My World Trade Center

First, I want to apologize for something in yesterday’s report. Even though my point was that we cannot blame an ethnic group for the acts of some of its members, I attributed the 1975 LaGuardia Airport bombing, as have some news sources, to members of one such group. I’ve done some more research since into that bombing, and it remains unsolved.

Today, I’ll stick to personal knowledge. Starting at about age six, I used to travel by myself from New Jersey to New York to visit my much older siblings. To get to one, I’d take a bus to the Hudson & Manhattan (now PATH) train station, take a train to Manhattan, walk underground to the Long Island Railroad part of Penn Station, and take the train from there. It was all routine until one day, on the return trip, the train pulled into a different track in Penn Station, and, as I climbed the stairs, I saw — to my horror — sunlight! After years of traveling underground, I had accidentally emerged into the magnificent grand hall of the old Penn Station. I was not pleased and hurried as best I could back to the familiarity of the underground passages.

There’s no need to fear the sunlight anymore in Penn Station. The building has been torn down. All that remains are underground passages.

My high school had classes on Sundays but not on Fridays, so, most Fridays, having long since overcome my photophobia, I’d take the ferry to Manhattan to visit Radio Row, a large collection of stores and stalls selling electronic parts and equipment. The closest equivalent I know of today is Tokyo’s Akihabara. You could find anything from a ham-radio transmitter to a plastic sheet to “Change Your TV To Color;” it had a bluish tint on top, a brownish tint in the middle, and a greenish tint on the bottom. It looked almost as though it worked if a western was on.

I’d spend hours watching the “auctioneers” at Gray’s Discount work the crowds in the style of old-time medicine shows. “Hold your money! You’re willing to pay $5 for this, but I’m going to throw in….”

And then it was all gone: Radio Row, Gray’s Discount, the ferry terminal. They were all torn down to build two giant towers that would be higher than my beloved Empire State Building.

I visited the construction site with morbid fascination. The towers turned out to be as sterile as I’d feared. Not only was Radio Row gone, but so were the small shopowners who’d had businesses in the old Hudson Terminal (the downtown terminus of the H&M trains). They were replaced by chain stores in what was, effectively, an indoor shopping mall. An indoor shopping mall in New York City!

On the Wednesday before the attack, I was passing through the bowels of the World Trade Center with an expatriate Canadian friend. She looked around and made a face. “Ugh. It reminds me of Toronto.” We had just come from Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, walking to the ferry to Manhattan, enjoying the sunshine and the lower Manhattan skyline, including, yes, the gleaming twin towers.

There WAS a plaza surrounding the World Trade Center, but it, too, was largely sterile. There were no stores, and most traffic into and out of the buildings occurred at a lower level. Only recently did the plaza add two features of interest to bring people out of the inner gloom: a memorial to those killed in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and a small farmers market — the latter actually closer to the street than to the towers.

The farmers market was open on Thursdays and, for part of the year, on Tuesdays. September 11 was a Tuesday in that part. Twelve farmers were at the market. All survived, but their trucks and stands were destroyed. The September 29th Farm Aid concert will benefit those farmers and the ones displaced by the temporary (we hope) closing of four other New York City farmers markets, three in lower Manhattan and one (for security reasons?) near the United Nations.

Most people don’t associate New York City with farmers. There are still, I believe, two working farms in the city. Then there’s the beekeeper who maintains secret hives on the roofs of Manhattan buildings. The resulting honey is sold at the farmers market near me.

Honey is a new industry in Manhattan. The city is always changing. Penn Station gave way to the latest incarnation of Madison Square Garden, not exactly an architectural masterpiece. Radio Row gave way to the World Trade Center. Lincoln Center, where I often work, was once row after row of tenements — where “West Side Story” was shot.

There were some things I liked about the World Trade Center. I liked the marble excess of the PATH station and the many huge escalators that connected it to the surface. I liked the outdoor platform of the observation deck because it afforded the best view of the Empire State Building. I liked the chalk signature of Philippe Petit, who managed to rig a tightrope between the towers and walk across; I liked the fact that his signature was preserved on the roof beneath the observation deck for all to see.

When JVC introduced S-VHS and the S-video connection (at Tavern-on-the-Green in Central Park), they used pictures of the World Trade Center to demonstrate the freedom from cross-color artifacts. The vertical stripes of the towers provided better problematic video than Johnny Carson’s striped shirts and suits.

My favorite thing about the World Trade Center was the dirt removed in its excavation. It helped create the land for the World Financial Center and Battery Park City, both much more human. They changed the World Trade Center from a forbidding wall facing New Jersey into the central spires of a giant cathedral of urban life. The World Financial Center and Battery Park City had a riverfront promenade, the beautiful glass Winter Garden (with its indoor palm trees), a marina, and this quotation from the poet Frank O’Hara in bronze letters:

“One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes — I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store, or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

The excerpt is from “Meditations in an Emergency.”

Spellbinding though the sight of the towers collapsing was, they were just buildings. Had the terrorists wanted only to destroy the buildings, they might have attacked on a Sunday afternoon. They didn’t.

The latest figures are 287 confirmed dead and 6347 missing. More than four thousand of the missing have been registered at the official family centers. The numbers are numbing. That’s not good.

Think of one person missing. Think of that one person’s family and friends and how they must feel. Then think of that feeling six thousand times more.

The dead and missing and injured are not numbers. They are not “collateral damage.” They are (or were) relatives and friends and co-workers. They have names.

Mayor Giuliani sounded as though he was on the verge of losing it today, and I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. He was explaining the procedures the city had set up to allow families to get death certificates for the missing if they needed them. A reporter asked for more details, and the mayor’s voice cracked — for the first time I can recall during the crisis — as he explained that it was entirely up to the families. The city wasn’t rushing anyone. The rescue effort was continuing. But, if a family had a need to declare someone dead — perhaps to begin receiving insurance — the city and state would help accelerate the process.

Today was primary election day. My election district usually has superb turnout. If I vote at 8 in the morning, I’m usually something like number 120. Today I voted at about 3 pm, and I was in the low 80s for my party. That surprises me. Was it the rescheduled date? Maybe people were waiting to vote later, when the weather was to improve.

The mayor announced new traffic restrictions today. It’s not over yet.

TTFN, Mark