The World Trade Center's twin towers as they appeared in the New York Times, 1971.

The World Trade Center’s twin towers as they appeared in the New York Times, 1971.

On this somber American anniversary, I’ve seen a lot of coverage of multiple aspects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

As this is Change of Venue Friday, I recall the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center in the southern end of Manhattan. But I’m most intrigued not with the structures as they were viewed on that fateful day. Instead, let’s recall how those iconic buildings were viewed for decades in New York and in the popular imagination.

New York's World Trade Center under construction.

New York’s World Trade Center under construction.

Given how massive the towers were, it’s probably no surprise that they were not uniformly loved by neighbors and others. Their “superblock” design obliterated the human sense of scale that had characterized the neighborhood. That, plus, the elimination of a historic grid streetscape and the razing of many longtime businesses in “Radio Row,” made the buildings’ construction controversial. You can read more about it here.

This was the "Radio Row" neighborhood of Manhattan in 1936. The streets didn't look much different when they were transformed decades later to make way for the World Trade Center (photo via Wikimedia by Berenice Abbott).

This was the “Radio Row” neighborhood of Manhattan in 1936. The streets didn’t look much different when they were transformed decades later to make way for the World Trade Center (photo via Wikimedia by Berenice Abbott).

From a legal standpoint, I was struck by the meager compensation business owners received when eminent domain plowed down their structures to make way for the towers:

“In compensation for Radio Row business owners’ displacement, the [Port Authority of New York and New Jersey] gave each business $3,000 each, without regard to how long the business had been there or how prosperous the business was. After the area had been purchased for the World Trade Center in March 1964, Radio Row was demolished starting in March 1965. It was completely demolished by 1966.”

As you can see in the ad below, the twin towers triggered the creative imagination. They were like columns of Manifest Destiny aimed at the sky.

Everyone involved with the twin towers—even the asbestos industry—took pride in their participation in the building’s construction.

Everyone involved with the twin towers—even the asbestos industry—took pride in their participation in the building’s construction.

I have a cousin who once worked as a waiter at Windows on the World, which was amazingly profitable: “In 2000, its last full year of operation, Windows on the World reported revenues of $37 million, making it the highest-grossing restaurant in the United States.” Fortunately, he was not working there in the early 2000s.

When it comes to iconic but sometimes oversized structures, perhaps I like them most from a distance. A number of years ago, I happened across a terrific poster in a midtown Phoenix vintage store; you can see it below. The artist’s rendition of New York included the towers, but as a backdrop to the vibrant life of the city. That’s how I like to remember the World Trade Center, as a large but ultimately appreciated part of Manhattan. The towers ultimately became a sad part of U.S. history. But they also remain a seminal part of modern urban life.

The twin towers of New York's World Trade Center ultimately became a dominant icon in a city filled with icons.

The twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center ultimately became a dominant icon in a city filled with icons.

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