Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
The Vanished Skyline
New York builds a new one, but what it lost is gone forever.
8 September 2011

Earlier this week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that there is no longer a “Ground Zero” in Lower Manhattan. The mayor is right: the World Trade Center site has been a construction hub for more than half a decade. In this same spirit, New York’s political and business leaders should stop saying that the city is “repairing” or “restoring” its skyline, language that obscures what al-Qaida terrorists took—permanently—from New York ten years ago.

At Wednesday’s annual World Trade Center construction update at Seven World Trade, the marquee speakers were heavy on the restoration talk. WTC developer Larry Silverstein voiced the conventional wisdom of the leadership class, saying that the 104-story One World Trade Center, now nearly two-thirds built, and Four World Trade Center, going up across the site, will help accomplish what “all New Yorkers have been longing for, for some time now, which is a rebuilt skyline.” Silverstein has done a heroic job of cutting through the horrible politics of the past decade and building something. The new buildings will serve their purpose of providing downtown with Class-A office space. As works of twenty-first-century architecture, the buildings would serve any skyline well enough, whether Chicago’s or Dubai’s or New York’s.

But they don’t replace what was lost. It’s hard not to think of the loss of the Twin Towers this week, despite officialdom’s putting on its best face. Looking out from Seven World Trade Center onto the site, you can see the water cascading into two square pools where the towers were—the completed memorial to the victims of the coordinated attacks, as well as the victims of the 1993 WTC bombing. As a memorial, the 9/11 monument is massive, containing more steel than the Eiffel Tower. But as a specific token of remembrance of the towers, its function is to be poignantly inadequate. The towers weren’t underground squares. They were high in the air, as were the people who died in them.

For a reminder of the skyline that New York had stolen from it in two hours, look not out the window of Seven World Trade, but on the walls. Up on the 48th floor, Silverstein has invited a few downtown artists to use this unrented space as a private studio. Painter Todd Stone is up there daily, recording the progress below him and now above him, as One World Trade Center rises, almost within touching distance.

Before 9/11, Stone had a view of the original World Trade Center towers from his Thomas Street workspace, and he often painted them. Stone remembers that on September 10, he was “photographing the melancholy, rainy rooftops,” with the towers in the background. From those photos, and from the photos he took throughout the day on September 11, he has watercolored what he calls an “elegy to the lives lost that day.” The first image in the series depicts the pale towers against a paler sky. They stand in the background, as they always did for so many New Yorkers, elegant geometry defining the open space around them, abstract against the intricately rendered brickwork and fire-escape lattices that make up the foreground.

The next 14 watercolors in the set are hard to look at. The sky is blue on the morning of 9/11, but against the blue sky, Stone has colored in the jagged, diagonal plane-shaped hole near the top of One World Trade Center, as well as the first wisps of white smoke that look like clouds. Birds, unlike the people trapped, are flying away from the smoke. In the pictures that follow, Stone’s understated approach defines what he saw the rest of that day.

Some of the most searing artistic remembrances of pre-9/11 New York, though, were never meant as elegies. Uptown, the Museum of the City of New York is running an exhibit of photographs by Camilo José Vergara. A Chilean immigrant, Vergara started taking pictures of the towers in 1970, when they were still under construction. “I thought of them as wild expressions of American pride, arrogance, and mistaken priorities, a point I emphasized by photographing them with homeless people in the foreground or in the harsh sunlight,” he told the curators.

The towers’ appearance on the skyline, as they take their place in the air behind St. Paul’s Chapel or above the Woolworth Building, is startling, just as the new One World Trade Center’s sudden emergence is a visual shock today. Seeing the historic construction, too, is a reminder that the towers weren’t here all that long—only 31 years, from 1970 to 2001. But for New Yorkers who either weren’t born in 1970 or were young then—a category that included most of the people who would die at the World Trade Center—three decades was long enough to imply permanence. The Twin Towers came to define New York’s physical space and heritage no less than Rockefeller Center or the Chrysler Building. Indeed, as Vergara notes, after the towers were finished, “I generally lost interest,” until, he says, “I liked to see them in the background of my photographs.”

There they are—sometimes slate gray, sometimes off-white, sometimes shimmery silver, sometimes all three as light plays against each tower’s tens of thousands of vertical window slats and three horizontal stripes. Sometimes the towers loom large, while in other images they’re tiny slivers way off in the corner, across an entire borough or two. Vergara depicts them both as angular shapes and softer forms. But the shot Vergara took of Lower Manhattan from a desolate Fairmount Avenue in Jersey City is his best. Cracked pavement, junky cars, and weedy grass define the lower half of the print. Above, the sky is pale pink and blue. The Twin Towers, miles away, are a slightly darker shade of blurry pale, disappearing as you back away.

Nicole Gelinas, a City Journal contributing editor and the Searle Freedom Trust Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of After the Fall: Saving Capitalism from Wall Street—and Washington.

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