As New Yorkers mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it’s hard to imagine that the 16 acres in Lower Manhattan that were once home to the Twin Towers ever served another purpose. Fortunately, we have Eric Darton, a locally born and bred historian and novelist to remind us of the origins of the World Trade Center in his recently re-released history of the towers, Divided We Stand.
In his book, Darton reaches back to the beginning of the 20th century to explore the intellectual and aesthetic ideas as well as the political and economic forces that eventually produced the 110-story behemoths that dominated the New York City skyline for almost three decades. In doing so, he reminds us that while the World Trade Center eventually became “sacred ground” to millions of Americans, it was originally conceived as a power play by local elites. Darton recently spoke with The Indypendent about the World Trade Center’s past and present impact on New York, the joys of writing history and why another set of skyscrapers at Ground Zero is exactly what we don’t need.
John Tarleton: What does the story of the World Trade Center’s creation tell us about New York?
Eric Darton: The creation of the World Trade Center marked a rather large shift in identity for New York as it abandoned manufacturing and became a city that basically processes financial instruments. What was left of the Port of New York by the mid-1960s was literally buried by landfill from this project. There was a meta-ideology to this which said, “We want to be as far as possible from actual stuff. We really don’t want to have stevedores and rats and wharves. We want to live in an abstract realm of pure value.” You had financial elites and city planning types who really wanted to wrench New York out of materiality and remake it into a gleaming futuropolis in which poor people and black people would go away and the city would be their own.
JT: How did the Twin Towers embody the transition toward more abstract forms of capital?
ED: With the World Trade Center, you went from skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building or the Chrysler Building that have spires, that are kind of halfway between a fortress and a cathedral and that have a dominating but nonetheless aspirational quality, to these two buildings that had none of the aspirational quality and only asserted a kind of very terrifying and terrified kind of dominance. The Twin Towers were pure assertion. There was very little Horatio Alger, very little aspirational about them, even in the bankrupt sense of the American dream.
JT: What did the towers say about the larger culture from which they sprang?
ED: By the end of World War II, the United States found itself more powerful than it ever could have imagined. It was like waking up one morning and being 30 feet tall. I don’t think we actually took it in emotionally and psychologically that we had transformed into something monstrous. When we built the World Trade Center, we gave ourselves an unconscious sign that we had become something unsustainably huge and destructive. It was a kind of power that said, “I am so rigid I have nowhere to go but to collapse.” There was no flex, no play, no accommodation. When you say that about yourself as a culture, it’s a good time to step back and reexamine what you are doing. The towers were also a message to us — shut down, don’t think, don’t even imagine there’s something else.
JT: You were able to contemplate the Towers from high-rise apartment at Penn South Towers in Chelsea.
ED: I moved into Penn South as a 12-year-old when it opened in 1962 and still live there to this day. My mother got an apartment on the 20th floor and later my wife and I raised our daughter here. We face south towards lower Manhattan and we also face east toward the Empire State Building. It’s pretty amazing. It’s kind of an intermediate space somewhere between the extreme elevation of the Twin Towers and the ground because you can still hear everything that happens on the street from my apartment. Looking out at the Twin Towers every day from this vantage point gave me a way of seeing them that I might not have otherwise had. It’s not hard to imagine the power brokers who created the World Trade Center looking down from their skyscrapers and saying, “Oh, how could I rearrange things to my liking?”
JT: In Divided We Stand, you switched from writing fiction to writing history. What was that like?
ED: As a writer, I found out that when you observe reality closely and you really look at the documents and other primary sources and open yourself up to the material, you don’t have to invent anything. It’s all there. Investigating and writing history gives you this very empowering notion that everything comes from something, because anything made by human beings has a social history. The thrilling part of this was seeing that the original construction of the World Trade Center was a part of a history of New York as well as a part of a history of streams of thought that envisioned the perfectability of cities.
JT: And now a new World Trade Center is rising from the ashes of the old.
ED: No one can explain to me why we need what will be at least another five million square feet of office space. It doesn’t fit into any economic reality because the costs are so high. It doesn’t fit into any set of imaginable human needs in New York. It’s not surprising that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is seeking huge toll increases on the bridges and tunnels it controls, in order to pay for this project. When you’re committed to a really bad idea, you just pour more and more resources in and you support it any way you can. The one aspect of the design that could speak powerfully are the pools that will be in the footprints of the former towers. They might be a place where people can come to ground themselves in the presence of others, and that would be a real gift.
JT: You paint a damning portrait of the WTC’s history and the abuse of power that brought it into existence. Yet, you manage to do it without coming across as shrill or judgmental.
ED: I believe in writing that meets the reader halfway and you walk through the material together instead of speaking from a pedestal. It’s a risky strategy not to write polemically about overtly political issues. After all, you don’t want people to miss the point. But ultimately, a reader who’s had to do the math owns the experience of the text — and in this case, the history — more fully. If you write something with efficacy and beauty, it will allow the messages contained in a book to go to a deeper level and allow that reader to make a more molecular use of that material. It’s why I love to read good writing. It’s not just because it’s beautiful but because the beauty allows me to connect more profoundly with the ideas themselves. I wanted Divided We Stand to be well structured but also beautiful. In short, I wanted it to be a good piece of architecture — one that would be useful but also open up a psychic space that people could inhabit, and take pleasure from being in and around.
JT: What is the relationship between the World Trade Center and other mega-developments that have followed here in New York?
ED: Eminent domain was used in 1966 to erase Radio Row, a perfectly viable commercial neighborhood that had scores of small businesses located in the footprint of the future World Trade Center site. This moved a bunch of legal goalposts and certainly moved people’s expectations. Once the powers that be get away with something like that, it’s tempting to keep on going. This can be seen in the Atlantic Yards project in downtown Brooklyn, in which eminent domain has been used to advance a massive, undemocratic and useless project.
JT: If New York weren’t a city based around finance, insurance and real estate, what else could it be?
ED: It could be a lot of things. The city is completely slanted to Fortune 500 corporations and a permanent government of real estate interests. We really have to get a mixed economy back and put in some protection for small businesses. The lack of any kind of commercial rent control favors the most speculative and rapacious kinds of commercial enterprises. We could have a serious working port in South Brooklyn. We could put our energies into making the city’s transportation infrastructure more sane and sensible. With a stock transfer tax, we could fully fund essential social services. There’s a tremendous energy here because people come here from all over the world to get something going. They should be able to get a job, put a roof over their heads and live a decent life. New York should be a gigantic refuge for the generative energies of the world because the generative energies of the world come here anyway. The original World Trade Center leveraged us into an economic monoculture of finance, insurance and real estate. It was a dead end. Instead of trying to revive that, we need to move on and create a more self-sustaining, equitable and diversified economic base to support the amazing global culture that flourishes here.
Eric Darton is the author of Divided We Stand: A Biography of the World Trade Center (Basic Books: 1999, 2011), and the novel Free City. For more, see ericdarton.net.