Divided We Stand

A Biography Of New York's World Trade Center


By Eric Darton

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When the World Trade Towers in New York City were erected at the Hudson’s edge, they led the way to a real estate boom that was truly astonishing. Divided We Stand reveals the coming together and eruption of four volatile elements: super-tall buildings, financial speculation, globalization, and terrorism. The Trade Center serves as a potent symbol of the disastrous consequences of undemocratic planning and development. This book is a history of that skyscraping ambition and the impact it had on New York and international life. It is a portrait of a building complex that lives at the convergence point of social and economic realities central not only to New York City but to all industrial cities and suburbs. A meticulously researched historical account based on primary documents, Divided We Stand is a contemporary indictment of the prevailing urban order in the spirit of Jane Jacobs’s mid-century classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


"Eric Darton's Divided We Stand is a model not only of writing but of citizenship. It fuses analytical brilliance with personal feeling. He shows us how to confront all that has been done to our town, and how to live through it and lay claim to the city as our own."—Marshall Berman, author of All That Is Solid Melts into Air
"A mesmerizing history of how deep-seated struggles over architectural aspirations, economics, city planning and the exigencies of democracy undergird the New York cityscape."–Publishers Weekly
"More than an eloquent meditation on one of New York's most recognizable architectural markers, Eric Darton's Divided We Stand pops with luminous insights into the social, economic, and cultural contradictions of a city and a time."—Stuart Ewen, author of PR!
"A zesty, succinct contextualization of the World Trade Center, its seaminess and semiotics."—Kirkus Reviews
"A riveting drama."—Time Out New York
"Darton brings an uncanny vividness to the building itself . . . it is a testament to his writing that a building so formally disengaged from everything around it could become the subject of a book that informs us so richly about the city."—Choice
"Informative and critical. Darton acutely analyses the political background of the scheme, a pet project of banker David Rockefeller and his brother Nelson."—Times Literary Supplement
"Divided We Stand goes beyond the World Trade Center's iconography to look at its influence on the geography of lower Manhattan. Under that lies another story entirely, one that he tells in rewarding detail: how the combined forces of government and private institutions, money, power, and New York City's changing role in the economy endowed the WTC with such weighty authority."—City Limits
"An entertaining, highly informative architectural biography of New York City's most recognizable architectural structure, critiquing it as a symbol of the disastrous consequences of undemocratic planning and development and charting the history and impact of Manhattan's architecture on international and local life."—Book News
"An amusing and insightful look at urban architecture, politics, and commerce."—Booklist

Free City: A Novel

To Frank G. Jennings and Franklin C. Kehrig;
and to my grandfather Meyer Kroll,
who loved the utopia of the Automat.

It's the home of 9–11, the place of the lost towers
We still bangin', we never lost power, tell 'em
Welcome to New York City, welcome to New York City . . .
—Cam'ron, from "Welcome to New York City,"
featuring Julez Santana and Jay-Z
Since September 11, 2001, innumerable texts have dealt with the World Trade Center's death. The book you are holding is the story of how the WTC was conceived, born, raised, and came to maturity. Written and first published in 1999 while the towers were still standing, its perspective is by nature very different from that of the scores of books and other media created in the aftermath.
This is the "before" book, a cultural history that examines the trade center's origins and chronicles its rise and fruition. It traces the political and economic currents that shaped this extraordinary endeavor and analyzes the motives and actions of the people who brought it into being.
It is, of course, impossible to disregard the reality of 9/11 while reading this book. But given that the book contains no foreknowledge of that nightmarish day, it allows the reader, insofar as is possible, to find her or himself in the presence of the World Trade Center before it was defined by its annihilation. In the following pages, the towers exist as fully alive and dimensional subjects, monumental offspring of the paradoxical energies that defined modern American culture—forces that converged with breathtaking power on sixteen acres of Lower Manhattan in the early 1960s.
This new edition of the original text has been supplemented with an afterword chronicling the run-up to 9/11, the events of the day itself, and their extended aftermath. It thus permits a deeper exploration of a question that only arose after the towers were destroyed: Why did we not recognize how important the towers were to us beforehand? These chapters provide a lens through which to investigate—in a way that would have been impossible before September 11—the crucial relationship between the twin towers and our identity as a nation.
For the latter third of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, while these towers dominated the New York skyline, both the city and the world lay in the shadow of a long World Trade Center moment—a moment that ceased as abruptly as a sudden awakening from a dream.
When I began my research in 1992, I was excited to discover that the planning and building of the World Trade Center represented a turning point in my hometown's life and times. Now it is possible for any reader (even the author!) to see the World Trade Center moment as a threshold between two historical epochs. New York City may have taken the lead in crossing over, but the rest of the world soon followed.
Since 9/11, it has also become clear that the WTC moment's violent endpoint produced repercussions extending far beyond the rain of debris strewn across the Pennsylvania countryside, beyond the smoldering hole punched in the Pentagon's west block, beyond sixteen acres of tragedy and wreckage in Lower Manhattan.
Put succinctly, during the lifespan of the World Trade Center, the United States served, as it had throughout the so-called American Century, as the primary reference point for the world's picture of itself. The towers announced themselves as the power center of the world. With the implosion of the Soviet empire, this assertion became all but indisputable. Americans, among billions of other people, learned to orient themselves in relation to the United States via its symbolic embodiment in the twin towers. Even after Chicago's Sears Tower surpassed them in 1974, the WTC remained dominant in our collective imagination.
Of course, however, "9/11 changed everything." This was repeated countless times in the immediate aftermath, and one occasionally still hears it said today. Certainly in the time span between September 11 and this writing, the United States has seen its geopolitical role transform as other national and regional players assert their own agendas irrespective of our economic influence or willingness to wage war. Did September 11 truly mark the beginning of a new era, or was a large-scale reshuffling of the world order already under way, set in motion decades before? However one answers that question, the attacks of 9/11—and most strikingly, the WTC's destruction—made it plain that circumstances were shifting in extremely unpredictable ways.
For some time too, the game had been changing for the city America shares with the world. Before the advent of the trade center, New York had been both the world's market center and its greatest port. The piers of our waterfronts extended like fingers on a multitude of hands, not to receive charity but rather to exchange wealth with the rest of the world. In some ways, modern New York had resembled medieval Europe's Hanseatic ports: free cities, proud of their independence and possessing both a distinctly urban culture and interests not fully congruent with their host state. Conversely, for many Americans, the city appeared, in flickering TV shadows, as a kind of Very Dangerous Sodom. Suddenly, after the towers fell, New Yorkers found themselves clutched tightly to the bosom of the heartland.
Part of what made this embrace such a curious sensation was that, in a city of skyscraping landmarks—the Woolworth, Empire State, and Chrysler buildings, for example—the WTC never truly fit in. From early on we found ways to express an ambivalence that seemed to go both ways—from us toward the towers, and from them toward us. For example, with their steelwork on the rise in the late '60s, some wag dubbed them David and Nelson, after two of the Rockefeller brothers. The former headed a major Wall Street bank, the latter served as New York state governor. The economic and political teamwork of these two powerful men was instrumental in bringing the trade center into being. And for a time, the nickname stuck. Though it eventually faded, the sense of the towers' alienness remained.
How then, given this odd relationship with the trade center, did the people of New York City fare on and after 9/11? In a word, we were stricken. Massively so. The insult, in all its tragic dimensions, reverberated throughout our collective body-mind with tremendous and far-reaching consequences. It is safe to say that the effect on the city's uniformed services was nearly catastrophic and wrought permanent changes, especially in the time-honored culture of the fire department.
Beyond the event's terrible ledger of confirmed deaths and injuries, the toll among those who worked to rescue people, recover remains, and clear the site continues to rise, and it grows evermore staggering. Nor are we likely ever to know the full extent of the illnesses that the release, over several months, of a stream of virulent airborne toxins emanating from Ground Zero has caused.
At an entirely different level from that of shock and grief came a sense of spatial disorientation. For thirty years, the trade towers had served as hypervisible landmarks for the whole metropolitan area. No longer could we use them to triangulate our location with the Empire State. So it was common to occasionally feel, regardless of what the street signs read, deeply unsure about where we actually were.
Despite Cam'ron's assertion to the contrary, many people fell into a persistent depression, and for some time the whole town felt lacking in "badabing!"—the dynamic and purposeful quality notable even among those newly arrived. I recall in the months after 9/11 watching folks drift along the sidewalk in a seemingly aimless state. It was then too that for the first time the culture of camping out in Starbucks or, its equivalent, going nowhere except online for hours on end seized the moment to take hold. Over time, to paraphrase My Fair Lady, we had grown accustomed to their almost twin faces. And though the mind moves on, it does so faster than the heart.
Would we have been able, given enough time, to fully assimilate the WTC into the fabric of the city? We will never know. But it is worth asking: To whom, prior to 8:46 a.m. on September 11, did the trade center actually belong? This book's operating thesis is that despite many claims of paternity and ownership, these buildings belonged to themselves or, more precisely, to one another. Like Castor and Pollux or Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the towers stood in splendid mutual isolation—divided, yet inextricably bound together—each speaking a language known only to its counterpart. Combined with a physical scale completely out of proportion to anything around them, the towers' doubleness served to reinforce their isolation from the city's everyday life.
The historian, however, is not easily turned away. No matter how impenetrable and self-contained one's subject appears, it nonetheless possesses a lineage and an accretion of particular happenings and circumstances that have shaped its form and drive its internal life. What is the relation between these towers and the land in which they root? This was my question about the WTC from the moment I began my research and one that I increasingly put to the towers themselves. Over the course of nearly eight years, I recorded a history of them that felt so directly transmitted that I subtitled it "a biography."
A year and a half after publication, that history was buried under the weight of an immense and undeniable fact: Its subject had ceased to be. And top of that fact spread an all-embracing factor: The post-9 /11 political atmosphere made it impossible to consider the ruins of the trade center in historical terms. Meaningful discussion fled the field. Like a martyred saint swept up into heaven, the World Trade Center—even as its actual wreckage smoldered for all to see and breathe—had transcended the earthly world.
Compounding this, and literally before the dust had settled, came a blizzard of stories about who had brought the towers down, how they had done it, and why. For every official narrative, a thousand web-driven Pandoran demons flew about seeking terrified minds to prey on. In the absence of reliable information, the towers became an evermore abstract concept, a hallucination even, diffused beyond the give and take of exchangeable ideas. Now, with the passage of time, the historical materials of the WTC are becoming visible once again. As Laozi is reported to have said: Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.
Following the text of the 1999 edition, you will find an afterword drawn primarily from my personal notebooks. Intended to serve as an act of witness bearing rather than a systematic history of the aftermath, it deals neither with the forensics of the attacks on the towers and their collapse nor the Byzantine schemes and power plays of the Ground Zero real estate game and the deeply unpublic planning of the WTC's replacement structures. That material has been and will continue to be amply covered elsewhere.
Taken as a whole, this newly expanded version of the original text offers itself as a time traveler's guide for a journey into the body, soul, and spirit of the World Trade Center—both in its presence and absence. My hope is that these pages prove useful to all who see history as a resource for deepening their connection to the here and now.
E. D., New York City, March 30, 2011

As an architect, if I had no economic or social limitations,
I'd solve all my problems with one story buildings. Imagine
how pleasant it would be to always work and plan spaces
overlooking lovely gardens filled with flowers.
—Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center


Paul Strand, Wall Street, New York, 1915. Human sundials cast early morning shadows in front of the Morgan Bank.


When you're heading downtown to visit the World Trade Center (WTC), you nearly always make a detour through Century 21. Around you echoes a hum of languages, familiar and unknown, as you join the lunchtime crowd of office workers and tourists streaming through the doors. Walking along aisles lined with racks of belts, ties, and umbrellas, you zero in on the designer shirts. Not many years ago this building—a big, blocky deco-detailed affair stretching along Church Street between Cortlandt and Dey—was a savings bank branch. Now, cobbled together with the adjacent building, it's been transformed into a shopper's mecca spanning two-thirds of a city block at the foot of the twin towers. Ah, the shirt shelves have just been restocked. Bingo. Two minutes in line for a cashier and out onto Dey Street you go, shopping bag firmly in hand. Inside it: three chambray shirts and a leather belt, all bought for 30 percent off.
Shopping whets the appetite, it seems, so what to eat and where to eat it? This first part is easy. You buy a hot dog from a vendor on the corner of Liberty and Church—mustard and sauerkraut, please—and skip the $1.50 bottled water they get $3 for at the concession stand on the WTC's observation deck 110 stories up. Now, where to sit amid the surging crowds? Of course! You're on Church Street, and St. Paul's Chapel is only a block away.
St. Paul's is the oldest building on the island—a survivor still standing where New York City began—with a beautifully proportioned Georgian facade of brownstone Ionic columns facing Broadway. But it is St. Paul's ancient cemetery behind the church that you're heading for, where anyone who navigates the serpentine slate path among the headstones can find a bench to sit on and eat in complete tranquillity, just yards from the rush of pedestrian traffic on the other side of the palings. Even with the canyon walls rising around you, on a clear day you may find a patch of sun.
Here, you stare up at the tapering spire of the church, topped with its golden ball and pennant weathervane. A slight shift of your head, and you take in the massive square towers of the trade center, rising in parallel lines for a quarter mile until they simply stop.
A hot dog lasts only so long, and it is the World Trade Center you came to see, up close. So you leave the graveyard and walk diagonally across Church Street, past the pushcarts selling trinkets and souvenirs, past the huge concrete planters that are supposed to guard against car bombs, and up the steps into Austin Tobin Plaza, to where you encounter an entirely different WTC.
From here you can see the Gothic detailing of the towers' closely massed, aluminum-faced columns, stretching upward to what seem impossible heights. Even the skyscrapers surrounding these twins seem paltry by comparison. You look two blocks northeast, toward Woolworth's soaring "cathedral of commerce," relatively modest in its proportions, yet once regarded as the city's most awesome exercise in skyscraper engineering. West and south lies the harbor, but your view is blocked by the twin towers that stand in between. You look up at them again. There is no denying the power of their mass and sleekness. But how much more clearly you could see the city, with its layers of accumulated history, if only these two vast and imposing structures weren't here.
The trick, then, is to make the World Trade Center disappear. This is not as difficult as it seems. Nearly anyone can do it. You don't have to be a terrorist, a demolition expert, or a photo retoucher. You just have to go to the plaza and stand in the right spot. Choose either Tower 1 or Tower 2 and walk right up to it—not to one of its broad sides, but instead, to one of its narrow, beveled corners. Stand about as close as if you were going to have a conversation. Then look straight up. Four million square feet of office space stacked a quarter mile into New York's skyline have been transformed into a thin gray ribbon of highway, stretching into space. With a subtle shift of perspective, you have caused one of the most massive buildings of the modern era to perform its built-in vanishing act.
But if one of the WTC's secrets is that it can be made to disappear, what other kinds of knowledge might the towers hold? If you are going to find out, you will have to explore them, get to know their origins, their habits. You will have to ask them questions about what they are, and would be if they could. And you will have to talk with other people who have lived with and around them. To start by making the trade center disappear, though, seems a good way to begin. Because if you are going to get to know the WTC well—make it part of your own space and time—you must unbuild the towers, cause them to vanish from the landscape. Then it will be possible to rebuild the World Trade Center, story by story.
Suddenly, without warning, the paving stones of the plaza heave up beneath your feet, and a blast of warm, acrid air buffets your cheek. Then comes the sound of the explosion. Seconds later, the streets fill with panicked workers rushing out of their offices, and before long, streams of dazed, soot-streaked survivors begin staggering mutely past. Then sirens shriek as ambulances arrive and medical personnel begin to attend to the hundreds upon hundreds of injured. Police cordon off the blast site as fire engines from every corner of the city converge. The mayor, obviously shaken, steps out of his limousine and is immediately surrounded by reporters. At the perimeter, you take your place among thousands of spectators, peering in mute astonishment.
Before you a familiar scene unfolds, yet different in its details from the traumas of your own time. It is as though by unbuilding the World Trade Center in your mind, you have entered a city that came before it: the Lower Manhattan of September 16, 1920, where a massive bomb, hidden in a horse-drawn carriage, has just blown up in front of J. P. Morgan's Wall Street bank. And here you find that the blast of February 20, 1993, had a long-forgotten twin.


The southernmost tip of Manhattan, encompassing the World Trade Center, Century 21, and Morgan's bank, was and remains a site for the dramatic convergence of elements: earth, air, water, and fire. With the beginning of European settlement in 1626, this play of elemental forces found parallels in the workings out of the city's social development : immigration, slavery, trade, shipping, manufacturing, finance, insurance, real estate speculation. In the early twentieth century, a city of towers—architectural containers for financial institutions and industrial monopolies—grew up on this site, visited more than once by acts of horrific violence.
For centuries before the Dutch bartered with local native Americans for pasturage and water here, the depopulation of the European countryside was already causing people to gather in ever greater numbers in ever vaster cities. With this movement, and its dramatic acceleration in the industrial age, came a definitive shift in the social valuation of land. In the farming economy, buildings had counted for little, for it was in the fields surrounding them that the source of all productive value lay. But in the modern city, land became the launching pad for new vertical economies—derived from the acreage beneath but multiplied by the number of square feet that could be built above. Here wealth turned increasingly mobile and intangible as it wrested itself free from the earth-bound limitations of agricultural or even factory production.
In New York City on the cusp of the twenty-first century, the social imagination had definitively exchanged the symbols of the agricultural economy for a new visual language of wealth and abundance. In Lower Manhattan's city of towers, one gives no thought to the mythic emblems of the earth's limitless fecundity: cornucopia bursting with sheaves of grain, vegetables, and ripe, edible fruit. Instead we imagine bounties of debt, harvests of financial instruments. No longer fortresses or cathedral spires, our towers have transformed into urban silos, overflowing with disembodied commodities.
The rising of this city of towers makes visible the stages in our ascent toward ever more heady strata of finance. As early as 1906, the popular periodical King's Views of New York boasted that "eighteen downtown skyscrapers have an aggregate value of $26,290,000." Already, Lower Manhattan's speculative real estate had taken its place as the commonly recognized bar chart of the city's—and by extension, America's—wealth.
In the nearly hundred years since then, converging economic and political forces have autographed downtown Manhattan's skyline with increasingly ambitious buildings. We may think of their collective mass, soaring from the bedrock, as expressing an outward-turned, supremely extrusive power, urging us higher with unearthly feats of engineering wizardry. Yet our tall buildings, and not least the World Trade towers, also serve as containers for our interior lives: shelters, habitations, and silos of dreams. And each embodies in its particular form the social imagination that gave it license.
Within the compass of their spectacular thrusts, our skyscrapers hold an accumulation, story by story, of the city's strivings, conflicts, and contests for survival and domination. In their design and materials, their scale and proportions, their financing, their intended purposes and ongoing consequences—in the sorts of human interactions that do and do not take place within, among, and around them—Manhattan's commercial spires offer themselves up as a living language of the city's struggles, writ large.
In the aftermath of the explosion in the bowels of the World Trade Center, this language spoke a new story of explicit vulnerability, in which the skyscraper's overawing height merged with the image of the terrorist's bomb that at any moment might detonate in the cellar's depth. Having survived the attempt to destroy it, the World Trade Center added an urgent new layer of meaning to its previous identities: high-visibility business address, sightseeing destination, and tristate landmark. Its towers, proximate yet standing apart, came to embody the irreconcilable yet inseparable relationship between seemingly random, eruptive, and sociopathic energies and the financial district's aspirations toward the realm of limitless profit.
Through its association with terrifying images of ravaged bodies, of mangled steel and concrete, the World Trade Center presents itself as a window blown open into its own biography. What sort of narrative will it offer? To find out, we must sift through the materials that built the twentieth century's city of towers.



On Sale
Aug 2, 2011
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Eric Darton

About the Author

Eric Darton is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Free City, a cofounder of Yomama Art in New York City, and a former contributing editor of Conjunctions. He teaches media, technology, and cultural studies at Hunter College in New York City.

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