This essay is original to "Notablog," first appearing on September 9, 2003—a sunny Tuesday Primary Day in New York City, not unlike another Tuesday Primary Day, two years ago: September 11, 2001.
[REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013]
REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: A TRIBUTE
(or as dubbed by LOR's Arthur Silber: "The Pain of Loss, The Power of Love")
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photo by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
I was 13 years old when those two towers opened officially on April 4th 1973. And I must admit that a part of me was so in love with the Empire State Building—up till then, the tallest building in the world—that I resisted giving my affection to not one, but two new kids on the block. I mean, they were just there. Two nondescript monoliths that, a year later, had already lost the title of "World's Tallest Buildings" to the Sears Tower in Chicago. And they just weren't as inspiring as that Art Deco masterpiece on 34th street and 5th Avenue.
And even if there was a certain charm in seeing Philippe Petit perform his high wire act between the buildings in 1974, I was positively livid when Dino DeLaurentis had the gall to film a re-make of the classic "King Kong," placing the giant ape atop the World Trade Center, rather than the Empire State Building. Of all the sacrilege!
But the film must have been an inspiration to George "The Human Fly" Willig, who decided to scale the North Tower with homemade climbing equipment in May 1977, right up to the roof!
It was around this time that I made my first trip to the observation deck on the 110th floor of the South Tower. It was just the kind of tourist-y trip to help defrost my cold, cold heart. I'd make many more trips back to that observation deck—with its breathtaking views of the city skyline—and learn to like that which I had previously scorned. I even conducted tours to the WTC as Assistant Orientation Director when I worked in the NYU Office of Student Affairs. I still visited the Empire State Building, of course. But the WTC was growing on me.
By the early 1980s, my brother Carl Barry (nepotism aside: a terrific virtuoso jazz guitarist) was performing in the Hors D'Oeurverie lounge, right next to Windows on the World restaurant (on the 106th-107th floors of the North Tower). Each night, he'd play in front of the rich and famous—for the likes of Imelda Marcos, Van Cliburn, Mayor Ed Koch, and Frank Perdue. And there I'd be, on occasion, listening to great music, sitting at a table with someone special—the shimmering lights of the city reflected in our romantic gazes. There was simply no better place to fall in love. You'd look out one window and see the tiny flicker of Lady Liberty's torch. You'd look out another window, and see the majestic Empire State Building, still standing tall.
But my brother never felt very safe up there. The building rocked with the wind, he said, and it was a tough ride down when, on September 9th 1981, lower Manhattan experienced a blackout due to a Con Ed generator explosion. And then there was that night that he saw the face of a pilot in a plane, which, in actuality, had come mighty close to the towers while Carl played his guitar.
By the time that bomb went off in the North Tower garage on February 26th 1993, we all knew that these buildings had come to symbolize so much of what made New York great. That's one of the reasons they were targeted. It's the kind of thing that led the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand to write in The Fountainhead, fifty years earlier, that New York's skyline was "the will of man made visible." She wrote:
"Is it beauty and genius people want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see this city from my window—no, I don't feel how small I am—but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body."
I just never thought it would come to that.
In March 1999, I met journalist Jeff Sharlet of The Chronicle of Higher Education in the lobby of the North Tower. He was doing a story on how Ayn Rand had finally caught the attention of scholars, and could think of no better place to conduct an interview with one of those scholars, given Rand's paean to the skyscrapers and to those who had created them. And so, I returned to Windows on the World that day, for several hours of discussion with those glorious sights all around me.
A few days later, on the Ides of March, photographer Don Hamerman took me to the roof of 22 Cortlandt Street, and took photographs for the Chronicle from 40 stories up—the Twin Towers framing my body (see the photographs here and here). He asked me to give him my best windblown "Gary Cooper impersonation"—Cooper having portrayed architect Howard Roark in the King Vidor film version of The Fountainhead—but those March gusts were nearly unbearable, and I could hardly keep my eyes open.
Still, damn. It was fun.
Every time I took a visiting friend on a mini-tour, I'd photograph the WTC—from the Staten Island Ferry, from the 69th street pier in Brooklyn, from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Not a week before 9/11, I picked up one of my friends at Penn Station, and as we drove in front of the Towers, en route to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, we strained our necks to see the tops of those structures. No matter how many times I saw that site, my awe never went away.
I was scheduled to go to Yankee Stadium on Monday, September 10th 2001, to see the Yanks play their long-time rivals: the Boston Red Sox. But the game was rained out. I would have driven past the WTC that night. So, when I awoke on the morning of September 11th, I was convinced that Murphy's Law was second only to the Law of Identity in significance. "Sure, it's a beautiful day today," I said. "Why wasn't the sun shining yesterday?"
Not a few hours later, that brilliant sun was blotted out. So too were nearly 2,800 individual human lives—some of whom were my colleagues, friends, and neighbors. The wind had carried black soot and gray human ash—along with a sickening smell that would linger for weeks—right onto the street outside my home.
* * *
Two years have passed. Just as we act by the adage, "Life Goes On," so too do we appreciate the adage: "Never Forget."
Through all this time, I've also never forgotten my first love. I still have the Empire State Building. It's the tallest building in New York City. Again.
But growing up in the 1970s, I learned that the love for one building—just like the love for one person—doesn't diminish the love for another. Because, as clichéd as it sounds, love really is boundless.
Today, there is still a hole in my city's skyline. It's just not as big as the one in my heart.
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