The End of the Top of the World

To Europeans, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre symbolised American prosperity and power. But to those who lived in their shadow, they meant more than that. Douglas Kennedy, the novelist and New Yorker, bids a sad farewell to a structure with a special place in his heart
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There are eight million stories in the Naked City. Here's one of them. In Christmas 1973, home for the holidays from university, I received a call from my maternal grandfather. "You doin' anything tonight?" he asked in his usual no-crap Manhattan style. When I said I was free, he made some wiseguy comment about how I didn't seem to be having much luck with women right now, then said: "Well, if you're doin' nothing, I got somethin' I want to show you."

Now my grandfather was a jeweller – a tough, diminutive, fast-talking guy who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the early years of the 20th century – a time when that corner of the island was a fractured mosaic of shabby tenements and old-style German breweries and bad sanitation and short life-expectancies. In short, he was a kid from the New York mean streets who'd "done good" (as he often said himself), and who truly believed that the world began at the East River and ended less than a mile away on the banks of the Hudson.

And though gruff and outwardly hard-boiled, he was (like all New Yorkers) fantastically sentimental when it came to the subject of his native city. "Who the hell needs anywhere else?", he would often say whenever the subject of the rest of the world was mentioned. "We got it all here."

Well, on the December night in question, my grandfather decided to remind me why "we got it all here" in New York by bundling me into a taxi and telling the driver to start heading downtown. When I asked where we were going, he just said: "Shut up – it's a surprise".

We started heading downtown. But when we reached 14th Street, the cabbie headed way west, then continued our southerly plunge. Now remember: this was 1973, long before the extreme western extremities of Manhattan Island had become fashionable. Back in this era, the area "South of Houston Street" – now known as SoHo – was a collection of down-and-dirty warehouses that, after dark, was considered a serious no-go area. The neighbouring district of Tribeca was even more dilapidated, and the financial district – better known as Wall Street – was deserted by 6pm every night.

So this cab ride south was like a journey into Manhattan's terra incognita. "Where the hell are you taking me?", I asked him as we crossed Canal Street.

"Work it out, college boy," he said, and motioned up towards the windscreen. I looked up, then smiled and said: "I should have guessed." For there, in front of us, was the latest addition to the Manhattan skyline: the two twin towers of the newly opened World Trade Centre.

Around 10 minutes later, we found ourselves in an elevator hurtling upwards – a journey that elevated us some 1,300ft above the street. When the elevator doors opened, we found ourselves walking into a room that was pure movie-setting: a vast expanse of restaurant swank, done up in a garish style that could best be described as Nixon Administration Modern, and crammed with a buzzy upscale clientele. But what gave this joint (to use one of my grandfather's favourite words) its sense of big-dealdom was the fact that its perimeter was defined by adjoining walls of flat glass. And through these clear Thermopane windows, you were afforded one of the great man-made vistas of the 20th century: the epic grandeur of New York by night. As we stood there, looking north towards the incandescent lights of midtown, all I could think of was a famous last line from a great Jimmy Cagney movie: "Top of the World, Ma!" Then I turned to look at my grandfather. Even he – the ultimate "been there/done that" New Yorker – looked impressed. And he said: "Nobody can touch this. Nobody."

But, of course, somebody did. And as I watched the two towers of the World Trade Centre implode and disintegrate on Tuesday morning, I couldn't help but think about that Christmas night with my grandfather, watching his cynicism evaporate at the sight of Manhattan by night.

Because, even for the most insouciant and cynical of New Yorkers, the World Trade Centre was Big Stuff. Yes, the Chrysler Building was an Art Deco masterpiece. And yes, the Empire State Building was there first, and remains the great emblematic New York skyscraper (as it is so symbolic of Manhattan's loftiness, and its status as the great modern city). But The World Trade Centre – a building many architecture critics initially derided as yet another visually bland example of the great post-war American edifice complex – came to dominate an already crowded New York skyline. More tellingly, its dominance wasn't simply visual; it was also metaphoric. Because it said so much about the New York psyche – our ferocious aspirations, our unapologetic arrogance, and our need to show the world that – in my grandfather's words – "Nobody can touch this".

Of course, one of the time-honoured (and truer) clichés about the United States is that it is still a young country – and one that has always felt the need to impress itself and others with its man-made feats. We may not have built The Great Wall, or Chartres, or the visual magnificence that is Venice, but we have always over-compensated for our innate newness with an obsessive faith in the future. Remember: the United States was a nation founded by religious zealots – a band of fanatical Puritans who believed (to quote the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop) that the society they were creating in this new-found-land would be a beacon of light that would verily illuminate the rest of the world.

Happily, this evangelical vision of America as God's Preferred Terrain was quickly tempered by an even greater American skill: the ability to make money. And as the country established its mercantile credentials in the 19th century, it also came to worship the wonders of technology. Whether it be the cotton gin (which revolutionised agriculture), or the transcontinental railroad, or Edison and his electrical current, or Ford and his motorised carriage, or Gates and his computer, the United States has always prided itself on being the standard-bearer of mechanical invention – a nation that has compensated for its lack of a Da Vinci or a Shakespeare or a Mozart by living in an ongoing state of industrial revolution.

As such, the towering edifices that began to define the Manhattan skyline at the turn of the last century were, in many ways, symbols of "American can-do". And over the past hundred years, New York – the nation's great mercantile hub – has demonstrated a firm American belief in the need to reinvent itself anew, as the city's skyline has been torn down and rebuilt several times over.

Look at any photographic record of Forties New York – especially the tip of Lower Manhattan, as seen from Brooklyn Heights – and you will note that hardly any of those wondrous, original 1920s office blocks remain. Because, like Hong Kong, any commitment to architectural heritage always took a back seat to commercial necessities, and the fact that, on a skinny little island, space is always money.

But the World Trade Centre wasn't just a pair of high-rise office buildings. As many commentators have written since Tuesday, the twin towers symbolised America's commercial strength, and its global economic dominance. But for a native New Yorker like this writer, they also hark back to an era when – amid the national traumas of Vietnam, and civil unrest, and political assassination – the city's elemental self-belief never dimmed.

Only a few years after they opened for business, New York was virtually declared bankrupt, and office space in the twin towers was going for a song. Then came the Reaganite years, and the World Trade Centre was suddenly thriving again. But it was, in fact, the era of Clintonian economic boom that saw the twin towers (and, indeed, that entire corner of Lower Manhattan) transformed into a city-within-a-city: not just the geographic focal point for so many major financial institutions, but (with the growth of Tribeca and Battery Park City) a new white-collar residential quarter for all those ambitious, besuited men and women, for whom the World Trade Centre was the ultimate high-rise symbol of Playing at the Big Table.

And perhaps that's what I found so personally hard to bear, as I watched the two towers crumble on Tuesday: the thought of what was going on in all those offices as the planes hit: the secretary at the photocopying machine; the Forex dealer screaming down a phone line to London; the young hot-shot lawyer, just out of Harvard, staring out of his 67th-floor window with a view of the New Jersey swamplands, and thinking: "If I make partner, I get a view of midtown".

Manhattan, after all, is about aspiration. "King of the hill, top of the heap", to quote that most New York of song lyrics. And the World Trade Centre was, perhaps, the most enduring contemporary symbol of the city's lofty ambitions and its success-driven ethos. But now, that great visual reference point of the skyline has been toppled. And in this most mutable and impatient of cities, there will now be a permanent sense of loss.