Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into the bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities, and through gas warfare, the aura is abolished in a new way…[Humanity’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.
– Walter Benjamin, 1935
The attacks on the World Trade Center have represented two very different types of loss. On the one hand, we’ve had to grapple with the immensity of what was lost in human and material terms from within those two buildings. On the other, we’ve had to confront the loss of something less tangible but apparently no less profound the loss of the Twin Towers as a symbol. In local papers, on the news, in conversation, we’ve heard the building repeatedly described as “the soul of New York.” Director Ric Burns, whose blockbuster New York: A Documentary featured the buildings, explained: “We’ve lost loved ones and friends, and we lost the buildings, which stood for so much vitality. That’s why all of us are so obsessed with the trade center and its image.” Commentators from Tom Brokaw to Mayor Giuliani have called on all Americans to come to New York and spend money as a way of “restoring the symbol of the city” that was somehow lost when the towers fell.
Osama bin Laden, in his internationally broadcast remarks on October 7, also seemed obsessed with the symbolic when he celebrated the attack on the WTC, as well as the Pentagon, as simply “the destruction of America’s greatest buildings.” It would also seem that this symbolic violence was motivation for the terrorists themselves, who designed a spectacle of destruction to instill terror in the simplest, most universal terms possible, and timed it to be recorded by thousands of cameras and broadcast within minutes to screens worldwide.
And it worked. In purely economic terms, it is this symbolic loss which has reached out beyond the contained 16-acre site in Lower Manhattan and deeply shaken the confidence of investors, tourists, and citizens here and around the world. It has sent deep and enduring shock waves throughout global stock markets far surpassing the cost of replacing the office space, jobs, or gold bullion stored within the buildings.
At the very least, the attack on the World Trade Center destroyed the branded image of New York, and in so doing revealed the immense power—financially and politically—such images now possess. And so one might think, at the very least, now would be a good time for New Yorkers to step back and reassess the wisdom of our dependence upon, to say nothing of our veneration of, such vulnerable symbols.
And yet it seems the opposite is happening. For many the symbol of the buildings “in death” is felt more powerfully than ever before. To quote Peter Marks of the New York Times: “In death, the buildings, once embodiments of America financial power, are metaphors for American resolve.” On subways and streets people wear the buildings proudly, sport memorial buttons emblazoned with the trade center. On late-night television, admen suggest ordering now your very own twin tower lapel pin, as a patriotic gesture. And most disturbingly, developers, architects, and our city’s new CEO Mike Bloomberg, are right now busily planning another branded symbol of New York’s financial pre-eminence, one bigger and bolder than what went before.
How does one begin to make sense of this obsession with symbols? How can any two buildings possess such worldwide symbolism, as both icon and target? Why these two buildings, completed less than 30 years ago, in a city with so many buildings older and more venerable? And since when did “all New Yorkers,” every citizen in this city—arguably the world’s most diverse and historically working class—begin to worship the twin symbols of global capitalism as a reflection of their own soul?
One’s head reels with questions. To begin to answer them, I believe we need to go back to the World Trade Center’s construction itself, for in ways oddly similar to its destruction, this process was also symbolically motivated, politically charged, and socially fatal.
From Financial Dreams to Fiscal Crisis
No site in the city has a history more fraught with conflict than that underneath the World Trade Center. Lower Manhattan became the crucible for today’s battles over gentrification when, from the 1920s through the ’80s, it was targeted for “redevelopment” in a number of plans proposed by the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a board made up of the city’s financial and land-owning elite. By mid century, the area was known as “Little Syria,” and was one of the city’s most economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods, home to the nation’s oldest Middle Eastern community as well as some of its longest-running industries. Both had grown up alongside the docks and warehouses of what was, until its destruction in the 1970s, the most important commercial port on the Northeastern seaboard. Over three centuries, thriving centers for tanning, beer brewing, coffee roasting, maritime, and the electronics industries of “Radio Road” had taken deep root. The RPA fight was to completely raze this working class web and turn Lower Manhattan into “one enormous central business district,” radiating out from Wall Street, and ultimately extending over the entire island of Manhattan.
While the original 1929 plan was shelved with the stock market crash, it was picked up again on the tide of the postwar boom, and came to fruition in a 1968 plan, with its follow-up in 1969, under Mayor Lindsay. Many of the same families—in particular the Rockefellers—still dominated the board, and still dreamt of a postindustrial, white collar New York anchored by a “center for world trade” in Lower Manhattan. Their plan was always as much functional as symbolic—as much a question of how New York should work as who it should represent. A sympathetic New York Times article of the day cited the introduction to the plan of 1929 by chief economist Robert M. Haig:
Some of the poorest people live in conveniently located slums on highest-priced land. On patrician Fifth Avenue, Tiffany and Woolworth, cheek by jowl, offer jewels and jimcracks from substantially identical sites […] A stone’s throw from the Stock Exchange, the air is filled with the aroma of roasting coffee; a few hundred feet from Times Square, with the stench of slaughter houses.
In the heart of this “commercial city” on Manhattan Island south of 59th Street, the inspectors in 1922 found 420,000 workers employed in factories. Such a situation outrages one’s sense of order. Everything seems misplaced. One yearns to rearrange the hodgepodge and put things where they belong.
This outraged “sense of order” reveals the RPA’s dual motivation to rationalize both the land-use and the symbol of Lower Manhattan along hierarchical, class-specified lines (much like that “radiant city” of Le Corbusier). Zoning changes would bring immediate, practical results for the Rockefellers and other landowning board-members, for whom the conversion from lowend industrial and commercial to Grade A office and residential space meant as much as a 10,000-fold increase in land-rents. At the same time, it was believed that creating a uniformly affluent image of the city would yield a perception of order that would undergird wider economic growth.
Not surprisingly, throughout the ’60s this plan led to massive opposition from local residents, labor unions, and activists who realized early on that they would be excluded from its pristine vision. Critics, from Jane Jacobs to Ada Louise Huxtable, deplored the loss of the “livable city” to the antisocial tyranny of modernism. City planners saw the design worsening congestion, environmental conditions, economic balance, and public safety. The neighborhood’s highly organized workers and residents refused to be bought out and fought displacement through lawsuits and demonstrations.
Yet ultimately, such resistance was to no avail. Critics were ignored, residents and workers forced out through eminent domain as the city went ahead and destroyed an estimated 30 blocks and 30,000 jobs in order to build four “superblocks” for the new downtown central business district. Sealing the deal was Robert Moses’s Port Authority, through which public monies could be marshaled to fund massive projects ostensibly in the “public interest” without any direct public oversight. Thus, billions in taxpayer dollars and federal grants were diverted to build high-rise offices and apartments for the wealthy.
By the time the towers were finally competed in 1973, the majority of their publicly financed units remained unsold, and this financial fiasco was dragging New York deeper and deeper into debt. This at a time when the city was hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, the bedrock of its middle and working class communities, due not only to global competition, but also to active city policies of deindustrialization and union-busting. Compounding this was a recession-laden, anti-urban federal government which subsidized suburbanization while divesting aid from cities. Thus, many argue that the multi-billion dollar debt incurred in building the financial district became a major contributing factor in the city’s spiraling fiscal crisis of the mid-’70s.
Up From The Ashes: The World Trade Center as Global Brand
Forced to go it alone in the race for new, footloose sources of revenue, New York, like many other cities of the day, became an entrepreneur. Under the leadership of old financial and real estate elites along with new scions of tourism and media, it steadily transformed itself from a site of production to a space for consumption. Adopting the latest corporate techniques, the city and its business leaders joined forces to market the image of New York as a global brand—and in the process obscured deepening social crisis. Not that the city hadn’t tried urban boosterism before—his was the home of Coney Island and the Great White Way—but now city marketing was seen as the engine of economic growth. In this effort, the new towers were seized upon as the perfect, unambiguous logo for a globally resurgent Big Apple.
This entrepreneurial approach was epitomized in the “I Love New York” campaign of 1977, with logo designed by famed New York Magazine illustrator Milton Glaser. In a year of heat waves, black-outs, and the Summer of Sam, New York State increased its tourism from $200,000 to $4.3 million to fund this upbeat ad campaign. Guides and maps showed barely a glint of life above 96th Street or across the East River, while the city’s “attractions” were limited to Fifth Avenue shopping, Broadway theater, and “the new downtown nightlife” around the World Trade Center. In one year, the campaign stimulated an 11.8 percent increase in travel receipts, and $4 million in tax revenue for every $1 spent on the campaign. Theater revenues alone increased by 20 percent. The city was ready to believe its own ad copy.
The ’80s and ’90s, a boom time in finance and media, saw a vast proliferation of guides, magazines, and building initiatives catering to the coveted niche of tourists, investors, and the new middle class. Armed with public-private financing, Lower Manhattan developers embarked on monumentally designed, exclusive projects, including the World Financial Center and Battery Park City. The city’s Visitors & Convention Bureau was transformed into the hipper “NYC and Company” with an exponential increase in budget and a new global reach. The new Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting oversaw the massive increase in productions conspicuously located in a wealthy New York. Through all of these image marketing efforts, the World Trade Center became—along with old standbys like the Statue of Liberty and Broadway—one of the three most popular symbols of New York. The classic New York skyline shifted away from midtown to downtown as the World Trade Center became the city’s branded icon.
The glossy image of the towers contrasted starkly with the social divisions lurking in its shadows. The period between the ’70s and late ’90s also saw the unprecedented rise of inequality along lines of class, race, and geography—both in this city and around the world. With deregulated service economy concentrated at the high and low end of the skill and income spectrum, New York’s widening socio-economic gap became as dramatic as any in Bangkok or Sao Paulo. According to Economic Policy Institute statistics for this 30 year period, while the poorest fifth of the city’s population lost 21 percent of their income, the richest fifth’s increased by 43 percent. Indeed, the income of the richest 5 percent increased by an astounding 67 percent. Ultimately, this top fifth was earning roughly half of the entire income generated by the city. With increasing globalization, such gaping inequalities were mirrored both within and between urban economies around the world.
At home, this disparity was met not with social programs, but with Mayor Giuliani’s notorious “quality of life” campaign, in which increasingly poor, working class communities and communities of color helped maintain the slick veneer of a tourist-friendly city. Meanwhile, such tactics spread to many other global cities confronting a similar increase in social inequality and unrest.
Thus, the WTC as a branded icon of the new New York was a highly contradictory symbol. To merge the rhetoric of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research with the RPA, the city’s “broken windows” were indeed fixed, and a “sense of order” maintained, attracting outsiders and their money in droves. Yet the majority of working class New Yorkers found themselves under a mounting state of siege, criminalized in their own neighborhoods, and shut out of the wealth generated by the new economy. Perversely, the increase in the beauty and power of New York as a branded symbol for global consumption coincided with the decrease in the real standard of living for most of its citizens.
A similar contradiction in the symbol of the WTC, it would seem, also emerged globally. For insofar as it was successfully branded as a symbol of New York’s—and America’s—rising power, so too did it represent the inequalities and injustices of the New World Order. In short, the more prominently the twin towers appeared as an icon, the larger they loomed as a target.
A Return to the Ashes, a Challenge for the Future
In the city’s very human response to the attack on the WTC, the chilling inhumanity of its branded image, and the reality it obscured, have been brought home in a new way. The most remarkable experiences of the weeks following September 11 were found in the daily gatherings at street corners, parks, subway stations, and firehouses, for vigil, discussion, debate, and solidarity. As people from all walks of life searched the mosaic of faces on homemade posters for the missing, cheered for passing fire trucks, and spontaneously sought the company of strangers in public space, it felt like a collective rediscovery, after a long sleep, of the real vs. the symbolic New York.
If recent events have taught us anything, it is the danger of believing in the value of symbols over and at the expense of human life. The fetishization of the city, like that of all commodities, leads to alienation from our own humanity. Just as this is true of capitalist urban development, so too is it true of war—which as Baron Von Haussmann observed, are two sides of the same coin. In both lies the potential to violently and senselessly destroy lives, jobs, and communities, whether for the sake of real estate profit or ideology.
Now more than ever it is time to for those excluded from the branded New York, and from the uneven riches of globalization, to come together. As the reclaiming of Union Square reminded people, this tragedy provides an opportunity to rethink the city in the broadest social terms possible. Yet, as the excesses of the mayoral elections also showed, the forces of the financial and media elites are arrayed stronger than ever to prevent this from happening. Much work lies ahead, both on the cultural front—creating media and urban design which reflect our diversity, and on the economic front—fighting to bring back a balanced economy, living wages, a viable public sector, and powerful unions. As we return to a time of crisis, we must remember that a more democratic New York, and a more equal world, are both possible and essential if either is to survive at all.