TALL STORIES (BUT TRUE)
Because It Was There
When George Willig, a toy maker from Brooklyn, used homemade climbing equipment to scale the World Trade Center on a windy May day in 1977, he expected to be arrested when he reached the top, and he was. But Willig had not merely climbed what was then the tallest building in the world. Nor had he trespassed upon the property of the average New York commercial landlord. Willig had conquered the summit of a billion dollar, ten million square foot office complex built and run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA), a bi-state planning agency charged with protecting public funds from diversion into speculative ventures.
But while Willig's stunt brought him instant popular acclaim, the Authority's higher-ups were not amused by the idea any sufficiently venturesome soul could turn the jewel in their real estate crown into an impromptu adventure park. The PA legal department pressed criminal trespass against Willig, then iced the cake with a $750,000 civil suit.
Keen to take up the cause of an underdog getting it in the neck from humorless bureaucrats, the local newsmedia rallied to Willig's support, mercilessly ridiculing the PA for failing to catch the spirit of a city universally renowned for its chutzpah. And besides, Willig had helped Gothamites forget, if only briefly, that New York was in the midst of its most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. He had made them feel triumphant and unafraid. So it took a second publicity stunt, this one dreamed up by PA's top PR man, Sidney Frigand, to put a positive spin on the Authority's edifice complex. In a courtroom sentencing turned media opportunity, Willig copped a tongue-in-cheek plea, agreeing to pay the city a fine of one dollar and ten cents - a penny for every floor he'd climbed.
N.B. There must be peculiar and fortuitous relationship between the Willig clan and the world's tallest buildings. In 1945, George's mother, the future Thérèse Fortier Willig, was working in the Empire State Building when a B-25 bomber, lost in fog, plowed into her office causing thirteen fatalities. George's mom survived. (ED)
Sid Frigand retired from the public relations wars half a dozen years ago, but he still likes to keep his hand in - today is meeting his protégé and successor Mark Marchese for lunch down at the Port Authority's WTC press office. Like most PR practitioners of his generation, Sid started as a reporter, covering sports and local politics for the Brooklyn Eagle. Moving on to the City Planning Commission, he wrote the agency's 1966 report to Mayor Lindsay approving the Port Authority's trade center plan, and pushing the towers over their final municipal hurdle. When Abe Beame ran for mayor, Sid joined his campaign, then worked in the mayor-elect's press office before moving on to the Port Authority.
It's been snowing all morning and Sid is fighting a cold, so he decides to drive downtown instead of hopping the subway as he usually does. He still has parking privileges in the trade center's cavernous basement. Sid is halfway out the door when the phone rings. It's Mark. "Sorry," he says, "I'm snowed under with work - let's meet next week." A half hour later, when Sid has settled down over the newspaper and his second cup of tea the phone rings again and doesn't quit all afternoon - The Times, The News, The Post and all the radio and TV station are dialing the home number of the man who always had the answers. From his living room window, looking down Avenue of the Americas, everything seems normal. A quarter mile above street level, the red beacon light atop Tower One's transmission mast of keeps blinking. No one yet knows how or why, but the basement of the WTC has been transformed into a smoldering crater three floors deep. In its invisible depths, six people, several hundred cars, and the main telephone switching station for Lower Manhattan have ceased to exist. (ED)
Carol looks out the office window, over the plaza toward the skyscraper city beyond. The snowfall outside is light enough to make walking to a restaurant on Broadway a more attractive idea, despite the cold, than eating lunch in the subterranean concourse by the PATH escalators or hiking west across the highway bridge to the food court in the World Financial Center atrium.
She pokes her head into Marina's cubicle to suggest going for a salad at Houlihan's, where from the second story dining room you can see the Georgian facade of St. Paul's Chapel, the oldest building on Manhattan island. But Carol isn't in her chair, she's kneeling on the floor, jiggling the plug on her computer, trying to figure out why the screen has suddenly gone blank. Then the ceiling lights flicker and go out. This is serious, Carol says to herself, this isn't just a blackout - not knowing how she knows, not consciously aware of having felt a slight tremor an instant before. In the wan light streaming through the window, she runs back to her desk and grabs her coat. "Come on Marina," she calls over her shoulder, "let's get out of here."
When they reach the darkened hallway, it is humming with the voices of workers from neighboring offices and illuminated only by flickering cigarette lighters. They file past silent elevator shafts and join a greater stream of workers, making their way down downstairs. The stairwell is rapidly filling with acrid smoke. Seventeen floors to go. Amazingly, no one panics.
When they reach the eighth floor, shouts from below warn them to turn around: the exit door to the lobby is locked. Clambering back upstairs Carol and Marina take refuge in a relatively smoke-free office on the eleventh floor. Crowded together, the suite's occupants debate the merits of breaking the sealed windows as hot, noxious vapors waft up from the climate control vents. All the phone lines are down. Does the outside world know they are trapped in here?
A new refugee arrives with a cell phone and dials 911. For the better part of an hour, his auto redial button fails to find a chink in the persistent busy signal, but when at last a live emergency operator comes on the line, the office explodes in cheers. Sit tight, the operator says, we've got forty thousand people to evacuate. Three hours later firefighters reach the office and guide its occupants downstairs to the safety of the street. Their faces streaked with soot, Carol and Marina walk through the police barricades, towards Broadway, past Alexander Calder's bright red-orange World Trade Center Stabile, now splashed in the carnival glare of whirling emergency lights. Without exchanging a word, they head for the gym - for a shower and workout in the fast fading light of a snowy February afternoon. (ED)
Prior to the coming of the World Trade Center, a portion of the site - then numbered 30 and 50 Church Street - was occupied by the Hudson Terminal buildings, twin behemoths that were, in their day, the largest office buildings in the world. When taken over by the Port Authority, their former owner, the bankrupt Hudson and Manhattan Railroad had nearly completed a multi-million dollar renovation. Of the scores of buildings on the trade center site, the Hudson Terminal twins were among the first to be demolished. (ED)
In the late 1960s, a high-level Port Authority official invited Andrea to tour the nearly-completed twin towers. It was an overcast day and the whole site was illuminated by thousands of incandescent light bulbs. Riding the construction elevator to the summit, the official told her that the WTC's engineering was unique in more ways than one. Fearful of pilfering by workers, and ever mindful of their balance sheet, the PA had designed special light bulbs that screwed in counter-clockwise - impossible to use in a standard socket. (ED)
During the design and building of the WTC, the Port Authority persistently emphasized the humane, Piazza San Marco-like scale of the public space beneath the towers, eventually named Austin Tobin Plaza.
The PA, however, was not the first planning body to fantasize remaking the cityscape of wild and woolly old Gotham in the image of the Serene Republic of Venice. Originally proposed in 1923, Harvey Wiley Corbett's plan to increase the City's traffic potential by 700 per cent [!] was incorporated into Volume 2 of the 1931 Regional Plan for New York and Its Environment:
"We see a city of sidewalks, arcaded within the building lines, and one story above the present street grade. We see bridges at all corners, the width of the arcades and solid railings. We see the smaller parks of the city (of which we trust there will be many more than at present) raised to this same side-walk arcade level and the whole aspect becomes that of a very modernized Venice, a city of arcades, plazas and bridges, with canals for streets, only the canals will not be filled with real water but with freely flowing motor traffic, the sun glistening on the black tops of the cars and the buildings reflecting in this waving flood of rapidly rolling vehicles.
"From an architectural viewpoint, and in regard to form, decoration and proportion, the idea presents all the loveliness, and more of Venice... " (ED)
Another exponentially expanding dimension of the WTC - besides its height and mass - was its cost. When still being planned for the east side, the pricetag was estimated at $335 million. Sliding west toward cheaper real estate knocked it briefly down to $270 million. But by early 1964, when the PA's World Trade Department head Guy Tozzoli ordered architect Yamasaki to "go higher than the Empire State," the twins had jogged back up to $350 million.
In April 1965, when PA director Austin Tobin exhorted members of the Building Trades Employers' Association: "You, the master builders of the most spectacular skyline in the world will not quail - or be daunted - by the inevitable evolution of new structural concepts" the tab had leapt to $525 million. By the time the towers topped out, the PA's official cost estimate had escalated to $800 million - an amount generally regarded as $300 million shy of the true bottom line. But neither figure accounts for the $25 million in yearly graft that city officials estimate the PA paid to construction locals during the building phase. Certainly the trade center's cost was raised significantly by what planners call "occult factors," such as inflation, interest rate fluctuation, construction delays, and sabotage. (ED)
Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, a boldly-conceived 1969 exhibition at the Whitney Museum featured an installation by fluxus artist Bill Bollinger, as well as work by the as-yet unembattled Richard Serra. Bollinger's piece consisted of two large boulders dug out of the World Trade Center's "bathtub," during the digging of the foundation. When the exhibition closed, the boulders were returned to the site to reburied where they had been found. (ED)
Every week in the spring and fall, animal rights activists circumnavigate the bases of the World Trade Center and World Financial Center towers conducting a grim body count. Over the course of a season, they find injured sparrows, black-eyed juncos, woodcocks and brown creepers by the score, as well as several hundred carcasses. The migrating birds are lured by the bright lights. But they become confused by the multiple reflections and crash into the glass. (ED)
Aired for the New York market during the 1996 Olympic games, an AT&T television ad depicted a pole-vaulter springing over a bar supported by the WTC towers. (ED)
During the filming of the '80s remake of "King Kong," a tremendous model of the legendary ape lay supine in Austin Tobin Plaza at the base of the towers. One night, unknown pranksters sneaked past security guards and manipulated its simian digits into a distinctly humanoid gesture. When the crew and cast arrived the next morning, they were greeted - to their astonished amusement - by a World Trade Center-sized "up yours." (ED)
The 1961 zoning law revising its 1916 predecessor made the WTC's tower-in-a-plaza design possible. It took the already-built Seagram Building and Chase Manhattan slabs as a model for height and bulk restrictions. The new zoning map also realized a key element of the 1930s Regional Plan Association (RPA) recommendations for clearing Manhattan's east side of manufacturing uses.
Leading the charge for rezoning in the late '50s and early '60s was a private advocacy group, the Committee for Modern Zoning. Its members included City Investing Corp. chairman Bob Dowling, RPA chairman Max Abramowitz, Time-Life executive and RPA director Andrew Heiskell, former RPA head Paul Windels, urban renewal titan William Zeckendorf, builder David Tishman, John Butts [David Rockefeller's partner at the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association] and Roger Starr, executive director of the Citizen's Housing and Planning Committee. Starr's enthusiasm for reshaping the City did not stop with championing the building of office towers in plazas. During the Lindsay administration, Starr advocated using tax revenues from luxury housing at Battery Park City to finance low-income developments on cheaper land in the Bronx and Harlem. This trade-off helped insure that the riverside enclave built on the Trade Center's landfill would remain largely white and upper middle class, and, presumably, more attractive to private investors.
In the midst of the fiscal crisis of the mid-'70s, Starr, now a municipal housing official, emerged as the point man for a draconian policy initiative that called for the "planned shrinkage" of low-income neighborhoods via the systematic withdrawal of city services including firehouses, schools, hospitals and clinics. In January 1976, in the pages of Real Estate Weekly, Starr suggested, absent any sense of tongue-in-cheek, that the South Bronx be turned into a national park. His loud and public calls for the abandonment of the poor caused such a furor that an embarrassed Mayor Abe Beame was forced to oust him in 1976. Though Starr no longer makes public policy, he is still in a position to influence it as a contributing editor to the conservative urban affairs monthly City Journal.
In the dark days of fiscal crisis though, Starr was hardly alone in propounding "solutions" to urban poverty and, in particular, the South Bronx question. J.M. Kaplan Fund director Joan Davidson proposed transforming the lower part of the borough into an extension of the Botanical Garden. Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker - who, with David Rockefeller "saved" New York from default in 1975 by doubling its debt service - contended that the South Bronx should simply be paved over.
From here, it is not a far leap into the realm of science fiction. In The Futurological Congress, Stanislaw Lem's '70s masterpiece of hallucinogenic fiction, the narrator is invited to "the Bronx" for dinner. But in this hilarious and caustic tale of urban dystopia, the Bronx has long since ceased to exist as an actual place. Its name is now used to designate a chemically-induced delusion of dining in a four-star restaurant. (ED)
When asked by the New York Times about the future of the Port Authority's midtown Bus Terminal, so tantalizingly proximate to the booming real estate of Times Square, Charles Gargano, New York State Governor George Pataki's appointee to the PA's vice chairmanship and the head of the New York State's economic development agency answered the question succinctly with another one: "why not let private industry in to develop what is clearly an extremely valuable property?" And indeed an office tower cantilevered over the unlovely commuter depot will no doubt be built early in the new century, unless the current boom goes bust.
Gargano's career offers insights into the reinvention of political power brokerage in the post-Reagan age of privatization. Born in Brooklyn and trained as an engineer, Gargano became, early in his career a vice president and part owner of J.D. Posillico, Inc., a major Long Island construction firm, In 1981, Posillico was sued by Suffolk County for bid-rigging on a $1 billion sewer project, eventually settling the claim for $315,000. But however fulfilling and lucrative a life in private enterprise may be, for a man of Gargano's caliber, there is always something irresistible about the allure of politics.
Gargano's first job in the public sphere was a short stint in the Federal Department of Transportation. Then in 1993, under the patronage of Senator Alphonse D'Amato, he was appointed director of the Ronald Reagan re-election campaign in New York State. Next, Gargano went to work for his mentor's re-election campaign. His record-breaking performance as D'Amato's fundraiser earned him Reagan's gratitude in the form of the ambassadorship to Trinidad and Tobago.
The Ur-moment in Gargano's Caribbean sojourn occurred in 1990 while he was taking R&R leave on Long Island. A surprise coup attempt by a group of militant Muslims protesting the government's social and economic policies, precipitated Trinidad's capital, Port-of-Spain, into a state of siege. The heavily-armed militants - several of them incongruously clad in University of Florida sweatshirts - seized the state television station and the parliament building, taking the Prime Minister and half of the Cabinet hostage. Ensuing widespread rioting and looting claimed sixty lives.
Returning to the US, Gargano's track record qualified him admirably to head New York's Empire State Development Corporation - at a salary of over $90,000 a year - especially since he had managed to raise $14.5 million for Governor Pataki's election campaign. Gargano was also made a director of the Port Authority, the public agency that built and manages the World Trade Center. Part of his mission there is to engineer the transfer of the WTC into private hands.
Relishing his "Mr. Ambassador" honorific, Gargano continues to serve as a Republican party fundraiser, though he is simultaneously in the position of awarding millions of dollars in state contracts. One case in point should illustrate how the latest twist in this time-honored political game plays out. A Rockland County developer, frustrated by several failed attempts to build a mall, contributed $25,000 to the Republican State Committee. After phone calls from Gargano to two state agencies, the project was cleared. A month later, the developer sent Governor Pataki's personal campaign fund a $3,000 contribution. (ED)
So charged with a thousand distractions is the atmosphere of midtown Manhattan that the casual shopper, ice skater or passerby might miss the credo of John D. Jr. (David and Nelson's father and Rockefeller Center's founder), despite its being incised in gold leaf on a large polished granite block at the foot of the Promenade - at the very center of the Center itself. (ED)
Master Thieves: William Zeckendorf
In 1960, while David Rockefeller was planning Lower Manhattan, William Zeckendorf, urban renewal tsar supreme, was buying properties west of the traditional financial core and promoting the area as the "New Wall Street." Six years later, when the time came to push the World Trade Center through the planning process, Zeckendorf would take the lead in convincing the Tishmans (later the WTC's builders), the Rudins and other competing real estate interests to go along for the Rockefeller ride. He also marshaled the support of the midtown-based landlords represented by the 34th Street-Midtown Association.
Zeckendorf's role as an ally of, and a real estate guru to the Rockefeller family dated back to John D. Jr.'s and Nelson's post-WWII efforts to locate the United Nations in Manhattan. In 1945, Zeckendorf had made a downpayment on the property that would become the UN site in hopes of building "X City," a vast and secretively planned attempt at fusing Rockefeller Center with Tudor City. X City's designated designer was Wallace K. Harrison, the Rockefeller house architect.
But Zeckendorf could not raise funds the to consummate the deal and with the deadline approaching, faced the unpleasant prospect of forfeiting his deposit. Eager to unload his stake at a profit and caught up in the idealistic spirit of "moving the capital of the world," Zeckendorf offered Nelson Rockefeller a win-win proposition. Thus the Rockefellers secured their favored site for the United Nations, and nipped a potential Rockefeller Center competitor in the bud. Zeckendorf came off as an internationalist hero, replete with full pockets for his altruism. (ED)
Popularly known as the South Mall, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in Albany was Rocky's parting gesture in 1973 to the state he had governed into ever more exponential debt during his 15 years in the State House.
Designed by Wallace K. Harrison and intended by Nelson to reflect the dynamism of his gubernatorial legacy, the Mall presents itself as a mini-Brasilia, a case study in distorted Corbusian esthetics. It consists of six high-rise buildings, including a row of four identical 23-story slabs, and several lower volumes surrounding a reflecting pool - the whole set in a vast wind-swept plaza. But the Mall's signature piece is its conference center, which architecture critic Paul Goldberger referred to as "a bizarre upside-down dome like a half-grapefruit," and which locals simply call "the egg." Goldberger further described the $2 billion publicly-funded project as: "not so much a vision of the future as of the past. The ideas here were dead before they left the drawing boardit is only a tragically misguided kind of thinking that could turn them into icons for the present."
What fueled Nelson's mission to seed New York State with "centers" and plazas? Charles J. Urstadt, Sr., the former chairman of the Nelson's Battery Park City Authority said of his former boss, "He just liked to build. He was a frustrated architect." Nelson himself observed that, "Architecture is not just bricks and mortar, steel and glass, but an expression of economic needs, cultural aspirations, political life and international relations."
In the 1930's - at more or less the same moment that young Nelson was hiring Diego Rivera to paint his ill-fated Rockefeller Center mural - the family and the family bank, Chase Manhattan, were actively practicing forms of "international relations" that went well beyond the lofty aspirations of architecture.
[For a window into the Rockefellers's business dealings with the German and Italian fascist regimes, see Michael Parenti's Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997, as well as Charles Higham's Trading With the Enemy, New York: Dell, 1983.] (ED)
When you were ten years old, you rode your bicycle from Battery Park up the east side of the island, past the old brick warehouses and ship chandleries, past the hole-in-the-wall fish restaurants, flophouses and straight into the unmistakable smell of the Fulton Fish Market. You didn't know who David Rockefeller was, or that he was planning to blow up, or rather tear down, everything you'd passed along the way.
"We've submitted a report to the Mayor and the Borough President of Manhattan recommending, in part, that many of the old buildings on the southern tip of the island - over eleven hundred of the buildings south of Chambers street are more than a hundred years old - be torn down to make way for improved industrial and commercial structures and middle-income housing, and that many of the smaller streets and lanes be closed. And we've submitted a second report, to the Mayor and to the Governors of New York and New Jersey, recommending that a World Trade Center be developed in the area between Water and South Streets from Old Slip to Fulton Street."
That is what he told the New Yorker in July 1960, before the trade center slid west to the Hudson's shore. And from where David sat - in the 60th story crow's nest of his just-built Chase Plaza a few blocks west on Pine Street - it all made sense. After all, his 1940 Ph.D. dissertation in Economics at the University of Chicago - one of the many institutions founded and funded by his family - had been titled "Unused Resources and Economic Waste."
Now in 1960, the only part of the New Yorker you read were the cartoons, and some of them went a little over your head - so you wouldn't have taken note of David's plan. But you did listen to the radio, and there was something about the way the announcer on WNYC read the news that made you feel important, and connected to the adult world. You remember clearly the evening he talked about something amazing that had happened in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. You knew where the museum was, near Rockefeller Center, up in the fifties on Fifth Avenue. You had even been there and really liked it - the building's clean lines and open spaces, its huge windows, and especially the helicopter hanging from the ceiling. In the sculpture garden, there was a goat made by Picasso out of scrap metal. But you didn't know that the museum was built on donated land carved out of a block the Rockefeller's owned and on which they still lived - or that David Rockefeller was the chairman of the museum's board of directors.
And you certainly did not have any idea what Homage to New York meant, except that it was the name of what had happened when Jean Tinguely, an artist from Switzerland, turned on a gigantic "self-constructing, self-destructing" machine made from junk and it had torn itself to pieces. On purpose! Then the announcer played the tape a recording and you heard the Homage's wheels and motors whirring - its metal arms banging empty oil cans to the accompaniment of a Klaxon horn. And woven into the cacophony, you heard gasps from the audience, and bursts of applause as springs and levers clattered to the flagstones and firefighters doused the burning piano. You ran to tell your mother, though you must have blurted it out in a way that made her even more confused than you. But Holy Cow! Even listening to a sculpture blowing up was as exciting as Fourth of July in Little Italy, or sitting on your stoop watching the wrecking ball knock down the factories across the street. (ED)
After the speculative debacles of the early 19th century, American municipalities - exempted from laws restricting public investment in private enterprise - leapt into the gap left by the states. Municipal participation in business enterprises, particularly railroads, began in the east and moved west following the "course of empire." Thus began a cycle of municipal indebtedness, characterized at different times by more or less risky borrowing practices.
By the latter part of the 20th century, as cities with shrinking tax bases struggled to stay solvent while maintaining services, their dependency on institutional lenders and the vagaries of the bond market greatly increased. One sharply drawn example of how this game can go awry was New York City's near bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, precipitated in part by a spate of short term borrowing by former Governor Nelson Rockefeller. When President Gerald Ford responded to the crisis by enjoining the traditionally anti-Republican city to "drop dead," the state stepped in and created the Municipal Assistance Corporation - an emergency financial control board popularly known as "Big Mac." Big Mac was headed by Felix Rohatyn, an investment banker and partner in Lazard Frères - the firm that floated numerous Port Authority bond issues and Rockefeller family loans. A former governor of the New York Stock Exchange, and a strong exponent of joint corporate-government planning, Rohatyn authored a fiscal austerity regimen that gradually restored the city's status as a borrower, but doubled its debt service.
Prior to "saving" New York, Rohatyn's accomplishments in the private sector included the corporate packaging of the multi-billion dollar conglomerate ITT. Heavily invested in Chile, ITT is generally credited with having backed the coup that overthrew the Allende government in 1973 - ending 46 years of constitutional rule - and ushering in two decades of military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. (ED)
... in Afghanistan, the United States also helped bring to power the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement ... A group of these mujahideen, who only a few years earlier the United States had armed with ground-to-air Stinger missiles, grew bitter over American acts and policies in the Gulf War and vis-à-vis Israel. In 1993, they bombed the World Trade Center and assassinated several CIA employees as they waited at a traffic light in Langley, Virginia. Four years later, on November 12, 1997, after the Virginia killer had been convicted by an American court, unknown assailants shot and killed four American accountants, unrelated in any way to the CIA, in their car in Karachi, Pakistan, in retaliation.
[From Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000, p. 13.]
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