Behind the development of the World Trade Center -- from the mid-1950s, when it was first conceived, to the mid-1970s, when it finally opened to the public -- lay a dramatic, even tectonic shift in the understanding of cities. To a startling degree, that shift was charted in New York, where the two decades were marked by an immense debate about urban planning -- a sharp and sometimes bitter controversy that would have crucial consequences for every city in the nation and around the world. In the end, no single structure would be more of a lightning rod in the controversy than the World Trade Center itself, whose meaning and significance would entirely alter in the decades between its inception and its completion.
The original plans for the World Trade Center, as proposed in the early 1960s, were different in many respects from the final scheme. Among other things, the project was first located along the East River, not the Hudson, and contained no building taller than 70 stories. Yet the underlying principles remained unchanged throughout. Like every large-scale development project of the time, the Trade Center strictly followed the principles of "urban renewal" as they had emerged in the United States in the years following World War II.
Rising Out of the City Grid
The process began when the project site was leveled. Not only all the buildings, but all the streets and sidewalks were eliminated entirely, replaced with "superblocks" encompassing several existing blocks. On these superblocks would generally rise a new landscape of buildings and plazas that broke free completely of the city's traditional street grid. At the World Trade Center, as it was presented to the public in January 1964, two immense towers would rise from a central plaza, surrounded by four smaller structures, all placed on a "podium" that lifted the pedestrian spaces of the project above the existing streets of the city -- a layout that conformed precisely to the urban renewal formula then being in vogue across the country (and in developed nations all around the world).
A Critique of Urban Renewal
By then, a new attitude had begun to make itself felt, one which attacked the most basic principles of urban renewal as antithetical to true urban life. That new attitude was crystallized in a landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961 by a Greenwich Village homemaker and part-time architectural writer named Jane Jacobs. Taking aim at urban renewal, Jacobs argued that the life of the city was in its streets, and that in destroying traditional arrangements of streets and buildings urban renewal was not only disrupting the lives of thousands of city dwellers but creating sterile, anti-urban environments that had little or no sense of the excitement, energy, or life that had always been associated with cities.
Opposition to Superblocks
As her message began to seep into the culture, Jacobs translated her ideas into political action, leading the fight to defeat a pair of urban renewal projects being imposed on her neighborhood by the city's longtime redevelopment czar, Robert Moses. In a series of stunning victories, she and a diverse coalition of residents and businesspeople fended off a high-rise housing project intended for the West Village and a 10-lane superhighway that was to slice across lower Manhattan, decimating scores of districts along the way. Her efforts represented the first time that urban renewal projects had been successfully opposed in the United States, and in a real sense marked the beginning of the end of urban renewal itself. Indeed, faced with similar opposition from the businessmen of "Radio Row," the existing electronics district that was to be displaced by the World Trade Center, the Port Authority was obliged to use all the political power and legal resources at its disposal, in order to ultimately defeat the project's opponents and begin construction in late 1966, more than a year behind schedule.
Even as the towers finally began to rise, the ideas Jacobs represented continued to spread and take root, and by the time the World Trade Center finally opened, in the early 1970s, the shift was all but complete. What had seemed a decade earlier like a gleaming exemplar of the new civic order was now condemned on nearly every front for its anti-urban attitudes -- for turning its back on the city, for eliminating all trace of the street grid, and for replacing the complex ecology and multiple activities of the older neighborhood with millions of square feet of office space.
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