yamasaki’s profoundly immodest one. The World Trade Center, all ten million square feet (the Pentagon is around six million) and sixteen acres of it, certainly broke dazzling new engineering ground, and just as certainly became an indelible and immediate symbol of the city.

But to say that the towers were a symbol that New Yorkers were particularly proud of would be to stretch the point. As is well known, the World Trade Center was unloved by architecture critics and by New Yorkers in general. But there were other problems with the towers as well, problems involving the economic life of the city and the region, which carried far greater consequences than did the buildings’ design. To many New Yorkers, they symbolized a New York that had become a real estate town, letting key sources of its past economic diversity—its once vibrant port, its small manufacturing concerns; by extension, that is to say, much of its working class—dwindle away. A New York, also, that had turned away from the development of its vast and once enviable public infrastructure of bridges, tunnels, and subways and toward using public money to build private space.

Now, of course, the towers are gone, under circumstances more horrific than any of us could have imagined. But it does not dishonor the three thousand who perished there, or the Port Authority itself, which lost seventy-five people in the attack, to argue that they should not have been built in the first place, and that the current circumstance, tragic as it is, affords New York’s leaders a chance to think hard about the city’s needs for the next century and devise solutions that do not include turning a transportation agency into one of the world’s biggest landlords.

Any thoughtful examination of the city’s future needs must begin with a proper understanding of its past. That past—how New York grew as a great commercial city, how its leaders strove through much of the twentieth century to make wise public investment decisions that ensured the city’s economic dominance, and how they later made very bad ones that helped hasten its demise—is as pertinent as ever as the city plans for a future without the trade towers, and its lessons for the current generation of New York’s rulers could hardly be clearer.


Before New York was the center of America’s intellectual and cultural life, it was the focus of its commercial life. Chiefly, it was a port—the greatest natural port anywhere on the eastern seaboard. The narrows separating Brooklyn and Staten Island guide a ship into the deep and easily navigable harbor as effortlessly as a well-graded access ramp guides a car onto a highway. By 1797, New York overtook Philadelphia as the country’s leading port. That supremacy was confirmed in 1825, with the opening of the Erie Canal. Running from Albany to Buffalo, the canal, conceived by Governor De Witt Clinton, provided the first direct and easy waterborne route from New York to Chicago and other points west. The city’s commercial position flourished, and its population exploded. New York became the nation’s most important city, almost entirely because of its port. The railroads, when they came, made the canal less important, but by that time New York’s preeminence was secure.

But there was a problem, which by the early twentieth century—by then, almost half the nation’s international trade was passing through the port of New York—urgently demanded a solution. Imports arriving in New York’s harbor whose eventual destinations were scattered throughout the United States were delivered to docks in Brooklyn or Manhattan. Exports from throughout America intended for shipment to Europe and elsewhere were brought chiefly by rail to New Jersey, just over the water from New York. But there the seamless transportation chain was broken. Goods could travel efficiently for hundreds or thousands of miles to New York or New Jersey, but no one had thought of an efficient way to move them between the two, across what was by comparison a mere puddle of a few hundred yards. It was as if there were a bridge built with an eighteen-inch gap in the middle; 99 percent finished but of no practical use.

Private companies sprang up to haul merchandise back and forth between the two states on lighters, or large barges. The process was cumbersome and costly: by the time goods were registered, papers processed, and lighterage fees paid, the resulting delays could be unbearable. It was not unusual, Jameson W. Doig notes in Empire on the Hudson, for traffic on the nation’s freight rails headed for New York to be backed up into central Pennsylvania.

New Jersey officials sought to turn this problem to their advantage by encouraging manufacturers of exports to ship overseas from their piers, in Jersey City. But exporters favored New York, partly because the railroads used a complex and antiquated fee system by which they charged exporters the same price whether they shipped from New York or New Jersey. This had the effect of making New York, where the piers were superior, the preferred destination. In 1916, New Jersey filed a formal complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission charging that the fee system amounted to “rate discrimination.” It was the latest in a long line of interstate battles over the waterfront, which began a hundred years before with a tussle over whether New Jersey could introduce competition to Robert Fulton’s New York–licensed steamboat, and at one point, in 1825, culminated in state police detachments of the two states exchanging gunfire across the harbor.

New York leaders feared that an unfavorable decision by the ICC would result in much port activity shifting to New Jersey. But rather than arguing their case on narrow specifics, they gambled on seeking a longer-term solution that might make both sides happy. Taking the lead in this stratagem were two officers of the Chamber of Commerce of New York State, Julius Henry Cohen and Eugenius Outerbridge. Both men, Cohen in particular, were steeped in the anti-Tammany reform movement, and the arguments Cohen delivered to the ICC, while seeking to protect the city’s interests, also made an appeal to the progressive high-mindedness of the day: “Let all hands…cooperate in the solution of this great problem. Its final engineering solution will require the constructive mind of a great engineer….”[3 ]When, in 1917, the ICC handed down its decision in what came to be called the New York Harbor case, it had taken Cohen’s bait. The commissioners refused New Jersey’s request that freight rates be lowered, but they warned that they would reopen the case if the two states did not soon cooperate on a way to solve the problem—to fill in the last eighteen inches of that bridge. As everyone involved knew, there was only one way to do it: build a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel, possibly from New Jersey to Manhattan, but, because Manhattan was already in 1917 so cluttered, preferably to Brooklyn.

  1. 1

    See Angus Kress Gillespie, Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center (Rutgers University Press, 1999), p. 35.

  2. 2

    Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (Basic Books, 1999); to be discussed in a forthcoming article, along with Angus Kress Gillespie’s Twin Towers.

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