City Lit: Journey to the Center

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The World Trade Center is big, in more than the obvious ways. Its construction reshaped the landscape of lower Manhattan and created a new symbol for New York City.

For all of its overpowering presence, though, the WTC is basically a very large office park with retail space–the kind of detached corporate project found along interstates all over the country. One of the WTC’s most successful achievements has been the ability of both its promoters and detractors to project its image as something very different: both a unique urban development and the embodiment of New York City’s success or failure as one of the world’s major cities. Its resilience continues to impress–even a tragic event such as the 1993 bombing, which proved in many people’s minds that the WTC is indestructible, was used by its owners at the Port Authority as an opportunity to redesign and remodel the complex, and begin its transition into private ownership.

Eric Darton’s Divided We Stand goes beyond the World Trade Center’s iconography to look at its influence on the geography of lower Manhattan. Under that lies another story entirely, one he tells in rewarding detail: how the combined forces of government and private institutions, money, power, and New York City’s changing role in the economy endowed the WTC with such weighty authority.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then it took a sizeable segment of New York City’s power elite to raise the Twin Towers. For Darton, a novelist and cultural critic, the Twin Towers not only divide the WTC’s plaza; they also represent the divide between New York City’s working and small business population and the very wealthy and their allies. The construction of the WTC was a triumph for the city’s real estate, banking and political elite, as well as its construction unions. The project started its life as a large-scale urban renewal plan promoted by David Rockefeller and other businessmen with financial and real estate interests in Lower Manhattan, and it was to be built on the East Side, not the West. However, local merchants’ opposition to this plan was too strong to overcome, and the WTC’s supporters switched locations without missing a beat.

Manhattan south of Chambers Street was once the center of New York City’s office market. But after World War II, lower Manhattan languished. In the mid-1950s, David Rockefeller, as chair of Chase Manhattan Bank, took a major financial risk and started construction on Chase Manhattan Plaza–the first major new office building in the Wall Street area since the Depression. Rockefeller and his allies envisioned the WTC as a government-financed office complex to provide an incentive for others to invest and rent space in Lower Manhattan.

The builders initially presented the WTC to the public as a home for business and government agencies involved in international trade, which would strengthen the metropolitan area’s port facilities. However, as Darton makes clear, very few of the WTC’s promoters actually believed that would happen. By the 1950s, most of the port had already relocated from Manhattan and Brooklyn to New Jersey, where it remains today. The Port Authority, which was created in 1921 to promote the area’s ports, had become, at best, indifferent to the survival of Manhattan’s working docks.

In fact, the trade center project was the death knell for the city’s ports. The deal to have the Port Authority finance the billion dollar-plus WTC–which required the approval of the governors of both New York and New Jersey–included major concessions to the Garden State, among them an agreement to concentrate area ports in Jersey. The project had other immediate effects as well. Lower Manhattan was quickly transformed from an area hospitable to small retail business (including “Radio Row,” the place to buy electronic goods before it was torn down to build the WTC), wholesale markets, and international trade to one of office buildings and chain stores.

Darton weaves his history with the present; his refusal to follow a linear line of exposition lends the book aspects of a novel. It is less successful, however, in its mission as a “biography.” For Darton, the WTC is the Twin Towers and not much else. Its hotel and retail complex merit only a brief mention, and some of the WTC’s other buildings do not even show up. It’s a bias that shows Darton to be as seduced as anyone by the overpowering symbolism of the 110-story towers. He dissects the WTC as a symbolic space–of international capital, big business, and big government in the service of big business and big labor. But in thinking so big, Darton forgets to pay attention to how the people who work and play inside the WTC experience their environment. In an otherwise in-depth book, he fails in a basic task of a biography: getting inside his subject’s personality.

Joseph Center is associate director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at Rutgers University.