The Twin Towers, from Pride to Pyre


By Patricia O'Connell We New Yorkers are often accused of thinking that our city is the most important place on earth. It is fitting, then, that Ric Burns' coda to his splendid documentary, New York, should be called The Center of the World. The 3-hour film is devoted to the history of the World Trade Center -- from its origins as a twinkle in the eye of the Rockefellers to its destruction on September 11, 2001. It will be rebroadcast today and this weekend on PBS stations across the country.

The episode -- the eighth in what was originally a seven-part history of New York City for PBS -- feels like a two-parter, with the first two hours focusing on the history of the Twin Towers pre-9/11, and the final hour devoted to the terrorist massacre and its aftermath. It feels a little long, but that's probably due in part to the emotionally wrenching content of the final third.

The first 120 minutes are bookended by comments from Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist who strung a cable between the Towers on August 7, 1974, and walked between them. His feat transformed the massive structures from monoliths to icons, and his recollections of the crazy challenge they posed to him as a daredevil, and the loss he felt at their demise, make appropriate beginning and end points.

CHANGING SYMBOL. Burns uses a host of historians, many of of whom appeared in the other seven episodes, to put the story of the buildings in a richer context. Author Pete Hamill is also featured prominently -- a little too much so, as his emotional earnestness sometimes carries him away. One of the most delightful interviews is with Guy Tozzoli, who, at the age of 32, oversaw the project's construction. His reminiscences remind us that the Twin Towers were controversial from the get-go.

One of the best things about the film is its record of the key role the World Trade Center played in several transformations of New York City -- not just in the gut-wrenching memories of that bright blue day in September. Early on, the WTC became a symbol of American excess, capitalism run amuck, and arrogance in epic proportions -- an obvious target for enemies.

The Twin Towers shaped the New York of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Its mere presence obliterated scores of small businesses in lower Manhattan, yet a new business district was established that became crucial to the financial vitality of the city. The documentary reminds us all of what economists call "creative destruction."

THE ROCKEFELLERS' DREAM. The back story to the WTC is fascinating, with its origins in post-World War II zeal to make New York the capital of the world. While the U.N. was being built as a symbol of global unity, New York's business leaders, especially David Rockefeller, began planning a World Trade Center. It wasn't until brother Nelson became New York's Governor in 1958 that the idea really took root.

It's poignant to see how planners and designers thought that if the buildings were big enough, there was no way they could fail to capture the public's imagination and be built. Fail they almost did, however, as years of bitter protests preceded construction. The first tenants arrived in December, 1970, when the Big Apple was all but financially crippled. Tenants were initially hard to come by, and there was little else in that section of downtown New York to attract businesses, commuters, or visitors. While Petit's defiant dance in the sky may not have done much for tenancy, it made him a folk hero, with the Towers as his accomplices.

For two hours, fans of Burns' work will be thrilled with his use of rare footage, his choice of commentators, and painstaking research. The narrative is also superb, just sober enough in tone to be appropriate, but not depressingly so. The background music, at times mournful and other times triumphant, strikes just the right tone as well.

TRAGIC CONTRAST. The last hour is much harder to watch. The footage is graphic and powerful, the comments are thoughtful and moving, sometimes in painful ways. In a curious twist, there's no Rudy Giuliani speaking on the meaning of it all. New York City's former mayor is featured in some of the documentary footage, but the narrative relies instead on many of the people who speak in the first two hours. Two exceptions are former Mayor Ed Koch and former Governor Mario Cuomo.

There are two emotional highlights to this hour: One is Koch's story of meeting an anguished father looking for the daughter he knew must be dead. The vignette is all the more powerful because it describes a scene that was replicated thousands of times on September 11 and in the days after. Koch can't hold back the tears, and I suspect most viewers won't be able to, either. The other is watching project supervisor Tozzoli's pain when he speaks of the Towers' collapse, a stark contrast to the glee, excitement, and wry humor he exhibits earlier in the film. He isn't just mourning the demise of his life's work. There is something much more powerful animating his body language and words.

I have lived in or near New York City for much of my life. I never thought about whether the Twin Towers were ugly or beautiful. Their sheer size and stature made such classifications superfluous. I can't remember what the city skyline looked like before the Twin Towers. Nor do I want to forget about them now, how they became emblematic of my city at the center of the world.

FEVERED EMOTIONS. They were unique, audacious, borne of folly yet successful beyond all expectation. To New Yorkers, they represented what is best and worst about ourselves. After September 11, they were claimed by the rest of the U.S., and even the world. But they are really still ours.

With the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks at hand, I realize that my bewilderment, sadness, and anger about that day haven't disappeared. They have merely been dormant. And I will always be susceptible to feeling those same emotions all over again, like a victim of some strain of emotional malaria.

As a city and a nation, all of us must move on and go about our business. Yet, sometimes we need to go back. I can think of no better vehicle than The Center of the World. O'Connell is assistant news editor for BusinessWeek Online.


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