The World Trade Center: This Is What It Was…

by Susan Kraus (2001)

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This Is What It Was…

This is an article that was specifically written for Lawrence, Kansas, residents who had perhaps never been to NYC, had never seen the World Trade Center and its towers… and did not understand the centuries of history that lay in its footprint. At the time of publication, in October of 2001, local teachers walked their classes along the described route so that their students could grasp the scope of the loss.

 

Stand on the corner of Sixth and Tennessee streets. Walk south to 11th  Street, east to New Hampshire Street, then north to Sixth Street and turn west across Massachusetts Street back to Tennessee Street. Note the highest points--- the bank tower at Ninth and Massachusetts streets, the church spires, the Eldridge Hotel.
Visualize the whole of downtown, full of stores, restaurants, coffee shops, banks and offices. Now picture it gone, obliterated, buried under millions of tons of twisted steel and concrete, under mounds taller than the tallest buildings in downtown Lawrence.
See the buildings for blocks in every direction with shattered windows, covered with layers of ash and soot. Imagine trying to dig it out. Imagine starting over.

THE WTC Neighborhood
The World Trade Center wasn’t strictly corporate.
It was part of a neighborhood, a town within a city. Last summer there were concerts every weekend on the WTC square. Families would come with their lawn chairs, babies in strollers, dogs on leashes. Tens of thousands of people commuted in every day to work in the towers, but thousands also lived in the neighborhood. Folks knew their neighbors, often better that we know our suburban neighbors. They had their corner grocery stores, favorite cafes, dry cleaners and coffee stands. Teenagers shopped at the Gap in the mall under the twin towers. Early morning joggers chugged along the river walk. Parents walked their children to school. People brought sack lunches to listen to free music in the Winter Garden or on the square. Moms pushed toddlers in the swings in Battery Park.
The locals loved the weekends when the neighborhood emptied of he commuters, and it was quiet enough for kids to play ball in the streets. And there were always the familiar foghorn toots of the Staten Island Ferry when it pulled into the dock.

A Historical Snapshot
The area around where the WTC stood is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the United States. When Henry Hudson arrived in 1609, he wasn’t the first non-white to see it, but he was the first to stay. It was a lush island with hills and woods. There were deer and wild turkeys, beavers and bobcats. He called it New Amsterdam.
The Dutch settled in, building homes and clearing the land for farms. By 1664, they had created a colony so appealing the British took it. The King of England gave it to the Earl of York. So, while we still have Amsterdam Avenue, the city became New York.
New York became a mecca for immigrants. It was a progressive city. In 1779, New York passed the first emancipation law in the United States. A rudimentary stock exchange existed in 1792, as merchants gathered daily to negotiate U.S. bonds sold to pay for the Revolutionary War. Recognizing that a city needed to be planned, leaders set out a grid for future expansion, mapping broad avenues and numbered streets and a 600-acre park in the center.
The original New York is the New York of Lower Manhattan, only very recently in the shadow of WTC. The streets twist and curve, some tight as alleys, wide enough only for a horse and carriage. The oldest streets have simple names: Water, Bridge, Stone, Beaver, Elk, Pine, Cedar, and (my favorite) Maiden Lane. The British influence felt with Albany, Whitehall, Rector, Carlisle, Trinity. Wall Street started as the service road along the wall the Dutch erected in 1653 to defend against attack.
Trinity Church, at the end of Wall Street, was built in 1846, but on the site of a church building in 1697 that burned down in 1776. Church graves date from 1681. Alexander Hamilton is buried along the south fence. Up the block, St. Paul’s Chapel predates the Revolutionary War. George Washington had a pew there for a few years. City Hall is in lower Manhattan and dates from the early 1800s. The City Park in front of the site was for parades, protests, and public executions. In this part of New York City, every building has a history, every street a story.
Just north of Lower Manhattan starts the neighborhoods. Everyone in the Midwest has heard of Chinatown, where more than 160,000 Chinese live, shop and work. But fewer are aware of the Ukrainians of the East Village, or ethnic enclaves of Czech, Hispanic, Greek, Hungarian, Arab, East Indian, Indian, Pakistani, etc. There’s the Garment District, TriBeCa, SoHo, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Lower East Side, Little Italy, Flatiron and East Village.
The World Trade Center was the new kid on the block. When it was being planned and built, from about 1967-1973, there was a lot of criticism. (the South Lawrence Trafficway controversy has nothing on the WTC.) Locals thought it would ruin the character of their neighborhoods and clog the streets and trains with commuters. They saw the towers as spoiling, not enhancing, their skyline.
But the towers were built, occupied and eventually accepted. And in the decades since, the towers have become another part of the neighborhood. Just about everyone who lives in Lower Manhattan has a family member or a friend who worked in the towers.

“Some of us have to work here”
On our third day in the city, we made the pilgrimage. We took the bus from Times Square south to Chambers Street. We exited the bus to a street of wire gates, armed guards and police vans. We walked toward West Street to the pedestrian overpass that spans West Street between Manhattan Community College and Stuyvesant High School. The school is being used for triage. A massive flag covers the windows of Public School No. 89. West Street is filled with National Guard
tents and men in uniforms with rifles. Every vehicle leaving the area is power hosed. Buses exit with tired workers, who stare blankly out the windows.
 
The day was unreasonably beautiful. We walked back along Chambers Street, then south along Broadway. There were crowds moving along the sidewalks, not rushing. It was like a processional: subdued, almost silent.
At Fulton, people stopped. When they spoke it was almost in whispers. Through the narrow streets we could see blackened ruins. Ground Zero. People stood, bearing witness, lips often moving in prayer.
“Keep moving ,“ said a male voice in a Brooklyn accent.  “Some of us have to work here.”
Along Broadway, some stores had been cleaned, their freshly scrubbed windows gleaming in the angled light. In between was a jewelry store, coated inside and out with ash and soot. In the corners of the intact picture window was ash six inches deep.
When the wind shifted, the air smelled of concrete and dust.
That’s all. Just concrete and dust.

Translating the numbers
More children lost their moms or dads or both in the WTC disaster than all the children in Broken Arrow, Centennial, Cordley, Deerfield, East Heights, Grant, Hillcrest, Kennedy, Langston Hughes, New York, Pinckney, Prairie Park, Quail Run, Riverside, Schwegler, Sunflower, Sunset Hill, Wakarusa Valley and Woodlawn elementary schools combined.
The final count will probably be more than all the children in all the schools ---elementary, junior high, and high school--- in Lawrence. When the statistics flash across the screen, that’s how many faces to picture, that’s how many kids to see.
More firefighters were killed than double the number of all the firefighters and E.M.T’s in Lawrence. That’s every person, in every station, every engine, every ambulance---gone.

In memoriam
The first few days, the white tile pillars in the subway stop at Times Square were covered with posters on the missing. Flowers lay on the floor at their feet.
Some people would stop, conscientiously looking at every poster, every face that meant a grieving family. Others would walk quickly past, averting their eyes. And then, one morning, they were all gone. All the posters, all the flowers. No one is missing anymore.

Every day as I left my hotel on 48th Street, I turned east. There, on the corner of 48th Street and Eighth Avenue, is a firehouse.
Engine 54. Ladder4. Battalion 9.
It is draped, as is every firehouse in Manhattan, with black and purple. The front is now a shrine, tables filled with flowers and candles, letters from people around the United States. There is a book for visitors to write their reflections. At 2 a.m., there are people still stopping by to light a candle, place flowers, pray.
In the center is a poster with photos of the fifteen men from this firehouse killed on Sept. 11, 2001. These are their names: Mike Haub. Al Feinberg. Dave Wooley. Jose Guadalupe. Ed Geraghty. Chris Santora. Joe Angelini, John Tipping. Len Ragaglia. Dan O’Callaghan. Mike Berman, Mike Lynch. Phil Gill. Sam Ortice.
But it is the courage of the living that brought me to tears. One evening as I was walking back to the hotel, the sirens sounded and two engines pulled out of Engine 54. I watched as they passed just feet in front of me. The men’s faces where impassive. They were just doing their job. They were going to fight another fire.

 

 

Editors Note: The above article was published in the Lawrence Journal World on October 25, 2001. Author Susan Kraus, a local therapist and mediator, and her husband, video producer Frank Barthell, had recently returned from a week, in early October,  in New York City.

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"I think we often know things in our gut way before the synapses connect in the head."