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The World Trade Center: Before, During, & After


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”).

That said, he is right about the fundamental arrogance of the project, and his history of the deals that built the towers is lucid, instructive, and necessary. We are well to be reminded that while the trade center did ultimately do what David Rockefeller wanted it to do—increase real estate values downtown—it was bane as well as boon to lower Manhattan. Even experts on commercial real estate will tell you, if sometimes off the record, that the trade center was very much a mixed blessing for lower Manhattan until the dot-com-fueled economic boom of the mid-1990s (the Port Authority disputes this view with vigor). It was a financial train wreck through much of the 1970s, during the downturn when oil prices rose and New York was in a fiscal crisis. It began taking tenants in 1970, but it didn’t turn a profit until 1979. Even well after that, the authority had to rent considerable space at more of a discount than one would imagine for such a lofty address, and the building’s occupancy rate would go as low as 70 percent during bad economic times (though at the time of its demise 97 percent of the space was rented). Also, despite Tobin’s promises to the contrary, only 5 percent of the center’s leases, according to the authority’s own 1993 occupancy survey, were held by trade service and import-export tenants. When Tobin was selling the idea of the trade center to the public in the early 1960s, he conjured the image of a brotherhood of shipping concerns contentedly going about its business under one common, logically ordered roof. But it turned out that fiercely competitive shippers did not want to share floors with one another. By the 1990s, most of the major leases were held by investment and financial services houses, which, given the nature of today’s economy, could obviously claim that they were involved in international commerce.


In Twin Towers, Angus Kress Gillespie, by contrast, keeps the sunny side up, up. Darton gives extensive portrayals of the fight put up by the Radio Row merchants displaced by the towers; Gillespie permits them half a page. He devotes lengthy passages—and, unlike Darton, he conducted interviews with Port Authority officials who built the center—to the engineering and design obstacles that were overcome in the building of the center, and indeed much of what Yamasaki and the authority’s engineers accomplished in getting the thing built is impressive. Reasonably close readers of the post–September 11 newspapers are probably familiar with the innovation of the load-bearing exterior walls, which meant that the towers did not need inner columns, which freed up floor space. The unique elevator system, which used a then-unprecedented combination of express and local cars, moved people along efficiently and increased rentable floor space by 13 percent. Since there was no storage area in lower Manhattan to stack the steel, a clockwork, quasi-militaristic schedule was maintained to deliver the pieces from New Jersey at the precise moment they were needed.

Gillespie does find time in between these accounts to confront the major criticisms the towers endured, and naturally, he has answers for each. He acknowledges that most critics came to detest the center after initially being awestruck by its sheer scale. Wolf von Eckhardt, The Washington Post‘s architecture critic, moved from praising the design in 1964 to calling the complex, just two years later in Harper’s magazine, “this fearful instrument of urbicide.” Ada Louise Huxtable of The New York Times held out a little longer—in the 1960s, Gillespie writes, she maligned the building’s attackers as unwilling to embrace the future when confronted with it, but by the 1970s, Huxtable had thrown in the towel and dismissed the towers as “General Motors Gothic.” Her successor, Paul Goldberger, famously described the complex as “so utterly banal as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha.”5

Why all this opprobrium? To Gillespie, it is only a matter of timing. The World Trade Center “was too new to be International Style and too old to be postmodern.” Maybe; but one finds it difficult to imagine that Chippendale towers or some other postmodern adornment would have done much to alter the verdict on these out-of-scale behemoths that cheeky New Yorkers quickly nicknamed “Nelson” and “David.” He contrasts the disapprobation of the “intellectual elite” with the enthusiasm of “the people.” Even if we put aside the fact that this claim is, in my experience, inaccurate (that tourists flocked to the center’s observation deck does not mean people loved the towers), Gillespie puts himself on strange footing indeed when he asserts that “proof”—honestly, proof!—of the towers’ acceptance can be found in the fact that the World Trade Center earned an entry in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

Oddly, Gillespie doesn’t make as much as he should of what I have always considered the center’s most positive feature—that, as a small city of 50,000 workers and 20,000 daily visitors, it bounced with a humanity that mitigated the towers’ inhuman scale. The windowless shopping concourse was dreary, but the lobbies, with their soaring ceilings and luxurious shafts of light and huge Miró tapestries and scurrying workers, pulsed with an urban life that gave any visitor the sense that he had reached a destination. And a destination it was, for all kinds of people; one had only to peruse the obituary lists in the days after the attack to see every class and color, and many nationalities, represented. This was, to be sure, a function of its being in New York City; but surely that means that, over time, the trade center, so often derided by critics as an island almost separate from New York, took on the vibrant characteristics of its city instead of resisting them. Its tenants were as disparate as one might find in any five-block circumference of the city, and the list of tenants that were in the complex on the morning of September 11 reflects that: along with the handful of shipping concerns, there were investment advisers, lawyers, doctors, entertainment industry businesses, media concerns, a Pace University office, artists, insurers, and a dot-com or two.


So, now what? Just six weeks before the attack, the Port Authority had turned over operation of the trade center to a private developer, Larry Silverstein, and his partner firm in the venture, Westfield America. This was the final step in a process initiated six years before by New York Governor George Pataki and then New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman. As Republicans, they favored privatization, but they also wanted the authority to return to its core mission of developing the region’s transportation and port commerce needs. The Port Authority still owns the land, but the question of what to develop there is largely Silverstein’s headache.

And a headache it is. After some initial delusional grandiosity,6 a consensus began to develop late last year that the site should be redeveloped on a more modest scale. Silverstein initially spoke of four fifty-story towers, narrower than the trade towers and more in keeping with the scale of the area, and he hired David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to draw up a design. He has tactically retreated from that, at least rhetorically, now saying that he’ll start by rebuilding one tower, Seven World Trade Center, one of the complex’s five “smaller” buildings (forty-seven stories, two million square feet), which he had built privately well after the towers went up. Any plan he pursues is contingent on the outcome of a legal dispute, proceeding in federal court as I write, between Silverstein and his insurers, who are attempting to argue that the attack on the trade towers was legally just that—an attack, singular, rather than two attacks, plural. Hanging in the balance is $3.6 billion in settlement money.

Fighting insurers is no joy, but Silverstein ran into an arguably meaner buzz saw in the person of Rudy Giuliani, who began proclaiming, toward the end of his mayoral term, that any development on the site should arrive only as an afterthought to an appropriate memorial park. One suspects, given that it’s Giuliani, that he entertains some privately held but very specific ideas about the percentage of this park that should be dedicated to proclaiming the greatness of Giuliani; that said, his remarks raise a difficult point. This is not just any development site. It’s a mass grave. “How do you balance,” Ada Louise Huxtable recently asked, “the value of human lives against the value of New York real estate?”7 If the past is indeed prologue, the smart money in that fight must be placed on New York real estate. Except that, as the Harry Helmsley–Lawrence Wein opposition to the trade center showed, New York real estate is a multiheaded beast. Some players in commercial real estate have suggested that massive rebuilding would glut an already depressed Manhattan real estate market and drive down rents.8 At the same time, however, building a large office complex takes several years, and the real estate market won’t be depressed forever. No one is talking about building another ten million square feet, but a reasonable consensus in between the two extremes seems to be emerging.

Downtown’s future is in the hands of a state commission called the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, created by Governor Pataki last November. He appointed as its chair John C. Whitehead, a former Goldman Sachs executive and deputy secretary of state in the Reagan administration. The seven other board mem-bers the governor named, and the four appointed by Giuliani, are drawn mostly from banking and real estate interests. One would have every right to worry that the historical trend inaugurated by David Rockefeller will repeat itself, but Whitehead has been explicit about opposing it.9 No public agencies or moneys will be committed to the financing of private office space. Overall, the vision of lower Manhattan he laid out to me is difficult to argue with: mixed-use development that is reasonably scaled and architecturally innovative, improved transit, perhaps a major cultural attraction, and an appropriate memorial. Whitehead’s corporation will release its plans later this year. If he remains true to his word, he will have undone forty years of bad public policy in a few months’ time.

Meanwhile, there is a broader conversation that needs to take place that hasn’t even started in earnest. This is the conversation about making the Port Authority, now that it’s out of the real estate business, concentrate on its original task of tending to the region’s transportation and port needs; and about urging the various state and city agencies with responsibilities in these areas to address the requirements of a city where virtually every artery of movement is old, overcrowded, gasping, and illogically ordered. Consider, for example, the following. There are three work destinations for commuters coming into Manhattan: the east side, the west side, and downtown. Likewise, there are three points from which commuters arrive: Westchester County and Connecticut (north), Long Island (east), and New Jersey (west). That makes for nine possible commutation routes. But only four of them are served by the rail system as it now exists. Governor Pataki has proposed a link from the Long Island Rail Road, which now brings passengers to Penn Station on the west side, to Grand Central Terminal on the east side. That’s a positive development, but it seems clear that in the long term the most important direct link to establish would be from the northern suburbs to the west side, where a great deal of office space is expected to rise in the coming decades, and then on to lower Manhattan. The new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, spoke of just such a proposal in his first State of the City address, although he did not specify a funding stream or a timetable.

The Port Authority, to its credit, is studying one promising idea along these lines—the creation of a major downtown transit hub along the lines of Grand Central or Penn Station, which would link the PATH tubes (badly damaged in the attack) to fourteen existing subway lines. The plans were discussed at the second meeting of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation.10 This is exactly the sort of proposal, for a rail station, that is very much in keeping with the authority’s purpose.

This conversation must also be about reinvigorating, to the extent that it is now possible, the city’s blue-collar job base. While Tobin was building the trade center, he also shifted most port operations to Newark and Elizabeth. This was to some extent necessary because the move to containerized shipping, which was occurring around that time, required more acreage near the piers than existed in Brooklyn. But the decision to push this work away from New York cost the city dearly—it lost tens of thousands of mostly unionized, port-related jobs, and manufacturing concerns that thrived along rail lines in Brooklyn and Queens dried up once those lines went dormant in the 1960s. And now, changing technology has created a problem in New Jersey. Those narrow kills that form New Jersey’s waterfront border are the same channels ships must now negotiate to reach Elizabeth and Newark. They are too difficult to navigate and too shallow for the super-sized, “post-Panamax” ships—so called because they are too wide to pass through the Panama Canal—that are coming on line. The Port Authority is proceeding with dredging plans. But meanwhile, the docks of Brooklyn, where the waters are friendlier, sit there.

And so, the old rail freight tunnel, first proposed by Julius Henry Cohen and his fellow anti-Tammany reformers back in the age of doughboys and the city’s first traffic lights, is still as relevant as ever. With the explosion in global trade, shipping commerce is more important than ever, and New York is locked in a ferocious competition with Halifax, Richmond, and other eastern seaboard cities for port supremacy. The Port Authority has placed some of its operations in Brooklyn in recent years—coffee and cocoa, for example, are delivered to piers in Brooklyn Heights. But the tunnel, and the rehabilitation of the tracks that run to the Brooklyn shore, could change the city’s future. According to Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who has been pushing the idea for years, the tunnel would accomplish the following: it would permit the post-Panamax ships to dock in Brooklyn, thereby solving the dredging problem; it would signal to the major shippers New York’s resolve (Halifax and Long Beach, for example, have both made recent major rail freight investments); it would bring as many as 50,000 blue-collar jobs back to Brooklyn, reversing a decades-old trend; and, perhaps most dramatically from the average person’s point of view, it would get more than one million trucks off New York’s highways every year. This last point may explain the Port Authority’s present-day opposition to the tunnel: it could lose tens of millions of dollars a year in toll revenues (its net income in fiscal year 2000, from tolls and airport rents, was $254 million). But anyone who has ever driven along the Cross-Bronx Expressway, to say nothing of the people who live in its shadow and breathe its fumes—asthma rates there are among the highest in the United States—is sure to see the virtue of this argument.

According to a study led by the Giuliani administration, the tunnel is estimated to cost $2.3 billion. That’s a lot of money, and one can certainly assert that other regional transportation needs, such as airport rail links, are more important. The Port Authority is building—finally, after thirty years of talk—a rail link to JFK, but it is only a partial link. Passengers will still have to ride the subway deep into Queens for a transfer. There are, in other words, many needs, all of which can’t be funded. But one of those needs is not a ten-million-square-foot office complex. The truth is, it never was.

—This is the second of two articles on the World Trade Center.

  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).

  5. 5

    Paul Goldberger, The City Observed: A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan (Vintage, 1979), p. 10.

  6. 6

    In the days immediately after the attack, there were calls for the towers to be rebuilt exactly as they were. Calmer heads took account of the likely cost of such a project, surely several billion dollars, and the obvious fact that few businesses at this point could be persuaded to rent the higher floors. The calls subsided.

  7. 7

    Ada Louise Huxtable, “The Several-Billion-Dollar Question,” The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2002, p. A16.

  8. 8

    See Andrew Rice, “Pitched Battle at Ground Zero,” The New York Observer, January 7, 2002, p. 1. Rice quoted several real estate leaders—none would speak for the record—expressing their opposition to redevelopment.

  9. 9

    I interviewed him at some length on January 18, 2002.

  10. 10

    First reported in the Daily News, “Big Transit Ideas Downtown,” by Pete Donohue and Greg Gittrich, January 8, 2002, p. 7.

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