Before and After
Those silhouettes in the sky, they took some getting used to. It took a lot of time and special moments. One day they finally belonged. Somehow they became the heart of a nation, and a beacon of community in a world starving for connection. Their presence would mark the end of the isolation of the past, and the beginning of a glistening, confident way forward as one world. But it became a mirage. Blurred by an event so rare, so unimaginable, that decades later there still has not been a way to fully describe it’s impact on humanity. It’s simply that there was before, and there was after….
There was before….
“Two monoliths, beyond all scale. There is no end, instead it becomes sky, a limitless runway to heaven.” -Philippe Petit
It was 1999, a beautiful sunny winter day in New York City. We were at the indoor observation deck on the 107th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center. At the time, one of the highest observation decks in the world. I had always been fascinated with the twin towers. After several trips to the city over the years, I was now getting a chance to see them up close for the first time. I can remember walking up to them from street level. There they were in all their architectural glory. Looming, towering, brash and confident, laying claim to the sky in their dazzling pinstripe suits. The towers were showing off that day for all the small town tourists like me.
Born of the gravity eluding momentum of the age of the space race, the goal of the time, was to build the world’s tallest building. But even that was not enough, there would have to be two. Who but New York would have the audacity? It would be the largest steel construction project in history. It faced every setback in the book. Lawsuits, skyrocketing costs, dismal public opinion, protests, technical setbacks and seemingly impossible logistical hurdles. Yet somehow, as if there was some subconscious understanding of the importance these towers would have to the city and the world, the project persisted, in a mobilization that would be compared to the building of the pyramids of Giza and the Panama canal. The aluminum, concrete and over 200,000 tons of structural steel needed for the towers was produced by factories from across the country. California, Washington, Missouri, Texas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, it seemed nearly every state had a hand in their construction. They were America’s towers, to be shared with the world. An army of construction workers, young hot shot engineers wielding only clip boards and pencils, Italian designers with rolls of blueprints, legendary steel workers from Newfoundland and the Mohawk Indian tribe, seasoned locals, the birth of the World Trade Center was as diverse as the city itself. Yet it was a daunting undertaking for the saltiest of veterans. Even the over 500 steel workers, the elite daredevils of high rise fabrication, had never been this high. The dizzying scale, the vertigo inducing drop, the sway in the wind, they often found themselves needing to get their bearings once back on solid ground.
The genius of the design was mostly lost on New Yorkers. The towers were seen as exorbitant monstrosities that would pull the city into bankruptcy. Not just one blocky, cumbersome, audaciously high building, but two. They would stand half empty and unwanted for years. Wretched excess and misguided ambition, at a time when the city couldn’t even pay its bills. In reality they were futuristic, innovative structures, lightweight yet strong, built in record time, to dominate the skyline like nothing before. The early 1970s, the dawn of the interconnected age. Humanity needed a symbol, a headquarters, a mighty castle unlike anything the world had ever seen, to shelter the bold new era of global cooperation. Amid the squalor of a struggling city; concrete, steel, aluminum and glass come together in perfect symphony, and the twin towers rise.
They eventually led to the cultural and economic rebirth of New York and became an American icon and a symbol of the United States as a global superpower. Their twin crowns, the Windows on the World restaurant on the north tower, and the observation deck on the south tower, would become universally beloved attractions. The final spit and polish work wrapped up in 1976, just in time for the Bicentennial celebration. A season aglow with excitement- fireworks, visiting presidents and dignitaries. Hundreds of tall ships paraded by the sparkling new towers, fitting sentinels presiding over a grand spectacle of American splendor and freedom. I was 2 days old. The twin towers, my contemporaries, what a grand entry we made.
Entering the south tower, amid the iconic steel tridents of the lobby, we joined the teeming current of humanity, 50,000 on any given day, who coursed throughout the soaring pillars, New York’s beating heart. The elevator had to have been the fastest in the world. In what seemed like seconds, we were at the observatory. I stood with my toes against the glass. The landscape, a 1,300 foot vertical drop, eventually bringing the view of the sprawling city to a dizzying landing as it fanned out into the horizon. Even the tallest of buildings looking like toy models below. Typically the tallest skyscrapers must yield to the laws of physics, gravity and wind loads and taper their width as they climb. But not the towers. They unabashedly owned the sky with the same massive circumference at their highest floors as their footprints. Atop the mighty castle, rivaled only by it’s twin, it felt like the crown of the city, the top of the world. Were I standing at the edge of a vast canyon, an untouched wilderness or a snow capped peak, it would all be the same. To me the twin towers were the only creation ever built by man that could rival the majesty of nature. The window was terrifying. I began playing cat and mouse with it, looking down, gasping, then running back away from the windows, laughing, going back to the edge, then running back again over and over, my future mother in-law laughing at me as we playfully experimented with our fear of heights. That memory now has utterly chilling overtones; amplified by the weight of history.
Our visit to the south tower was brief and exciting. Yet in that moment there didn’t seem to be anything exceptional about it. How could we have known at the time how special that day would be? How could we have known we were getting a chance to experience one of the most important historical landmarks in U.S history? I assumed we would be back again someday. But the series of actions that would lead to that unbelievable day 2 years in the future, were already in motion. The towers had been a target for a while now, even as we stood there, on the 107th floor.
In 2001, at nearly 30 years old, the twin towers were still a stirring sight. More than ever. At nearly full capacity, they were at the height of their success. The city and the country had embraced their rags to riches story, and the world had accepted them as the invincible symbol of capitalism, democracy and globalization. Standing proudly in their hard fought role as the pinnacle of the New York City skyline. Their image was everywhere. This worried some…
It was a sunny Tuesday in early September. It wasn’t 9/11 then, it was just Tuesday. An early morning in the waiting room of an auto mechanic outside of Boston. A wide eyed newly graduated, newly engaged 25 year old, I only half paid attention to the north tower smoking on the live TV coverage. I didn’t think much of it. Like most people, I assumed a small sightseeing plane had hit the building, in perfect weather. It was going to take a while to fix that hole! Surely this wasn’t the first few minutes of a world changing forever. The thought never entered my mind. It seemed like just another strange news story. It was sheer coincidence that I happened to be looking at the screen when the collective gasp heard round the world put a spell on all of humanity. Or was it a hallucination? Another plane. The realization hit like a shock wave across the globe. The instant the world knew that the unthinkable was happening. An unknown enemy was going after a seemingly impossible prize, not just U.S soil, but the most important city in the western world. And what was the center piece of this city? What stood out above all else? The beloved symbol of a city that embodied diversity and tolerance. The mighty castle that represented global cooperation. How psychologically devastating would it be for the western world to lose this? Along with thousands of lives, in the most dramatic fashion conceivable. Witnessed by millions on live TV. Over the years I would see footage of this unbelievable moment replayed countless times, and it still doesn’t seem real. But there was nothing like seeing it as it was actually unfolding, with the full brunt of shock and helplessness. Then deep down the first realization of the magnitude of the moment. Everyone in the garage flooded into the waiting room where the TV was, mechanics, technicians, arriving customers, a handful of strangers suddenly experiencing this incredible moment in history together. Of course at the time we didn’t even know where it was coming from, or how much worse it was going to get. The new century and the new millennia couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start.
It felt like my back yard. Two of the terrorist had driven through my hometown the day before on September 10. The world suddenly seemed so small, and every stranger I came upon that day felt like family. All afternoon and evening our cell phones didn’t work, as the fledgling cellular infrastructure was taxed beyond capacity. How could a day like this happen amid such normalcy? What vendetta did history have with such a sunny day? As night fell I realized that I hadn’t even taken the time to check the date, It was still just Tuesday. I looked over at the wall calendar- The 11th…..
There was after….
In the weeks, months and years following that day, there was intense mourning for the loss of life. Denial and disbelief lingered, and psychological wounds that would never heal. But something else was happening. The towers were still doing what they had always done, inspiring us to think of them as more than just inanimate objects made of steel and concrete. They would not sink to the distinction of mere skyscrapers, or rise to the inflated image of the center of the world. They were wondrous, but ultimately they were something more nostalgic and intimate. They were old friends. Something recognizable, something familiar, something comforting and amazing at the same time. They were alive with personality and energy, and millions of people were doing something unexpected. They weren’t just mourning the people, they were mourning the towers.
The Port Authority once called them the first office buildings of the 21st century, meant to springboard the country into the new millennia. Yet with barely a toe into the new century, the towers were gone, along with thousands of lives. As the world attempted to move on, much of it remained gripped by a painful and persistent nostalgia for an alternate reality where 9/11 never happened. In the month after the 20th anniversary of that day, I returned to the World Trade Center site for the first time since my visit to the south tower so long ago. We approached what was once ground zero. What was once the very spot where we stood looking up, trying to find the sky somewhere beyond the seemingly infinite facades. Now two cascading voids. The scene so strange and new looking, yet the placement and shape of these huge waterfalls, devastatingly familiar. Why, in the middle of the most valuable real estate in the country, were the footprints of the towers still preserved? If not to hold on to something so precious, it can never be let go. Will sorrow ever abandon this place? Will the ghosts of the towers always be here, rising from the space still preserved for them? The names of those lost circle their perimeters. The air above, protected for memory to do it’s magic. To recreate the plaza, the steel tridents, the sky lobbies, the distant rooftops, the highest floors, the people in them, the world Before...
“Of all the epithets hurled at the Twin Towers, the most frequently repeated was "arrogant." they were the “arrogant twins” -Village Voice
Giant filing cabinets, boxes in the sky, artless eyesores, barren- windswept and unwelcoming. That is what New Yorkers thought of the twin towers in the 1970s. Their status as an adored symbol of global unity, wasn’t their birthright. They had to earn it. How did these buildings, once the most hated structures in the city, become a universally beloved symbol of not just New York, but America itself? It was the little things…. Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk between them. The daredevils who followed. The views from the restaurant in the sky. The images of the towers in over 100 movies, the countless family pictures taken from one of the world’s highest observation decks. The unique space between them, constantly shifting and changing their dynamic. The dual reflecting sunsets. The timing of their construction amid a period of urban decay. It was the big things. The day a bomb exploded in the basement. And the biggest day of them all. The one that everyone remembers. Everything about the towers story is unique, dramatic, and captivating. Indeed the twin towers were and are probably the only buildings in the world with such power to pull at the heart strings. Who today can look at images of them and not feel something? Sadness, longing, excitement, regret, vulnerability, strength, pride, fear, patriotism, wonder. Buildings don’t provoke these feelings. But the towers do. Their story will always be intertwined with that one morning, but their story is also more than that.
“It is all too grand up here. I know I will be back, to be alone with the towers.” -Philippe Petit
On the evening of 9/11, members of Congress returned to the steps of the Capitol building they had evacuated earlier that day. Arm in arm they began a tearful, impromptu chorus of “God Bless America”, in a moment that would signal the beginning of a period of national unity not seen since bombs broke the silence over the peaceful beaches of Oahu 60 years earlier. Yet this period of time, amid the jagged shadows of ground zero, would be entirely unique in the history of the American experiment. America the ruined, America the broken, America the dear friend in need, in a global family. The outpouring of support from across the world humbled us, as did the national unity of a snapshot in time that can often feel like a bygone era.
In the waning decades of the 20th century, the twin towers were the quintessential symbol of the modern age. Relevant and inspiring, they were the embodiment of the American dream, realized in shining steel. The sky was the limit, but that too could be reached, in a 50 second elevator ride to the observation deck of the south tower. I often remember myself in that place that can never be experienced again, never returned to. Standing 107 stories above the city, in the world before, smiling and laughing. I will claim that tiny molecule of history, that I got to experience some of that wonder first hand. An entire generation has now grown up with no memory or direct experience with the towers or the world before. For them it is only history. But history is alive. With enough imagination, they will be able to stand in that spot in the city, look up and see fearless steel workers hanging over the void one thousand feet above. A sky high celebration in a restaurant with a view. A herd of giddy tourists gazing over the edge of the precipice. The tiny speck of a wire walker, balancing between those silhouettes in the sky.
For me, memory is enough to daydream the towers back to life. Those airy twins. Striking and compelling, daring us to take that elevator ride, to witness those skyward views, to behold the world Before, from a stage like none other.