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Jane Kamensky’s The Exchange Artist: A Tale ofHigh-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse may be a Boston book, but it contains a few fun nuggets relevant to what we do here, too.
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First, Kamensky frames the story — a microhistory of the Exchange Coffee House, Boston’s tallest building for just over a decade in the early nineteenth century and one of America’s first semi-skyscrapers — in such a way that the disaster of its fiery collapse in 1819 resonates with images from our own time, particularly the WTC’s fall. From the prologue:

After fire consumed the building’s wooden vitals, its brick carcass imploded, wall by massive wall. The entire city — some of it built on land only recently reclaimed from the harbor floor — shook with the impact. By midnight, when the crowds began to disperse, only the Exchange’s eastern elevation stood, an unsupported facade  more than one hundred square feet. The next day, the trembling curtain of warped brick and blackened marble came down, too. … A week later, all that remained was a yawning rubble-choked pit that would smoke for months and linger in ruins for nearly three years. … In a matter of hours the city looked different, as if a hole had opened in the skyline.

The book’s larger morality tale — about inflated paper money, crooked celebrity speculators, real estate bubbles and the banks that build them — resonates with contemporary New York culture as well. But the best such nugget (and the one that really allows me to squeeze a post out of one of my favorite non-NYC summer reads) is a passing observation Kamensky makes while discussing contemporary comparisons between the Exchange and the biblical Tower of Babel. Noting the popularity of Babel imagery among medieval and Renaissance painters, Kamensky notes that Athanasius Kircher’s 1679 Turris Babel, when scaled to the human figures in the scene, is roughly the height of the Empire State Building. And indeed, the similarities are striking:

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While digging around for other comparisons between the ESB and the ToB, I found a Christian stock analyst (I’ll spare you the link) who claims that economic calamity has followed every modern announcement of “the world’s tallest building,” part of God’s long pattern of punishing human presumption. That’s right, the ESB caused the Great Depression.

Turns out at least one early critic made the Babel comparison in the Times, though, calling the building “soulless.” (Sorry, the linked article is pay-only.) And there appears to
be a history of comparing the confusion
of languages one hears in the ESB elevators to post-Babel jibber-jabber as well. Such comparisons are particularly common in foreign guidebooks to the city.

Comparisons between Babel and the WTC were also abundant both before and after 9/11. Reading them can be, as you’d imagine, both annoying and poignant.

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Last weekend, the DUMBO Arts Council sponsored its eleventh annual arts festival, which I’ve attended for several years running. I plan to write at length about a couple NY-related projects I came across, one of which really has me excited, but for now I wanted to post this photo a friend took:


This neon work, one half of an installation by the Canadian-born, New York-based artist Juozas Cernius, was mounted over one exit from the waterfront park between the bridges. The other half of the piece, mounted on the other side of the gate (that is, over the entrance), said “GOD IS GREAT.”

I love this piece for a million reasons. Why hadn’t anyone ever thought to say “God Was Great” before? It’s such a funny sentiment: Sure, God was good back in the day, before he sold out. Or, God was great in bed last night. Or God was great, and then humans had to go and ruin it.

I’d seen this photo before I showed up there Saturday. In context I found the piece to be even more interesting. Unless you entered the park, you only ever saw the “GOD IS GREAT” side from the street. The sign looked a little like the entrance to a Christian theme park, with all the families with dogs and baby strollers milling around on the lawn inside.

But the other thing through that gate, of course, is the hole in the sky where the WTC used to be. (Why’s it on my mind so much this week?) It’s hard not to be in that park and spend some time looking across the river. What does it mean to situate your religious theme park across from Manhattan? (Of course the Jehovah’s Witness HQ was in DUMBO long before the neighborhood picked up that acronym and became, as one friend put it, a paradise for yuppies.) Are you safe on Brooklyn’s shores, protected from the evil metropolis beyond?

When you turn around to leave the park though, and get the “GOD WAS GREAT” side, it’s hard — at least it’s hard for me — not to associate the sentiment with 9/11 itself. God was great, and then he had to go and provide an excuse for religious fanatics to fly planes into towers full of people. It’s a funny sign, but with a hell of a bitter bite.  

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