Remembering The World Trade Center

vintage 1940s radio, Brooklyn Bridge and World Tade Center

News of the 9/11 tragedy found its way to me through the antiquated airwaves of a vintage Bakelite radio.

Only days before, I had moved from the New York I loved to one of its  leafy suburbs. Without cable or satellite hooked up there was no television service, so was dependent on this Zenith radio to keep me in touch with the outside world..

There was however a deep poignancy to the manner in which I learned that sad news. The radio, you see had belonged to my cousin Max.

 Radio Row

Long ago, the very land that the twin towers stood on had once been the site of  Radio Row, that part of lower Manhattan that contained congested block after block  of radio  and electronic stores, the largest such collection in the world.

Cousin Max had owned such a store on Cortland Street since the late thirties when radio was as booming as his business. A mecca for the do it yourselfer, even the NY Times called Radio Row “ a paradise for electronic tinkerers.

Visiting that dark, grimy store filled from dusty linoleum floor to ceiling with vacuum tubes , transistors, antennae kits ,high-tech tchokes of every shape and size was always an adventure for me as a child, transporting me into a mysterious world of electronics.

There were over 300 identically jammed  street level stores and over 3 times as many on floors above them reached through creaky stair or equally creaky antiquated elevators

But by the 1960s, the death knell for these mom and Pop shops was about to sound and it wasn’t because of changing technology.

 World Trade Center

Plans for a World Trade Center located in lower Manhattan had been in the work for years.

In 1946 NY legislators authorized a “World Trade Corporation” to develop the proposed World Trade Center and appointed Winthrop Aldrich chairman of Chase bank ( and uncle to David and nelson Rockefeller) to explore the feasibility of the project.

Plans began in earnest by 1960 as the Port Authority took charge, and began planning for  the project to develop along the East River. Objections from NJ changed the site to a 16 acre parcel of land along the Hudson River, which included Radio Row.

The die was cast. Many neighborhood businesses would go bust.

Protest

In June of 1962 Max along with hundreds of other commercial tenants, property owners and residents protested the eviction notices, filing an injunction challenging the Port Authority’s power of “eminent domain”.

Court battles ensued until finally in April 1963 the NY Court of Appeals upheld the Port Authority’s right of “eminent domain” saying the project had a “public purpose.”

Construction

By March 1966 demolition of existing structures on the site had begun  and most of the stores on Radio Row became condemned.

In August  of that year, workmen turned the first spadeful of earth marking the beginning of construction.

The World trade Center was on its way.

Hardly a day passed without the machine gun staccato sound of jack hammers, the bone chilling blasting of dynamite and the constant thud of huge swinging wrecking balls followed by the crash of crumbling walls.

Whole blocks were being vaporized, toppled with the abandon and swiftness of a child dismantling his wooden blocks. In place of century old buildings,  and grand old granite office buildings would rise new modern structures. The centerpiece- 2 soaring towers would rise majestically from the rubble.

Sky High Hopes

I often traveled to lower Manhattan with my family to watch along with heartbroken Max as excavation and construction began.

The wail of sirens and the cacophony of street noises did nothing to distract from the deafening shake rattle and roll of construction that was ever-present, echoing off the gaping crater where once had stood crowded commerce. Besides the noise, a continual fine mist of dust filled the stagnant air settling into every nook and cranny.

Worse still, you could feel the tremors blocks away, as much from the construction as from the outraged protest of hundreds of New Yorker’s still vehemently opposed to the demolition.  .

Privately my fathers heart swelled with a sense of joy, and vigor looking out at the vast horizons of mans great progress. Just as out of the unsightly ash dump of Flushing Meadow rose the World of Tomorrow as envisioned by Robert Moses, so out of these still smoldering ashes would rise 2 grand structure worthy of it’s name-The World Trade Center. It was to be a feat of engineering a beacon and symbol of American Economic strength

It was a fitting name he pontificated, for a mighty country.

World trade center Model 1971

Advertisement Feb 28 1971 NY Times Supplement
model of the 16 acre World trade center under construction in lower Manhattan by the Port Authority, as it would appear when completed in 1973

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2 comments

  1. Lee Wolfson

    Very nicely put. I am a product of many of the aspects of American life you describe. First, I grew up in a very leafy suburb of NYC in the 50’s. (Rye, N.Y.) My twin brother and I were 4 when we moved out of the Bronx in 1954 .I experienced quite vividly the odd combination of really being ‘out in the country'(wonderful) but encountering an occasional anti semetic and frequently racist culture. We lived in all-white tract housing development. My parents were very liberal and made us more aware of the 50’s politics and attitudes than we ever wanted to know. McCarthy and Nixon were ugly and negative names in our household.

    Another connection to your piece was that I became a radio amateur at a young age and had a next door neighbor who took me down to Radio Row once to experience the culture of electronic tinkerers full bore. It inspired me for years to come, but was gone by the time I could have traveled down to lower Manhattan by myself.

    Finally, I went to Pratt in the early 70’s for Architecture. I drove down the FDR Drive every morning as the World Trade Center was being finished. Their sheer scale blew me away, but the uniform opinion of the buildings was dreadful among the people teaching at Pratt. A humorous debate I once heard was how they could have been even worse. One professor suggested that it would have been worse if there was only one. Another said it would have been worse if there had been three.

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    • Thanks for sharing your stories Lee. That’s interesting to learn about the Pratt professors disdain for the buildings which I think was a fairly common feeling. Folks were not all that thrilled with the design and was a topic of conversation amongst NYers for some time.

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