Tuesday, May 06, 2008
A River Runs Through It
I stand in the Winter Garden looking down. My back toward the grand stairs and the vast room and the palm trees and the mirror-like polish on the floor and the Hudson River just beyond. It is the 12th of September, four years after, and I stare into the vast site that once held the World Trade Center - now just an odd-shaped concrete tub with trains sliding through a loop inside. Between that place and I West Street buzzes with traffic and this glass wall, so consciously engineered, stands. When this was first created it looked directly into the gap between Tower One and the hotel. A taught skin wrapping an urban panorama. Now it seems more a hastily erected barrier. Crime scene tape rendered in the architecture of our post-industrial age.
It is almost four centuries since Henry Hudson first sailed past this spot on a vast, wide salt-flavoured river that seemed as if it must connect sea to sea. In fact, he might have sailed on this spot, for it was river then. Looking into the Trade Center foundation you can see, quite clearly, where the edge of the island was in 1609. They filled that space in. Then two hundred years later they dug it back out to build the world's tallest buildings. And they took the same dirt and moved it over here. The land is valuable but the river is relentless. Beneath the towers of this World Financial Center pumps hum constantly. And everything being built right now in the empty pit before me relates directly to shoring up those concrete walls that continue to keep the river from re-seizing what was once its bed.
I used to work over there, in that ugly black building. It was a fantastic place to be. We were stunningly lucky. The department had somehow picked up a cheap sublease on these extraordinary offices that had belonged to some bank, and let us move in. The bank had signed a 20-year-deal and merged out of existence the very next year, so were settled in to our dazzling views of the Trade Center plaza for the long haul. But old-timers hated that building. It was built on the site of - the same phrase was always used - "the tallest building ever demolished" - the incredibly beautiful 1908 Singer Building by the wonderfully named Ernest Flagg. The Singer Building didn't ever make it to see the Trade Towers complete, not even to see the steel topped out. It, and its unprofitably small floors in that gorgeous slender tower, fell to the wreckers less than sixty years after completion. It's a fast-paced city you know. There's hardly a moment to be sentimental about the loss of something brilliant in the skyline.
The World Trade Center didn't last sixty years either. Didn't last thirty. Whether capitalism was also the cause of its demise can still be debated. Will still be debated. But it was beautiful as well. Beauty comes in many forms. Hudson saw a beautiful island from the Half-Moon, swathed in massive trees and running with clean rivers, in a bay teaming with fish and oysters. Alexander Hamilton went to what's now Columbia University just to the left of here, on a small rise in the beginning of Tribeca, and he wrote of long walks in the beautiful countryside. It was a beautiful city that welcomed the 20th Century, filled with its new white towers, and a beautiful city that pushed the skyline in the years before World War I - the Woolworth Building, the Singer Building, the Equitable Building. It was a beautiful city that embraced the thin gothic arches of the Trade Center in the 1970s, arches that stretched 107 floors and reflected every mood of the sky.
Behind me a string quartet has started to warm up in a corner of this vast space. The sounds echo richly off the curving roof, off the stone stairs. The instruments touch briefly on great pieces of music, and then three go silent, leaving just the Bach Cello Suite No.1 filling the scene with passion.
And that is too much. So I turn, and walk down the stairs clumsily, and burst through the doors onto the broad plaza by the river. The river flows down from Lake Tear in the Clouds, 4,293 feet above the sea in the Adirondack Mountains. It carves its way through the strongest of stones along the way. It is slightly narrowed, yes, but it remains relentless.
copyright 2007 by Ira Socol