Eric Darton. Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York's World Trade Center. New York: Basic Books, 1999. 241 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-01701-0.
Angus Kress Gillespie. Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. 263 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-2742-0.
Reviewed by Jerald E. Podair (Department of History, Lawrence University)
Published on H-Urban (August, 2000)
Views From the 110th Floor
"You two did visit the same country, didn't you?", a bemused President Kennedy once asked two advisers after receiving wildly diverging reports on the progress of the War In Vietnam. Eric Darton's Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York's World Trade Center, and Angus Kress Gillespie's Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center, two mirror image opposite interpretations of the city's tallest buildings, might elicit a modern-day version of this remark. Depending on one's perspective, the World Trade Center, which officially opened in Lower Manhattan in 1973, was either a soulless architectural monstrosity built to further the private agendas of the city's financial and real estate interests, or a popular, triumphant symbol of urban revitalization and progress.
For both authors, the story of the World Trade Center begins with the public agency that constructed it, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Established in 1921 in an effort to coordinate development of the harbor area, the Port Authority used its bonding and condemnation powers to attract private capital for an array of public projects, virtually all of which favored the automobile at the expense of mass transit. Highway and bridge tolls permitted the Authority to repay its bondholders without the necessity of taxation, allowing it to become a quasi-independent entity unto itself. By the time the World Trade Center was being planned in the early 1960s, this fortress-like autonomy, in Darton's view, had morphed into institutional arrogance and unaccountability, but according to Gillespie, had prepared the Authority for its greatest undertaking.
"Make no small plans," the early twentieth-century American architect Daniel Hudson Burnham once declaimed famously. "For they have not power to stir the blood" (Gillespie, p.5). The World Trade Center was such a grand plan, as both authors recognize, although unlike Gillespie, Darton cites Burnham with a healthy dose of irony. But why was the World Trade Center built? Was it necessary? And, was it a success? Divided We Stand and Twin Towers answer these questions as if the authors had, indeed, visited different countries. Darton, a cultural critic, views the Center as symbolic of the power wielded by the the so-called "FIRE" component of the city's post-World War II economy: finance, insurance, and real estate. "FIRE" worked with the Port Authority and state and local government officials to raise land values in Lower Manhattan by constructing what at the time were to be the world's two tallest buildings.
The Center's announced purpose was the creation of a central location for firms connected to international trade and shipping, thereby restoring New York's port, which by the 1960s faced stiff competition from other cities, to its former glory. Yet, as Darton argues, by this time the process by which New York shifted its economy from one based on small and medium-sized manufacturing and shipping to a service-oriented, postindustrial structure where "low skill, low wage" labor was superflous, was already well underway (Darton, p. 99). Downtown Manhattan land was much more valuable as a site for office towers than for the small factories and retailers that dotted the landscape, a typical example of which was the so-called "Radio Row," a group of streets on the far West Side that contained small electronics firms. It was this site that, after political maneuvering between the governors of New York and New Jersey (abetted by Chase Manhattan Bank chairman David Rockefeller, the brother of New York's Governor Nelson Rockefeller), was announced in 1962 as the future home of the World Trade Center.
The subsequent eviction of the residents of Radio Row symbolizes, to Darton, the triumph of what he terms an "economic monoculture of finance, insurance and real estate," at the expense of a more diverse "agglomeration" of small and medium-sized industrial firms that had comprised the backbone of the economy until the end of World War II (Darton, pp. 48, 70-71). The city's port facilities, which similarly stood "in the way," both literally and figuratively, of the city's new economy, were unceremoniously shunted off to less valuable land in New Jersey.
Darton also echoes most architectural critics in his condemnation of the World Trade Center's effect on the urban landscape. The Center was constructed in the "superblock" style associated with the architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, to whom the idea of the city street was "an obsolete notion" (Darton, p. 34). The streets on which the Twin Towers would be built were accordingly demolished and reconstructed on a massive "platform," containing a large pedestrian plaza above a parking garage. The effect, according to Darton, was to create a landscape of unrivaled sterility, devoid of the active street life that animates the urban environment. Then there are the towers themselves. Awkward, characterless, and out of proportion to to their surroundings, they epitomize for Darton monumentalism gone awry, a wrongheaded urban architecture that is, at its core, anti-urban in its implications. Darton's World Trade Center was thus the ultimate unnecessary undertaking, built in the wrong place, for the wrong reasons, in order to help the wrong people, with the wrong vision for New York City. But Angus Kress Gilespie, who teaches American Studies at Rutgers University, has few such qualms. His World Trade Center story is a triumphant one, an urban version of "The Right Stuff," with Port Authority executives, engineers, and workmen playing the roles of authentic American heroes. "There was nothing we couldn't do," he quotes the construction manager for the Center. "There was no challenge that we couldn't tackle. There were no rules we couldn't find a way around -- without being illegal -- to get the thing done" (Gillespie, p. 57). Gillespie never questions the need for the World Trade Center. To him, the towers were almost inevitable, "just there, part of the landscape" (Gillespie, p. 10). His uncritical gaze extends to the genesis of the idea for the Center, which he interprets as motivated largely by considerations of public spiritedness; to the opposition of the occupants of "Radio Row" to the Center, which he dismisses as narrow-minded; to the construction of the towers, which, despite massive cost overruns, he views in heroic, almost miraculous terms; and to the operation of the completed buildings themselves, which he credits with the economic revitalization of the downtown Manhattan area. Gillespie even argues that the Center has become a popular symbol for the average New Yorker, a "warmly embraced" icon of the city in the late twentieth century. (Gillespie, p. 126).
Gillespie's World Trade Center,then, is everything Darton's is not. One can almost imagine the two authors circling warily, reacting to the other's feints with movements in the opposite direction. And, as is so often the case with such diametrically opposed accounts, neither provides a completely satisfactory interpretation. Darton is correct in arguing that the construction of the World Trade Center was the result of the workings of the real estate value-obsessed financial and corporate sectors of the city's economy, yet chooses an overly simplistic interpretive framework for this story. His nostalgia for the small manufacturing and port activities that underlay New York's pre-World War II economy is misplaced. The white-collar "economic monoculture" that Darton decries is the envy of every American "rust belt" city that had been devastated by plant closings and global competition. New York's post-war, post-industrial economy may have been inhospitable to the small businesses of "Radio Row," but it has made the city as a whole much better able to withstand the vagaries of the world economy than "port/manufacturing" cities. The World Trade Center may well have been an architectural critic's worst nightmare, and an unnecessary undertaking under any circumstances, but it was not the symbol of a conspiracy hatched by avaricious men to hijack the city's economy for their own purposes. It was, rather, the symbol of changes that had already taken place in the city's economic culture. These changes left New York with a less "diverse" economy, but, ultimately, with a healthier one.
On the other hand, while Gillespie correctly acknowledges the stimulating effect of the World Trade Center's construction on the city's economy (by pumping some $200 million in wages into its lifestream), his account begs too many questions and assumes too much. There was much more to the story of the World Trade Center than civic virtue and "can do" spirit. If there were any legitimate reasons for New York's small business community to oppose the construction of the Center, we do not hear them from Gillespie; he glosses over their objections in a few pages, citing with implicit approval the opinion of the project's architect that "there was not a single building worth saving" in the projected construction area (Gillespie, p. 166). He also does not explain how this undertaking, designed at least in theory to save the Port of New York, instead accelerated its decline. One gets the impression from Twin Towers that New York City proper still posseses a vibrant port, and that the World Trade Center played a major role in obtaining this result. And Gillespie is finally unable to explain why the Port Authority, by the late 1990s, found it necessary to offer what he considers to be its greatest achievement to private investors on advantageous terms.
There is an unsettling sense of inevitability, of triumphalism, in Gillespie's account, a feeling that things had to have turned out exactly as they did -- for the best. But history does not move in straight lines, and it is Gillespie's unwillingness to consider the role of contingency in any narrative of events -- winners do not "have" to win, nor losers to lose -- that mars his analysis. In smoothing over the rough edges of his account of the Twin Towers, he has let their essence elude him.
Ultimately, the story of the World Trade Center cannot be separated from that of New York City itself during the second half of the twentieth century. The forces that shaped the city in that period -- deindustrialization, urban renewal, the rise of the white-collar service sector and the maturing of the government-corporate nexus --were also those that shaped the Twin Towers. But the World Trade Center is more than a metaphor for the postmodern city. As these widely differing accounts demonstrate, its is contested terrain, the canvas upon which competing visions of New York are articulated and projected. As such, the views from the 110th floor will continue to help determine the kind of city New York will be, well into the twenty-first century.
. William H. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, 4th ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 270.
. Emblematic of the authors' different perspectives is their treatment of the World Trade Center's narrow windows. Darton views them as constricting and counterproductive in a building ostensibly designed to provide panoramic views, while Gillespie praises them for affording "a feeling of complete security" (Gillespie, p. 80).
. Two minor factual errors in Darton's work merit correction. Robert, not Richard, Meyner was Governor of New Jersey in 1961 (p. 84). And John Marshall Harlan was far from "the most liberal justice" on the United States Supreme Court in 1963; he was, in fact, among the most conservative (p.131).
. In addition, Gillespie's assertion that the World Trade Center has been "warmly embraced" by New Yorkers (p. 126) is mystifying to this native New Yorker. No New Yorker of my acquaintance has ever expressed praise for the World Trade Center.
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Jerald E. Podair. Review of Darton, Eric, Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York's World Trade Center and
Gillespie, Angus Kress, Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center.
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