A panel of experts answered your questions on the origins The Towers being builtand development of the twin towers; their urban, economic, architectural and symbolic significance; the creation of a postwar economic order based on global trade; and New York's role at the center of commerce, globalization, and a new kind of multi-cultural society, in this online forum.

The forum was live from September 9 through 12, 2003, and is now over. The questions and replies are posted below for you to read as well as short bios of the participants.

Forum, Day 1

Q: With the passing of "time"... how and in what way have your opinions or visions changed, if any, as to what could be put into the space previously occupied by the World Trade Center?

Lynda A. Quintero
Bay Harbor Island, FL

Answered by Mike Wallace:
My original vision was to leave most of the area as a green space, to allow it to lie fallow, until some consensus emerged as to what to do with the space. In the meantime it would serve both as park and graveyard; rather as did Greenwood Cemetary, in Brooklyn, which was both New York's central park before there was a Central Park -- a place to stroll and picnic -- and home to some of the city's most honored dead. What I did not want to see was most of the space crammed with new commercial office buildings.

I had some hope that this might actually happen, in part because there was (and is) such an enormous amount of vacant office space in Lower Manhattan, and elsewhere around town. The glut was so big that the usual horrific real estate pressures were eased somewhat. Unfortunately there was one developer, Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder to the WTC towers and possible beneficiary of the WTC insurance policies, who is extremely keen to rebuild, indeed to hurl up even more office space than existed before. All the designers for the site were required to include in their plan millions of square feet of office space, to accomodate him, and millions more of shopping pace, to accomodate Westfield America, who had the rights to the old WTC underground mall and wanted to restore the old status quo as much as possible.

For a time, after public outcry stopped the original designs from going forward, it seemed as if newly energized New Yorkers would take control of the site, and ensure it be used not for offices, only, but for housing (including affordable housing), and a mix of cultural, technological, nonprofit, media and other uses, thus diversifying a downtown economy dangerously reliant on finance. But it looks like business as usual is making a comeback.

The video reminds us that many people predicted that the WTC would be a disaster, that it would dump far more office space on the market than was needed, that it would suck tenants out of surrounding buildings, and leave the neighborhood worse off than it had been. This proved to be true, a state of affairs that lasted twenty years, and was only briefly interrupted by the dot.com mania of the late 90s. Given the ongoing disaggregation of the financial industry, it is folly to forget that history, and start sending office space skyward. Some is fine, but unless the focus is kept on infrastructure and mixed use development, the future does not look promising.

 

Q: Will the attack on New York actually increase the city's sense of its own exceptionalism? Will it feel it not only is the center of the world's economy, it now rates special status as the only place to suffer a major foreign attack on the mainland United States since the War of 1812 (or the Civil War). Will it cause the city to become more insular still? Will the city's absorption with the task of rebuilding, commemorating, memorializing, reinforce or mollify this tendency?

Andrew Saxe
Boston, MA

Answered by Niall Ferguson:
Sept. 11th has changed the nature of New Yorkers' sense of self-importance. Pre-9/11, the city gloried in its hard-ass cynicism. Since the WTC attacks, there's been a detectable softening of attitudes - witness the mellow mood during the blackouts. The interesting question is how far that's a consequence of 9/11 and how far a consequence of the reforms of the city's governance in the preceding decade.

 

Q: What was the most emotionally difficult part of making this film?

Bob Castro
Atlanta, GA

Answered by Ric Burns:
The most emotionally difficult scenes of the film were, of course, those covering the events of September 11th and its aftermath. As anyone who's chosen, or been assigned, to grapple with the extraordinarily large archive of video and photographic images from the day knows, it's toxic, and harrowing, material to confront.

 

Q: In discussing Sept. 11, why did you select Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo to be interviewed when both had been out of office for many years before 2001? Was there an attempt to interview Governor Pataki or Mayor Guiliani?

J.F.
Abilene, TX

Answered by Ric Burns:
We made a decision early on in the process of making the film that we weren' t going to interview people who you might think of as the "citizens" of ground zero - i.e., the survivors who got out of the buildings; the emergency personnel, firemen and police; the political figures like Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki who were directly involved in the events of the day; and the family members and loved ones of those who died. Many extraordinary films have been made since in the last two years focusing on the people most intimately and tragically effected by the day's events, and we didn't feel that we could add anything meaningful to what's already been done. We chose instead to talk with men and women who, like most others on the planet, were among the billions who looked on in shock and horrow at the day's events - and who also happened to know, through their own experiences as politicians, architects, historians, journalists, architectural critics, builders, engineers, photographers, or wire walkers, something intimate and revealing about the life and death of the buildings. That's how we came to interview Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch.

 

Q: You do such a fine job of presenting the range of views around contentious issues. In "Center of the World", for instance, the voices of enthusiasm for and opposition to the construction of the WTC Complex are given almost exactly equal exposure. I wonder if someday you would consider producing something that is not so journalistically neutral, something unapologetically advocative.

J.G.
Hoboken, NJ

Answered by Ric Burns:
That's a great question, and one that I'm not sure I can answer easily. A few years back I made a six-hour film about the way the American west was lost and won in the second half of the 19th century, called THE WAY WEST. It was, or became in the course of its unfolding, unapologetically regretful about the tragically destructive impact westward migration had on Native American peoples, and in that sense could be counted as advocative. I do think, as well, that our series on the history of New York is, in general, powerfully in favor, so to speak, of New York, warts and all. The most interesting subjects tend, of course, to be complex and intrinsically ambiguous or contradictory; and in struggling to do justice to them, one has an obligation not only to truth but to art and emotional depth and reality itself to present the fully range of that complexity; otherwise the film winds up being less about its putative subject, and more about its maker, which is usually, though not invariably, vastly less interesting.

 

Q: How do you think it would be best to archive for general public viewing all of the details of that tragic day, the stories of hope and horror, of valor and vain, of loss and of pain along with the visual record of these events?

E.G.
Pittsburgh, PA

Answered by Ric Burns:
The New York Historical Society has already embarked on an ambitious effort to archive the historical artifacts and records of September 11th and its aftermath. I think it is crucial that there be a central custodial repository for the immense record that was left behind, textual, photographic, motion picture and otherwise.

 

Q: How much did it cost to buy out all the vendors/building owners to clear the land for the twin towers? What was the final cost of the construction? Did the towers ever achieve 100% occupancy before their destruction?

Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC

Answered by Carol Willis:
What would seem to be a simple and basic question -- What was the final construction cost of the World Trade Center? -- is very hard to answer with authority. Press releases from the Port Authority document the escalating costs from the original estimate of $350 million to $575 million in 1966, to $700 million in 1970. By the opening of the complex in 1973, that number had grown to $800 million. This number was published in the usually authoritative series on New York architecture and urbanism by Robert A.M. Stern and various co-authors, in the volume New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. (New York, 1995), p. 202. However, another careful author, Anthony Robins provides a number almost twice as large: $1.5 billion in his book The World Trade Center. (1987), p. 49. I am still searching for other possible and credible numbers to add to this list.

It's also difficult to determine the value of the land and buildings that were acquired and cleared for the Trade Center site. As Pete Hamill described in the film, there were Polaroid prints of the low-rise commercial buildings, for example Cortland Street and Radio Row, were still in the Tower 1 offices of the PANYNJ executives responsible for the managing the twin towers. I saw them in the summer of 2001, looked through them quickly and planned to set up an appointment for later study. They were destroyed when the towers fell.

An arcane planning report issued by The New York City Planning Commission, "The World Trade Center: an Evaluation, 1966," contains a map and an analysis of the tax assessments for all the properties on the 14 city blocks that became the Trade Center site. This is a quotation from that report, p. 23:

The assessed valuation of the site, buildings, and land in 1965 was $18,184,700. Exempt property including City property, at 30 and 50 Church Street (The Hudson Terminal Buildings) total $15,328,000. Land values generally exceed the value of the structure on the land.*It is estimated that the public lands which would be acquired by the Port Authority would total a net of more than 200,000 square feet.

Finally, yes, the twin towers were full in the summer of 2001 when the vacancy rate was about 3 percent, a number that is considered fully occupied for in any commercial building given the regular changeover of leases. Of course, at 3 percent, the vacancy of the giant towers with some 9 million square feet was around 300,000 square feet of vacant space--a good-sized high-rise in many downtowns.

 

Forum, Day 2

Q: As you think about New York since the days of the Dutch settlement, do you see it as a rising star or a falling star?

Alex Greening
Belleville, IL

Answered by Niall Ferguson:
I sometimes wonder if New York will one day be like Venice -- a former commercial hub which history has turned into a tourist attraction. I've certainly heard it said that changes in technology and the global economy make it less necessary for major financial institutions to have their center of operations there. Purely from a practical point of view (as I can confirm from my experience) NY is a very expensive location.

On the other hand, Manhattan has a kind of cultural critical mass like no other place in the world. It may well be that the city's future lies more as a cultural center than as a financial center.

Finally, let's not forget that Venice declined precisely because trade across the Atlantic and round the Cape took over from trade via the Mediterranean. It's hard to imagine such a radical change in the direction of commercial and financial flows in our time.

Answered by Mike Wallace:
I think the city has followed two different trajectories since Dutch days, one vis a vis the US, another vis a vis the world.

For the former, we went from being an insignificant urban bump on an agricultural hinterland, to de facto capital of the country, with our power and prestige arguably peaking in the era between the 1920s-40s. During the New Deal, when NY in effect boarded and seized Washington and expanded its powers tremendously, NY's dominance ebbed to a low point in the 1970s and though it rebounded somewhat -- still after all the nation's financial and media hub -- it ain't what it used to be.

As to the planet, the city's pathway was more steadily upward. From being an insignificant backwater of the Dutch empire, it became an important port for the English, then a critical interlink between industrializing Europe and the southern and western American hinterland, then the critical link between Europe and industrializing America, then after World War I a rival to London for status as capital of the nascent global economy, a status confirmed after World War II (albeit in tandem with Washington, center of the military apparatus), and strengthened in the postwar decades as it emerged as capital of an American-based multinational corporate economy.

It's future will be largely based on the fate of that American empire. Should it falter, and Europe's (or China's) star rise, it will be reduced to becoming one of several competing global centers.

Answered by Ric Burns:
I see it as a gorgeous star that has now taken its permanent place in a constellation of stars -- world cities across the planet. The forces -- geographic, economic, demographic, cultural -- that caused New York to rise where it is and to become what it has become are deeply rooted, and although those forces have shifted and fluctuated over time, they show no signs of radically abating or driving the city from the firmament. In the last two decades, of course, it has gone through a remarkable renaissance, one of the most remarkable in urban history, and one that has gone far to erase memories of the 1970s, when it seemed New York was not only a falling star, but an imploding one well on its way to becoming a dead giant.

 

Q: What happened to Minoru Yamasaki, the architect and primary designer of the Trade Center? Is he still alive, and if so, what were his thoughts of 9/11? If he is deceased, could you tell us a little more about this man, and what became of him in the 35 years.

Wanda Whitmer
Huntsville, AL

Answered by Carol Willis:
Minoru Yamasaki died of cancer on February 7, 1986, at age 73, but the architectural firm he founded in 1949 in Troy, Michigan continues as Minoru Yamasaki Associates, Inc. Their website www.m-yamasaki.com/myaintro.html includes photographs of many of the projects that Yamasaki designed across North America and around the world in the years after the World Trade Center.

In 1979, Yamaski published a coffee-table monograph on his work titled A Life in Architecture (Weatherhill, 1979) that contains a long and poignant personal essay on his struggle as a nisei, a second-generation Japanese American to overcome discrimination, to earn his education, and to begin his career as an architect. He was a complex man who emphasized beauty and serenity as his values, but sometimes strained too hard in both his personal and professional life to achieve those goals. An interesting biographical article from the Detroit News with numerous handsome portraits of Yamasaki quotes a description of him as deceptively serene as a sunning panther.

Also see:

Answered by Ric Burns:
Minoru Yamasaki died in 1986, never having quite lived down the impact of the World Trade Center on his career. It had made him, briefly, the most famous architect in the world; it had also been so frequently condemned that his reputation was always shadowed by a building he never lived long enough to see emerge from the clouds of controversy and disdain that followed it. One odd and extremely poignant footnote is that one of Yamasaki's other well-known projects -- the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Project in St. Louis, praised as groundbreaking when it opened in 1955 -- was torn down in disgrace in 1972 in a massive controlled demolition -- having become a national symbol of the worst kinds of failures of urban renewal architecture. Yamasaki thus has the curious distinction of being associated with not one but two large and ill-fated projects both of which fell to the ground long before anyone could have imagined.

 

Q: What does each of you think of the Liebeskind plan and the Mayor's overall plan for Lower Manhattan (JFK train, Second Ave Subway, Water St promenade, etc.) and do you predict a Lower Manhattan renaissance? Would Mr. Burns consider a 9th episode on the WTC/Lower Manhattan rebuilding process?

Paul Vincenti
New York, NY

Answered by Ric Burns:
Like a lot of people, I'm ambivalent about the Liebeskind plan in its current form. It's in play, though, and will continue to be for some time, which is not only inevitable but good. As many have pointed out, the most striking thing about the whole debate over what should be built on the site is not the conflicts and disagreements, but the extraordinary consensus that exists over the most important basic features. Everyone agrees that the template of the World Trade Center will never be rebuilt as it was -- i.e., that never again will so many streets be closed and combined to make superblocks set up above and turned away from the street life of the city. Everyone agrees that the site will be reintegrated into the pedestrian flow of lower Manhattan -- that many of the streets originally wiped away to make the World Trade Center will be restored -- that Battery Park City will be linked in a functional way for the first time in its life to the vitality of Wall Street -- that the hundred year old problems afflicting Lower Manhattan's transportation infrastructure will be finally addressed in a realistic and creative way. Everyone also agrees that the site should be vastly more mixed in its uses than before -- combining commercial, cultural, residential and memorial functions. Most people -- myself included -- also feel that, whatever shape it takes, something very tall, as tall or taller than what was there before, should be built on the site.

 

Q: The interviews in your shows make me feel like I don't want to miss a single word. How do you find so many smart and interesting people and get them to say such profound things?

C.L.
Katy, TX

Answered by Ric Burns:
I'm so grateful for the kind words about the interviews, and very glad that the extraordinary group of people we filmed struck you as they did us. There's no trick to it: if you ask a group of passionate, deeply talented people to sit down and talk with you on-camera about something that matters a great deal to them, and then really let them talk, they'll steal the show every time. There's almost nothing more fascinating than listening to and watching another human being on fire with what moves them most.

 

Q: I once stood in a beautiful 16th century square in Warsaw, Poland, that had been bombed to rubble by Hitler's army -- a birthday present it was rumored. Two large photographs hung on a building in the square. One was of the square the day after the bombing -- not a single building was standing. The other was of the square the day before the bombing -- it was identical to the square I was standing in -- down to the molding. The Poles had rebuilt the devastated square exactly as it stood. It was a powerful message of resilience. I have often thought of this square as I think about what I would like to see built on the site of the World Trade Center. I think it would be madness, but have any of you explored the idea of rebuilding the same structures on the site?

D.K.
Hartford, CT

Answered by Ric Burns:
As time has gone on, and as people have had a chance to reflect over time on the meaning of the events of September 11th and its aftermath, many people have come to sense that building something new, something original and beautiful and appropriate and integrated with the city in a way the Trade Center towers never quite were, might project an even more powerful message of resilience. One way or another, it seems clear now that the towers will never be built in anything like or even remotely resembling there original form. That doesn't mean that many people don't ache to have them back in the deepest way.

 

Q: I'm curious about how the destruction of the Towers has changed people's views about those buildings -- both in an architectural and economic sense. Do you think history will look back at them more favorably now after 9/11, or perhaps more critically?

Meghan Campbell
St. Paul, MN

Answered by Ric Burns:
The World Trade Center arguably went through more viscissitudes and changes of fortune, economically, architecturally, urbanistically and culturally, than any other building in the twentieth century. In its thirty-year history, it was raved about, pilloried, scorned, condemned, admired, hated, rehabilitated, patronised, shunned, accepted, loved and finally pitied. It started life as an awe-inspiring example of visionary urban planning, went on to become the pariah-skyscraper on the skyline of Manhattan, then turned into an economic success story during the financial boom of the 1990's and credited with helping make possible New York's downtown renaissance. The architectural critic Paul Goldberger has pointed out that the response to the World Trade Center has gone through three distinct phases: 1) rejection; 2) grudging acceptance; 3) martyrdom. Because of its size and presence on the skyline, it became the pre-eminent icon of New York; and even those who liked them least miss the towers sorely, for what they stood for, and for the role they played in the life of the metropolis.

 

Forum, Day 3

Q: Is it possible that someone will want to put up new buildings on the scale of or bigger than the World Trade Center anytime soon?

John England
Seattle, WA

Answered by Carol Willis:
Great height and bigness are not necessarily the same thing, although they certainly were in the case of the twin towers, which were the tallest AND the largest highrise buildings in the world, in terms of interior volume. With 209 feet on each side, the towers had floor areas of more than 40,000 square feet, or about an acre, multiplied by 110 twice. Although they were surpassed in 1974 by Chicago's Sears Tower, with its 1450-foot height and 4.5 million square feet of interior space, the World Trade Center towers together comprised about 9 million square feet, by far the world's largest office complex.

Although evolving plans for what seems will be the first tower at ground zero, the 1776-foot Freedom Tower, boast that it will return the title of world's tallest building to New York, a significant portion of the upper section, probably above around seventy stories, will be open structure, not occupied space. The interior volume will likely be around 2 million square feet, or about half the size of one of the World Trade Center towers.

It seems unlikely that skyscrapers of the scale of the World Trade Center or the Sears Tower will be built in the United States again. In the aftermath of 9/11, the fear of tall buildings as targets has been much discussed, and polls do show anxiety in the populous. This in itself would affect what a developer might venture to build or a financier would be willing to loan money for. But the major reasons that building size probably reached the historical zenith in the 1970s are: 1) American cities are decentralizing, especially in employment; 2) zoning laws and often public protests in New York limit the size of buildings; and 3) very tall buildings are relatively more expensive to build per square foot of rentable space.

Both bigness and a yen for height remain goals in other parts of the world, especially in Japan, China, and throughout the Pacific Rim. Just completed in Tokyo is the Roppongi Hills complex developed by the Mori Building Company and designed by New York architects KPF. Though it contains 9 million square feet of commercial space, its major tower is only 55 stories. In Taiwan, a new tower has just topped out that will become the world's tallest, called Taipei 101. It will be surpassed by the Shanghai World Financial Center, also by KPF, soon to be constructed in Shanghai which will exceed 1600 ft with a total floor area of around 4 million square feet.

Answered by Mike Wallace:
On the surface Radio Row was just a wholesale/retail/resale outlet area, bounded by West, Church, Liberty, and Vesey Streets, with its axis along Cortlandt Street. From the 1920s on, its dilapidated old buildings, featuring radios and parts (some obtained from radio operators whose ships docked at nearby westside piers) drew radio amateurs from far and wide to get components to build devices and set up stations. After the second war, Radio Row sold war surplus electronics (equipment that originally cost thousands went for $25-50), televisions, radios, and high-fidelity sound equipment and parts, and particularly an infinite variety of vacuum tubes, the goods piled so high they spilled out onto the street. As late as the 60s the district had the largest concentration of electronic parts and equipment stores anywhere in Gotham.

I suspect, however, it was more than just a consumer outlet area, like Canal Street or later 47th Street, but something of a petrie dish for a then nascent electronics industry. Some important firms grew up there, like that of Charles Avnet, who began selling surplus radio parts in 1921, went on to produce radio antennas during the war for the military, merged with two other Courtland Street denizens, and expanded to become a major electronics company (and then moved away). The area's destruction by the WTC may perhaps have contributed to one of the most puzzling questions of NYC's recent history why California, and not Gotham, became host to Silicon Valley.

New York had long been a leader in the development of new communications technologies. It had crucibled the telegraph, hi-speed printing presses, motion pictures, radio, and tv, and rolled over its primacy with each new invention. As late as the 1950s, Gotham seemed poised to do the same with computers, but it proved to be the invention that didn't bark in the night. Despite the area's pioneering work in transistor development, despite the regional presence of Bell Labs and IBM, despite wartime electronics contracts and a thriving electrical engineering area in Radio Row, it would be Silicon Valley, not Silicon Alley that captured the lead.

To some extent, it may be that New York shot itself in the foot; the World Trade Center's being erected on the ruins of Radio Row was emblematic of a widespread demolition of manufacturing facilities around town and their replacement with office towers, and the city passed up opportunities to develop university-based hi tech engineering centers a la Stanford or MIT. There were many other reasons for New York's faltering, such as the mammoth flow of military contracts that galvanized aerospace development in California, Massachusetts, Texas and Florida, but the future may yet judge that we managed to nip our own computer industry in the bud. And who knows what possibilities may yet be precluded if we throw up millions of square feet of office space downtown rather than diversifying its economy; we may be set to repeat the very same mistakes we made before.

 

Q: It seems like the World Trade Center was an obvious target. Before September 11, do you think Americans had a blind spot to how the world viewed them?

N.F.
Rochester, NY

Answered by Niall Ferguson:
Well, not so blind. On September 15, 1999, the United States Commission on National Security for the 21st Century issued a report entitled "New World Coming." Its conclusion was that, "The United States will be attacked by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction, and Americans will lose their lives on American soil, possibly in large numbers." That the World Trade Center was a likely target was also clear -- it had already been attacked once in 1993. So it wasn't so much blindness, I suspect, but an entirely understandable inability to imagine the precise tactic Al Qa'eda would employ.

 

Forum, Day 4

Q: I can't help but wonder whether the title to this documentary, "The Center of the World" might be part of the very mindset which in part contributed to this terrible act happening. Can we really claim to be the center of the World? What are the implications and effects of truly being the center?

Robert M

Answered by Niall Ferguson:
Of course, to be quite literal, the true center of the world is that molten core of rock which the science fiction writers are so fond of. But Manhattan certainly had and still has a claim to be the center of the global economy. How justified is that claim? Actually, when you look at their respective shares of cross-border transactions, London is a bigger international financial center than New York, which does the bulk of its business with and for other American firms. So maybe the truth is that the World Trade Center was no more global in reality than the World Series. In short, I agree with your suggestion that we should not exaggerate the centrality of New York -- or even the United States -- to the world as a whole. Whether a little more modesty would deflect the hatred of terrorists is, however, doubtful.

 

Q: If the World Trade Center had never been built, do you think the neighborhood would be very different now (Lower Manhattan)? Do you think it would still be the financial hub that it is?

R.C.
Queens, NY

Answered by Mike Wallace:
I think to answer this properly we have to back up a bit and take a longer perspective. New York became the hub of the national corporate economy around the turn of the 19/20th century, when a series of merger movements combined hitherto competing local businesses into nationwide monopoly corporations (US Steel, General Electric, etc). Largely engineered by New York City investment bankers, such as JP Morgan, the new companies were housed right next to the financial houses, in lower Manhattan. Real estate being limited, and the companies seeking to insert their building logos into the New York City skyline, the new corporations housed themselves in ever-taller skyscrapers.

Lower Manhattan lost its preeminence in the 1920s when, in the wake of the great train stations having been opened up in mid Manhattan, far more new construction went up in midtown than in downtown (via Empire State, Chrysler, etc). In the 1950s, David Rockefeller and other remaining downtown bankers and brokers, concerned that their existing real estate capital would be soon wiped out, decided to make a stand. As the film demonstrates, to do this they eventually called in the Port Authority to build the World Trade Center, using public money to shore up their private investments.

But the World Trade Center was serious overkill. While the 1960s conglomerate and early multinational boom did add significant office space downtown -- though again far more went in uptown -- when the economy tanked in the 1970s, just as the World Trade Center came online, it proved impossible to rent, and indeed sucked up tenants from competing landlords. In addition, all through the postwar period, New York City witnessed a substantial decrease in the number of big corporations headquartered here, when, as part of the general suburbanization movement, many moved to Westchester, Connecticut, or out into the country. In other words, the World Trade Center was largely extraneous to the larger course of the financial center's physical whereabouts and, if anything, fostered its ongoing relative decline in Lower Manhattan.

In the 1980s, there was a largely spurious boom, consisting of mergers and acquisitions and shuffling of paper assets, which didn't really rebuild the nation's economy, but did help boom Manhattan's. We were where the casino was; it needed a lot of croupiers; they were well paid, and could afford fancy condos, so luxury housing boomed too. (The rest of the city lived a life of quiet desperation). The 1980s brought another round of office construction downtown, though throughout the boom, corporate headquarters and, increasingly, financial and media institutions, kept leaving lower Manhattan, some for midtown, others for New Jersey, which offered lower land costs and fiscal enticements. The exodus continued despite unsuccessful (but costly) efforts by one city administration after another to slow the departure by, in effect, bribing would-be runaways to stay put with massive tax breaks and other handouts.

It's arguable, though, that what DID happen was that the World Trade Center helped 'brand' Lower Manhattan as the SYMBOLIC financial center, reinvigorating the cultural weight of the "Wall Street" image (along with films like "Wall Street"), at a time when it was increasingly undeserved. This would prove to be a deeply ambivalent triumph, as it also tied downtown and the twin towers -- in the global perceptual marketplace -- to the process of globalization, which was indeed in significant measure being run out of New York City as a whole (in tandem with Washington).

The 1980s profits came not only from paper shuffling, but also from extending the reach of New York City based financial corporations (and media and business support services) out onto the planet, accompanying the ongoing expansion of United States multinationals. And, portentously, the reach of United States oil companies. Read David Rockefeller's Memoirs and Zweig's biography of Walter Wriston, for an illuminating account of the degree to which New York financiers were fostering the expansion of United States oil concerns in the Middle East, a process underway since the 1940s when Texas oil began drying up and Saudi etc oil was discovered. The resulting expansion of American military power into the Middle East, including assorted CIA interventions and backing of local despots (like the Shah and Saddam), may have led many around the world to associate New York City, and in particular its highly visible symbolic center downtown, with policies they hated. (Indeed for a time the capital of global oil markets was in the Mercantile Exchange's auction pits, then located in the World Trade Center). In reality, overall, downtown continued to slip. When the latest boom crashed after 1987, brokers and bankers were laid off in droves, the real estate market collapsed, and vacancy rates in lower Manhattan soared. In the early 1990s, vacant skyscrapers were being condoized, and desperate local boosters were turning to dot-commerce to offset the steady loss of financial sector jobs.

The mid-late 1990s brought another temporary turnaround -- this time even more heavily dependent on the increasing penetration of United States financial capital into so-called emerging markets. Great pools of capital sloshed into and then out of Russia and Southeast Asia, creating rampant dislocations and near global collapse on more than one occasion. Coupled with ongoing American expansion of military (and cultural) presence in the Middle East, it may have been the case that the negative associations the World Trade Center held for Islamist opponents grew steadily, as evidenced (and perhaps accelerated) by the first attack on the towers.

It was perhaps in the 1990s that the World Trade Center became indelibly etched in the global imagination -- incorrectly -- as being central to Wall Street and its policy of globalization. In fact the vast majority of work being done there had nothing to do with the globalization process, but given its size and location, it's not surprising it was taken as the symbolic center of that process. And while many in the United States, and certainly those in command of the economy and polity, argued stoutly that globalization was an unmitigated good, creating a rising tide that would lift all boats, many millions more, around the globe, experienced it quite differently.

In part, again ironically, the World Trade Center's new symbolic potency may have stemmed from the fact that it had finally become profitable. The late 1990s boom generated million dollar bonuses, more luxury housing, and -- at last -- a filling up of the existing vacancies in downtown office space, including the World Trade Center. (Which was then, after it began making money, sold off by the state to a private developer, Larry Silverstein, who put up almost no money of his own). For a (very) few years, it seemed like the original strategy had finally paid off, after twenty years of losses, rather as Rockefeller Center had taken many years to become profitable. It was precisely then that the terrorists attacked.

Make no mistake: those who took down the towers were theocratic fascist thugs, and their murder of thousands of utterly innocent civilians was as close to serving as a working definition of evil as one needs. But it is wrong and counterproductive to assume they did not have their reasons, or that those reasons were some blind hatred of modernity, civilization, liberal culture, freedom, etc. From their perspective, on 9/11, they were attacking the financial (and military) headquarters of an American empire that was, in order to ensure the steady flow of cheap oil to the United States and Europe, propping up governments in the Middle East which the terrorists detested: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. They attacked the symbolic institutional personifications of that empire -- Pentagon and Wall Street -- not the Statue of Liberty or Times Square, as they might have if their animus had been against freedom or modern commercial culture. We must understand this dimension of what we're up against if we are to have any hope of preventing a repeat.

But to return to your question: in reality the World Trade Center was in fact largely irrelevant to Wall Street's position as financial center, and had it never been built things would not, I believe, have been much different. That is because, in truth, lower Manhattan in 2001 was NOT the financial center, and hadn't been for decades; rather it was one of a network of 'centers' -- of which midtown was the biggest, with important outriggers in New Jersey, Westchester and Connecticut. But in the realm of symbols, it might be the case that had the towers not been built, or had they gone up in midtown, the course of events might conceivably have gone very differently.

What about the future? Will the towers' absence dramatically affect downtown's long-term trajectory? That depends in part on how we respond. Remember that in 2001, the 1990s boom had crashed before the trade center attack, precipitating yet another round of layoffs, tax losses, and another crisis for the city and lower Manhattan in particular. Even after the violent subtraction of so much office space there remains a huge commercial vacancy rate down there. And despite spending a small fortune in federal money on handouts to big companies to stay downtown, and to entice others to join them, the exodus has continued, spurred now by fear. There's every chance that with significant infrastructure (especially transport) improvements, and a new strategy (or rather the old late 1980s early 1990s strategy) of diversified development, downtown can hold its own and even flourish. But it's a fantasy to assume it will ever be the financial center again though it will, I hope, remain one of the key hubs.

The danger is that given Silverstein's efforts to rebuild ten million square feet of utterly unneeded (now or in any foreseeable future) office space, we're back to where we were in the 1950s-1960s, when, as the film's beginning pointed out, there were many who warned that the World Trade Center would dump vast quantities of unwanted space on the market. Many in the real estate community know this, but seem reluctant to point it out, lest they cross Governor Pataki, who appears to be staking his hopes for a post in the next Bush cabinet on showing the assembled Republican conventioneers that he's a can-build kind of guy.

The only way out of this looming mess, it seems to me, would be for the state to exercise its authority and condemn Silverstein's lease and the Port Authority's ownership, and allow the city to take control of development (using the proceeds from the insurance settlement, which would then not flow to a private leaseholder in one of the great unearned windfalls of this history of the world, but to the city itself). Bloomberg has presented some interesting programs for diversified development, but seems unwilling to challenge Pataki, which seems essential if they're ever to get built, and in any event his administration appears to be far more interested in developing (overdeveloping?) the far west side of Midtown. For all the encouraging outburst of citizen participation in the rebuilding process, which blocked the original six designs and led to some decent architects getting involved in the process, the wheels of real estate business seem to be grinding on as usual. Only the intervention of an aroused public is likely to make a difference.

 

Q: I think the tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, had such a huge impact on the World Trade Center. His seemed to have ignited public interest in the towers. Do you think the towers would have been viewed differently had Petit never walked the thin line?

D.E.
Plymouth, MA

Answered by Mike Wallace:
It's my personal opinion that Petit's impact and importance is being wildly overblown. It was a nice gesture; no doubt some, even me, looked somewhat more kindly on the structures after that; but it didn't alter the fundamentals. That the megaliths were wildly unpopular, that the windswept plaza remained a barren barrier, that the entire penchant for towers in squares of which the WTC represented a kind of berserk apotheosis remained wildly out of fashion. It wasn't until they came down that their stock went up. And while I applaud the in-your-face-Osama attitude that wants them rebuilt brick for brick, I think that's a decidedly minority opinion, even now.

 

Q: In building skyscrapers, what measurements in safety exist today that did not during the time of the Trade towers? Since 9/11, have new safety tests been created for future building projects?

D.S.
St. Paul, MN

Answered by Carol Willis:
The question of skyscraper safety has been a continuous concern of engineers and architects, and there have been a number of innovations instituted in the crop of new towers in Asia and the Pacific Rim in the past decade. For example, in Hong Kong, where high-rises are now the standard form of construction, buildings must have a refuge floor every twenty-five stories, that is, an empty floor designed to resist smoke accumulation that would afford a place for rescue. Many stairwells are pressurized, and dedicated firemen's lifts are required. In response to 9/11 concerns, it has been reported that some architects have enlarged or added stairwells.

Many of the new Asian supertall towers employ a steel-concrete composite structural system which some engineers believe would better resist the explosive impact and fire of an airliner crash. We hope this theory will never be tested, as it is obvious that the only acceptable solution is keeping planes from being used as missile bombs.

In the United States, in response to 9/11, The National Institute of Standards and Technology has undertaken a major two-year study of the structural failure and collapse of the World Trade Center and will develop practical guidance for future safety measures.

Also see:

 

Q: You're New York Series is wonderful! I hope Episode 8 won't be your last installment. Will you consider adding more episodes in the future?

A.S.
Williston Park, NY

Answered by Ric Burns:
I'm so glad you liked the series, and enormously appreciate the kind words. While I would never rule anything out, however, I think we've reached the end of our own long road, after eight episodes and seventeen and a half hour film. I'm sure many people will be glad to know that, and only wonder why we didn't quit sooner. I also know that after more than a decade of work on the city, I'm more enthralled and interested and moved by it than ever before. It's literally inexhaustible as a subject of source material. But for now, it feels as if our work is done.

 

Q: I have to imagine with a topic as large as New York City, you must have had tons of images to sort through. How is that process? What criteria do you have when selecting images?

L.D.
New York, NY

Answered by Ric Burns:
There are arguably more images of New York City than there are of any other phemenonon, natural or manmade in the world. So going into it you know you're going to be overwhelmed and that in most instances you won't be able to exhaustively research every image. Over the decade during which we worked on the film, an incredible group of people headed up and carried out the still and motion picture archival research for the project. The selectionprocess -- or rather the criteria employed in the process of doing the research are multiple and vary. Sometimes you're looking for images that simply document a fact: here's what it the original Commissioner's Plan that first laid out the grid system of Manhattan looked like when it was published 1811. More often, however, the image doesn't just illustrate a fact or parallel the narration, but rather has its own power -- graphically, emotionally, narratively, symbolically. The best of all possible world's are images that document a fact and yet that resonate on many other levels at once -- so that the image does two or three or four or five things at once.

 

Q: I would like to know if there was a lot of discussion on whether or not to use the video of the people jumping/falling from the World Trade Center. I found it to be very powerful and chilling. I also think it captured something that people should know about the horror of that day, but I'm guessing there must have been some editorial discussion about that content.

Chris Russell
Huntsville, AL

Answered by Ric Burns:
Every frame of a film is fretted over, but we spent more time, inevitably, thinking about and debating those terrible scenes than any other in film. In the end, we came to feel as you do: that we simply could not pull away from the horror of the day, and had to convey some sense of how terrible things were.

 

Participants

Ric BurnsRic Burns
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ric Burns is best known for his epic series, New York: A Documentary Film. His other American Experience films include Coney Island, The Donner Party, The Way West, and Ansel Adams.

Niall FergusonNiall Ferguson
Historian Niall Ferguson holds the John E. Herzog Family Chair in Financial History at New York University's Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000.

Mike WallaceMike Wallace
Historian Mike Wallace won the Pulitzer Prize for the book he co-authored with Ted Burrows, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. He is the founder of the Gotham Project for New York City History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Carol WillisCarol Willis
Architectural historian Carol Willis is the founding director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York City and author of Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago.

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Rosalind P. Walter
  • New York Times
  • The Overbrook Foundation