"The Process of Creating a Ruin"

In 1999's Divided We Stand, author Eric Darton speculated on the World Trade Center's demise -- literally and economically

Editor's Note: Long before terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center, Eric Darton, author of the 1999 book Divided We Stand (Basic Books), claims he had a premonition that there was "something really awful imminent" [see BW Online 10/1/01, "What the Twin Towers Stood For"]. In this excerpt from his book, Darton explores his fears. Remember, this was published two years ago, long before the towers were brought down but after the 1993 terrorist bombing in the parking lot under the complex. The following passages are from a chapter entitled "The Space Between":

Is it possible to imagine the World Trade Center as a ruin? In one sense, this would be very difficult, for even an enormous explosion failed to compromise the towers structurally. Moreover, the Port Authority found hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the bomb damage. And it mustered the administrative and public relations resources necessary to deal with a reversal that could have precipitated a wholesale flight by tenants and transformed the WTC into a symbol of terrorism ascendant.

But a state of ruin cannot be measured in terms of physical failure alone. Its meaning goes far deeper, for even a leveled building may be brought up again from rubble. To avoid becoming a ruin, a structure must retain or be able to transform itself as a site of active social practice, as a repository of the imagination, and preferably both. It must remain an adaptable, integral agent of a living, mutable culture. Like planning and constructing a building, the process of creating a ruin is an accumulation of incremental social acts.

[The towers] came prepackaged as a ruin that has slowly been moving in the direction of becoming a living building

A structure begins to fall into a state of ruin when it is no longer supported by the productive relations that created it. But its transformation is complete when it is no longer physically viable and the social imagination that gave it purpose has fled or been banished. Once a building is abandoned at the level of meaning, it is only a matter of time before physical decay upholds its end of the bargain.

In this sense, the World Trade Center came prepackaged as a ruin that has slowly been moving in the direction of becoming a living building. But even in the wake of the bombing, New Yorkers have never been able to successfully fill Yamasaki's twin silos with the kind of psychological investment freely poured into the Empire State, the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building, or even Rockefeller Center. From an economic standpoint, the trade center -- subsidized since its inception -- has never functioned, nor was it intended to function, unprotected in the rough-and-tumble real estate marketplace. And in the thirty years since it was built, the social forces of which it remains so highly visible an artifact have definitively realigned.

Relationships among banks and developers, public corporations, the city government, the statehouses of New York and New Jersey, and even the federal government have all been transformed to a point where it is inconceivable that the World Trade Center could be built today -- or even for a moment considered a workable or desirable project. Having escaped destruction at the hands of terrorists seeking to demodernize the world, the trade towers now offer themselves as blunt evidence of the maxing out of the North American skyscraper city. Viewed as a crowning ruin, the towers take on a new symbolic power -- they become eloquent in transmitting the drama of their own vanished moment.

The pages above have traced the World Trade Center's lineage, the forces that gave it shape, and some of the consequences of its coming. And a narrative has unfolded of the political and economic culture of the village it took to raise this troubled child. Unlike human offspring, however, real estate developments never outgrow the watchful guardianship of institutions, and the WTC's caregiver of record had always been the Port Authority. How, then, as the twin towers moved into their third decade, was this filial bond playing out?

PA had the wherewithal in 1993 to rebuild the trade center and perform the necessary renovations -- but then came another assault

When the World Trade Center was bombed in February, 1993, at the age of twenty, it had finally begun generating profits to offset the chronic losses the PA sustained running the PATH commuter line. But it was already passing its prime as office space, overtaken by a generation of more recent, cybernetically "smart" buildings with higher ceilings and greater built-in electrical capacity. To maintain the trade center as class-A office space commanding top rents, the PA would have had to spend $800 million rebuilding its electrical, electronic communications, and cooling systems.

Then came the bombing and, according to Charles Maikish, former director of the PA's World Trade Center Department, a repair bill of $700 million and hundreds of millions in lost revenues. The Port Authority, however, possessed capacities far beyond those of a commercial landlord, among them a $2.6 billion annual budget and the ability to generate capital through bonds, tolls, fares, and airport disembarkation tariffs. The PA had the wherewithal in 1993 to rebuild the trade center and perform the necessary renovations -- but then came another assault, one far more devastating to its institutional integrity.

The adversary faced by the PA was not a cabal of terrorists. The threat originated in a realignment of social powers represented by a triumvirate of officials elected in the early 1990s: George Pataki, Christie Todd Whitman, and Rudolph Giuliani, respectively the governors of New York and New Jersey and the mayor of New York City. Although differing on many issues, all three vigorously pursued policies of cutting social services while consolidating and privatizing public agencies. At its most ideologically distilled, their shared doctrine -- popularly associated with Republican conservatives but espoused by many Democrats -- sought to re-create the public sector as a function of the marketplace. Ironically, the agency found itself in an especially vulnerable position precisely because it had already undermined its claim to a public purpose so deeply.

Privatization emerged as one of the key political strategies of the early Pataki, Whitman, and Giuliani administrations

In the mid and late 1990s, this notion of "reinvented" government harmonized well with the goals of conservative politicians -- particularly in industrial states with large urban concentrations. The rhetoric of tax slashing and governmental downsizing -- the new litmus test of "business-friendly" states and municipalities-afforded elected officials the appearance of responding decisively to tough economic realities while at the same time reining in "entitlements" presumably being squandered on the undeserving poor. Privatization emerged as one of the key political strategies of the early Pataki, Whitman, and Giuliani administrations as they faced widening budget gaps, shrinking federal assistance, and reduced local tax revenues.

Imitating their corporate counterparts, they embraced the belief that governmental functions should be reduced to a series of inexorable bottom lines. This new standard became the basis for a sweeping reevaluation of public agencies. They would be judged not by their objective performance level or their contribution to the public good but according to whether their disassembled parts might profitably be sold, merged, or eliminated. Discussing the disposition of the Port Authority's bus terminal, Charles Gargano, Governor Pataki's appointee to the PA's vice chairmanship and the head of New York State's economic development agency, put the issue succinctly when he asked, "Why not let private industry in to develop what is clearly an extremely valuable property?"

The values underlying such policies spring into high relief at the level of language. A privatization model developed for the District of Columbia referred to residents and visitors as "customers" and divided government functions into "wholesale" and "retail" categories. In 1998,a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal urged Republican party leadership to "view itself very much like, let's say, a corporation, a Daimler-Benz, a Chrysler...to change its corporate culture [and] go through a wrenching transformation, because the cars are coming back from the lot unsold."

Viewed from this perspective, the Port Authority ceases to exist as a public institution created to address the New York region's economic and social needs and becomes instead an assemblage of assets, to be broken up according to the dictates of the market. But "capturing" the value of such assets, of course, is predicated upon the dismemberment of the whole.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.