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New York Transformed.

by Mark D. Johnson
September 22, 2001

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Gone_Mark D. Johnson-New York Transformed. In 1967, a book was published called Lost New York, by Nathan Silver, who had gathered old photographs of architecturally significant buildings that once graced New York City but no longer stand. The old Penn Station, the original Madison Square Garden, landmarks from two World’s Fairs. Most of these structures fell to either fire or the wrecking ball. It is a sad book to leaf through, knowing that such beauty and accomplishment is gone forever, and all we’re left with is pictures and memories. The author updated the book just last year, but surely the next edition will include the World Trade Center, adding the saddest chapter yet.

The loss of human life that accompanied the destruction of the Twin Towers is infinitely more difficult to grapple with than the loss of those buildings as landmark architecture, but the fact that the WTC was a target of terrorists is evidence that they were in an elite class of symbolically important buildings in the country. They were impressive in many ways, from sheer height to engineering feat, but they were not the elegant works of art like those that appear in the pages of Lost New York. They were steel and glass boxes on the grandest of scales, characteristic of the no-nonsense skyscrapers that flourished in the 1970’s to the dismay of architecture critics.

Yet somehow, they were beautiful - not in the details that adorn masterpieces like the Chrysler and Woolworth Buildings – but in making the most impressive skyline in the world even more distinctive. Looking at Lower Manhattan, one’s eyes were automatically drawn to them. With their mighty presence at the southern tip of the island, they provided balance to the towers up in Midtown, and a picturesque backdrop to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. And we realize now their weight as symbols of economic power and prosperity for the entire nation.

It goes without saying that the skyline is not the only thing to have changed in New York following the tragedy. When I visited the city last May, I witnessed a remarkably vibrant Manhattan, brimming with confidence, and it was easy to see why so many consider it the greatest city in the world. It seemed invincible, having shed its former image as a crime capital, maintaining a highly-visible police force and clean streets, thanks in large part to a mayor who, earlier this year, was under fire for his criticism of art and an embarrassing public dispute with his wife. Today, this shaken city faces new fears and embraces Mayor Giuliani, as he so impressively leads his city through its darkest hour. This town, that had so much energy in May with so much to offer, is now seeing sagging Broadway attendance and half-empty hotels as tourists shy away and with locals in no mood for a song and dance.

New Yorkers are renowned for their toughness, ever so proud of their street-smart sensibilities and straight-forward talk, but now they have reportedly found it in themselves to say “Please” and “Thank you,” a recognition that they live in a fragile world after all, and that there is room for kindness in a city badly wounded. Instead of being outwardly tough, they are forced now to become more inwardly tough, resolved to forge ahead, to rebuild a great city and restore its confidence.

Skyscrapers gave New York the most famous skyline in the world, but this event may have ended an era in which reaching for the sky was a declaration of power and greatness. Most of the buildings appearing in Lost New York are not really missed. They met their end many decades ago, and the city has no shortage architectural jewels left standing. But as New Yorkers now look toward Lower Manhattan, the absence of the Twin Towers will be shocking for years to come. Though the city will undoubtedly grow strong once again and erect new landmarks, the World Trade Center is a heart-aching loss. Gone. But never forgotten.

Comments (2)

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Everett Wilson from Chetek,Wisconsin writes:
September 24, 2001
We have all read a great many pieces about New York in the last 13 days. In my view New York Transformed stands among the best of them.

Everett Wilson

Christine M. from Chicago, Il. writes:
November 18, 2001
Very thoughtful, nicely written. I was moved...I think the towers will be missed more because of how they went down then because of the fact that they are gone. The number of lives sacrificed will flash on people's minds as they look at that empty spot in the sky. Even seeing the towers during credits from rerun Friends episodes makes me shake my head!

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