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The World Trade Center: Before, During, & After

1.

When David Rockefeller hired the famous Gordon Bunshaft to build One Chase Manhattan Plaza in the late 1950s—at seventy stories, the first skyscraper to rise downtown in a generation—he had hoped that the neighborhood the bank was about to inhabit would also change. Aside from the stock exchanges, the major brokerage houses, investment banks, law and insurance offices, and other businesses in the financial district, the neighborhood still had a good many manufacturers and merchants in electronic parts—stable, but what chamber-of-commerce types might call “underutilizers” of the land upon which they sat.

On June 5, 1958, the Times announced the formation of the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, the vehicle by which Rockefeller, who was co-chairman, and his associates intended to transform the district running from the Battery to Chambers Street. The DLMA, the article proclaimed, would soon advance proposals on “zoning, street widenings, slum clearance,” and so on; a little further down, the piece noted, helpfully from the DLMA’s vantage point, that, come nightfall, the area, which had some 350,000 employees by day, was “lifeless except for a few policemen, countless wharf rats and the residents of the fringe of tenement houses.” But new “private apartment developments” were projected that would draw new residents to the area. That October, the specifics were set out: the razing of old buildings to permit expansion of the financial district; closing narrow streets, and widening others; relocating the Fulton Fish Market and a wholesale produce market on the west side. It was clear that big changes, and more skyscrapers—this was, of course, at the height of the urban renewal movement—were afoot. Rockefeller, for his part, acknowledged that “all changes bring some hardship.”

Over at the Port Authority, the idea of a world trade center or “mart,” to include office and exhibition space for the purpose of promoting the postwar increase in world trade, had been broached as early as 1946. That year, at Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s urging, the state legislature authorized the creation of a World Trade Corporation that would “develop a World Trade Center to be located within the State of New York for exhibiting and otherwise promoting the purchase and sale of products in international trade.” The Port Authority, at first, was cool to the notion. Chairman Howard Cullman told Dewey that the proposed center seemed to him “primarily an extensive real estate operation” and, as such, inappropriate to the mission of a “self-perpetuating public benefit corporation” like the authority. As chairman, Cullman was, in effect, the boss of the authority’s executive director, Austin Tobin. So that, for the time being, was that.

Even if Cullman had been more enthusiastic, the agency faced two problems. First, it was bound, under the language of the compact that created it, to spend its revenues on port commerce and regional transportation–related activities. Second, political pressure was growing on the Port Authority to part with some of its pile. Its surplus of $64 million almost certainly meant more than $1 billion in bonding authority, which, in those days, could have financed myriad public construction projects if the authority had been of a mind to do so. But Tobin, regarding most such projects as losing propositions financially, was of no such mind. Some authority critics began to demand that the agency undertake the rehabilitation of the struggling Hudson and Manhattan commuter rail line, which carried 140,000 passengers a day but was a fiscal disaster, losing some $140 million a year. This project was undeniably within the authority’s bailiwick. It was also the last thing Tobin, guarding his black ink and his enviable bond market position, wanted to do.

Back on the Rockefeller front, meanwhile, things were moving along nicely, chiefly with the election of Nelson as governor in 1958, just three weeks after the DLMA plan was unveiled. Once in office, Nelson had the good sense to stack the Port Authority board with four loyalists. And David talked with authority officials about what part it might have in downtown redevelopment. Gradually, Cullman’s skepticism was defeated, and in January 1960, the critical moment arrived: a revised DLMA plan recommended for the first time publicly that the Port Authority should make studies for a world trade center to anchor the redevelopment. That July, David told The New Yorker that the trade center was “the hottest thing I’m involved in at the moment.”

Tobin was now gung-ho—if he could tie his money up in building development, which would undoubtedly return a profit, maybe people would stop pestering him about white elephants like rail lines. But the authority still faced the question of its compact language, as well as pressure on the pesky H&M commuter line. Each was finessed in its turn. The authority’s compact language directed that it should build rail lines, tunnels, bridges, and “other facilities of commerce” as deemed necessary. Here, then, was the loophole through which the trade center was pushed: you can call a ten-million-square-foot office complex many things, but one thing you surely must call it is a “facility of commerce.”

Tobin was aware that critics might give this gambit the gimlet eye, so over the next few years he repeatedly—in promotional literature, in public testimony—assured his audiences that the tenancy of the center would go to businesses that worked directly in port-related ventures or international trade: shipping concerns, freight forwarders, and the like. This—along with Nelson’s commitment that the state of New York would rent fifty stories for itself, which came as very pleasant news to institutional bond buyers—kept the thing moving forward.

Next, the commuter line: in early 1961, New Jersey Governor Robert Meyner had made it plain that he would look disdainfully at any proposal that included new office space for New York but no evident benefit to his state. Tobin finally agreed that, as part of the trade center venture, the authority would take over the line (it’s now the PATH, or Port Authority Trans-Hudson, line) and rehabilitate the tracks, provided it be free of entanglements in any other large-scale rail projects, a stipulation that met with no objection. Few, by now, even remembered that the authority had been created to build a cross-harbor rail-freight tunnel from New Jersey to Brooklyn, which it never built, and no one bothered to invoke it.

The trade center was moved to the west side, where the H&M tracks sat. Meyner, meanwhile, was out of office; 1961 saw the election of Richard J. Hughes—a liberal Democrat like Meyner, but altogether more amenable to the project. The authority agreed to spend $70 million on the Hudson line, while devoting $335 million to the trade center (the eventual cost was more than $1 billion). Enabling legislation was passed in Albany and Trenton.

It was when the center headed west that it began to grow, and grow. Tobin began to envision the trade center as his legacy project, bearing in mind the dictum of Daniel H. Burnham, the early- twentieth-century Chicago architect: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood….” Bunshaft, who had done the design for the original trade center, a smaller-scale project situated along the East River, moved on to other projects; in his place the authority hired the Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki. His practice was based in Detroit, and he was theretofore perhaps best known for working on a somewhat smaller scale.1Except, that is, when he didn’t—he was responsible, in 1955, for what was arguably the most despised public housing project in America, St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe Houses. Thousands gathered to cheer when, in July 1972—almost a year to the day after the south tower of the World Trade Center was topped out—they were blown up.

For the trade center, Yamasaki worked through more than one hundred designs before hitting upon twin towers of 110 stories apiece. It was, perhaps fittingly, not from the au-thority’s engineering department, nor from Yamasaki himself, but from the public relations office that the idea emanated that the trade center should be the world’s tallest building. “Is that two buildings with fifty-five stories each?” Nelson asked the architect. “Oh no,” he replied. “One-hundred-ten stories apiece!” “My God!” the governor exclaimed. “These towers will make David’s building look like an out-house!”

Opposition lined up quickly. The neighborhood’s electronics retail merchants, “Radio Row” as they were called collectively, who stood to be (and were) uprooted, formed an organization and brought a lawsuit to halt the project.2 They were joined by nascent community activists—this was 1961, the publication year of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a paean to small-scale, messy, organic urbanism. Mayor Robert Wagner and, later, Mayor John Lindsay both made noises of protest, but they just wanted to be sure that the buildings would not cheat the city too badly out of property taxes. The trade center never was on the city’s property tax rolls.3 Ultimately, the authority and the city reached a compromise whereby the authority paid the city an amount equivalent to the taxes that would be paid by a private developer on that portion of the center that was leased to private tenants, which, at the beginning, amounted to just 40 percent of the office space (Lindsay was planning a presidential run and hoping that the downtown interests would finance his campaign).

A citizens’ alliance, led in part by David N. Dinkins, later the city’s 106th mayor, tried to have the project moved uptown (the group eventually saw that it was fighting a losing battle and grudgingly settled for the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building, built on West 125th Street). Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Celler, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, assumed the cause of the opposition and took the daring step of launching a congressional probe into the authority. Tobin was actually convicted of contempt of Congress in 1961, because he resolutely refused to answer Celler’s subpoena or hand over any of the agency’s books, but the conviction was overturned the next year, and the probe dropped. Midtown real estate men, especially Empire State Building owners Harry Helmsley and Lawrence Wein, fretful of the center’s effect on midtown commercial real estate values, formed a committee. But even the likes of Helmsley was nothing against the combined forces of Tobin and the Rockefellers—and, it might be added, The New York Times, whose word is typically the last one in such matters and whose editorial page, in 1961, gushed that “no project has ever been more promising for New York.”

Well. Was it? On this question, Eric Darton, a novelist and former lecturer at Fordham University, and Angus Kress Gillespie, an associate professor of American studies at Rutgers University, could scarcely disagree more. In Divided We Stand, Darton finds the whole idea to have been repulsive, a culmination of various modernist contrivances that were utopian in theory but dystopian in fact. He summarizes the “City Beautiful” movement of the early twentieth century and Le Corbusier’s sterile urban ideal as laid out in his 1933 The Radiant City, along with kindred influences. He condemns them as little more than attempts to “dazzle the masses—to stun them in-to a mute, quivering civic pride.” Of course he is not, in the main, wrong: such dreams of making ordered bigness out of urban chaos have inevitably displaced the poor and the politically expendable. He invokes Marshall Berman, who, in his 1982 rumination on modernism, All that Is Solid Melts into Air,4 describes a modernist impulse bent on consuming everything in its path in the name of progress. Darton clearly wants to be like Berman, but Berman’s inquiry down this road is far more subtle, and a few of Darton’s passages marinate in an unconvincing, leftish/conspiracy theorist brine (“a shadowy presence, part Mephisto, part Faust, whispered in the ears and urged the hands of New York’s master builders”).

  1. 1

    See, for example, Yamasaki’s Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College in Ohio (1963). It is, to the extent such is possible, a three-story version of the World Trade Center: clean, aggressive vertical lines, narrowish windows, Gothic filigree at the base and the top.

  2. 2

    According to Robert Fitch, in The Assassination of New York (Verso, 1993), p. 100, 30,000 jobs were lost on Radio Row.

  3. 3

    For large institutional landowners—universities, hospitals, the Port Authority—New York City has a system by which these entities do not pay property tax per se. They pay PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes), negotiated by the city and the organization at hand. Always, the payments are lower, often far lower, than actual property taxes would be for a private landowner with the same holdings, on the theory that such institutions bring with them a public benefit—clearly justifiable in the case of a major research hospital, rather less so in the case of a prestige corporate address.

  4. 4

    All that Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Penguin).

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