Tag Archives: World Trade Center

Digital City: New York and the World of Video Games

PODCAST The history of video games and arcades in New York City.

New York has an interesting, complex and downright weird relationship with the video game, from the digital sewers below Manhattan to the neon-lit arcades of Times Square.  It’s not all nostalgia and nerviness; video games in the Big Apple have helped create communities and  have been exalted as artistry.

First — the relationship between the city and the arcade itself, once filled with shooting galleries and see ball. When pinball machines were introduced in the 1930s, many saw them as a gateway into gambling.  Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally saw to it that they were taken off the streets.

The era of Space Invaders, Pac Man and Donkey Kong descends in New York during its grittiest period – the late 70s/early 80s – and arrives, like an alien presence, into many neighborhood arcades including one of the most famous in Chinatown – an arcade that is still open and the subject of a new documentary The Lost Arcade.

While the video game industry is not something New York City is particularly associated with, the city does in fact set the stage for this revolution of blips and joysticks at the start of the 20th century and from such unconventional places as the West Village and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

In Queens you’ll find one of America’s great tributes to the video game, in the spectacular arcade collection at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Finally — A look inside the games themselves to explore New York as a digital landscape that continues to be of fascination to game developers and players alike.

So are you ready Player One? Grab your quarters and log in to this New York adventure through the world of video games.

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The trailer for The Lost Arcade. It opens today in San Francisco at the Roxie and Friday, August 12, in New York at the Metrograph. Check out their Facebook page for more information about upcoming events and screenings.

The current exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image — ARCADE CLASSICS: VIDEO GAMES FROM THE COLLECTION — continues until mid-September.

Courtesy Museum of the Moving Image
Courtesy Museum of the Moving Image


Children at a penny arcade in Schenectady, NY, in 1910

Photo by Lewis Hine, courtesy US National Archives
Photo by Lewis Hine, courtesy US National Archives


Mayor La Guardia was not a fan of pinball. Here, in a 1942, he rounds up the pinball balls. Read more in Seth Porges’ article for Popular Mechanics:



In a photo taken in 1948 by Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine, prizefighter Walter Cartier plays an arcade game with a young woman.

Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY

And another by Kubrick, from 1946, at Palisades Amusement Park.


A couple images of a penny arcade and shooting gallery in 1950, photo by Robert Offergeld.


Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY


Playland on 42nd Street, courtesy the film Taxi Driver

Courtesy Scouting NY
Courtesy Scouting NY


The other Playland at Broadway and 47th Street, pictured here in the 1950s. GIANT MALTED 15 CENTS!

Office for Metropolitan History
Office for Metropolitan History

And later from the 1970s….



New York City arcade, 1981.



Courtesy Twin Galaxies
Courtesy Twin Galaxies


The original Chinatown Fair sign, near its closure in 2011. It reopened the following year, perhaps a bit more family friendly than its precursor.

Courtesy Giant Bomb
Courtesy Giant Bomb


Screenshot from Mario Bros. (1983)

Courtesy GamesDBase
Courtesy GamesDBase


Screenshot from Amnesia (1986)

Courtesy Hazlift
Courtesy Hazlift



Images from Manhunter: New York (1988)




Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 12.14.12 PM


Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto‘s Liberty City

From GTA Wikia
From GTA Wikia

The area of Bowling Green, after the Great Fire of 1776, as depicted in Assassin’s Creed III.

Courtesy Assassin's Creed Wikia
Courtesy Assassin’s Creed Wikia

Federal Hall: Now and Always An American National Treasure

Federal Hall National Memorial, currently administered by the National Park Service, has always been a popular landmark with tourists thanks to its position on one of the most photographed intersections in New York. Who can resist that noble statue of George Washington silently meditating on the financial juggernaut of Wall Street?

Today Federal Hall was officially named an official American National Treasure, part of the ongoing Saving Places program by National Trust for Historic Preservation calling attention to endangered landmarks of national significance.  It joins an impressive hodgepodge of local landmarks such as South Street Seaport, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Whitney Studio.

While this sounds like a distinction that might pique the interest of Nicolas Cage — after all, he broke into Trinity Church up the street in the first National Treasure film — the National Treasure program gives a boost to historic places that may be otherwise neglected or under-appreciated.  When’s the last time you were there?

Here are a few facts about the history of Federal Hall that you may not have known:

1. This isn’t the real Federal Hall The original structure was built in 1699, built by the British who used  materials from the city’s demolished north defense wall — aka the wall of Wall Street — to construct it.  It was the center of most governmental functions, from city administration to later federal functions.


2. It was remodeled by a controversial architect.  Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer redesigned the structure in time for its use as the first national capital. According to David McCullough, “it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style.”  L’Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC from Maryland swampland and be fired from that project — by George Washington.

Courtesy Nationaal ArchiefCourtesy Nationaal Archief

3. George Washington was first inaugurated here on April 30, 1789. The King James bible he was sworn in with — property of a New York Freemason lodge — is still at Federal Hall.

From the Bowery Boys Instagram feed:


4. The original Federal Hall was torn down in 1812 when city administration moved to the new City Hall.  Its materials were sold off to make other buildings in the city.

Below: Wall Street in 1825 without a Federal Hall, either old or new!


5. The current Federal Hall is actually the original U.S. Custom House which opened in 1842, replacing a structure used for that purpose at 22-24 Wall Street.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

6. The offices of the Custom House again moved in 1855, and the building was used as the U.S. Sub-Treasury building. In 1913 it became the first place in New  York to buy the original buffalo nickel. 

Below: Suffrage proponents Mrs. W.L. Prendergast, Mrs. W.L. Colt, Doris Stevens, Alice Paul stop in front of Federal Hall

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

7. In 1918 Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks famously drew thousands to the steps of Federal Hall to promote the sale of war bonds.   Later that year doughnuts were auctioned off from its steps as a war fund-raiser.


8.  In 1920 a wagon full of dynamite exploded across the street from the Sub-Treasury, killing 38 people in what is today still an unsolved mystery.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

9. The Sub-Treasury had moved out by the 1930s, and the building was officially re-opened as the Federal Hall Memorial Museum in January 1940.  It was inspired in part by America’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration. The 1939-40 World’s Fair presented a replica of the original Federal Hall even after an earlier version of Federal Hall in Bryant Park failed to attract visitors. 

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

10. Federal Hall received a massive renovation in 2006 after the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 weakened the foundations of the building.


Check out the official announcement at the website for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Top image by the Wurts Brothers, taken in 1908. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

A trip to Little Syria, New York’s first Middle Eastern neighborhood

Manhattan is profound for the layers of history that exist on even a modest spot of land. And in the case of blocks south of the World Trade Center, you don’t even have to go back far in time to find some surprising stories of the past.

One hundred years ago, strolling along the southern ends of Washington and Greenwich streets, you would have found yourself within New York’s first Middle Eastern community.

An approximation of the district in yellow (courtesy the Arab American Museum):

Courtesy Arab American Museum
Courtesy Arab American Museum


Little Syria (or the Syrian Quarter) featured rug and trinket shops and restaurants with ‘exotic’ cuisine mentioned frequently by the newspapers of the day. In many ways it resembled the early days of Chinatown – a closed community, linked by language, rich in history and confounding to most New Yorkers.



Early New York Times writers were occasionally fascinated with this unusual pocket of settlement. In 1898, they described it as quiet colony: “It differs much from other foreign quarters in New York. It is fairly clean.  There is nothing forbidden in the aspect of the people or their places of business. The homes are clean and inviting and the stores where Turkish rugs, laces, perfumes, and tobacco are sold, display evidences of prosperity.”


While called ‘Little Syria’, it actually contained populations from several Middle Eastern communities. In the late 19th century, the idea of a ‘Greater Syria’ itself contained “modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip and parts of Turkey and Iraq.” [source]

As a Gilded Age New Yorker, if you knew Little Syria at all — and most New Yorkers stayed away from the ethnic ‘Little’ neighborhoods (Italy, Africa, Hungary) — it was because of the food.  Another New York Times article from 1899 describes it with the passion of a modern restaurant critic: “It is in the restaurants that become cafes, after Syria has eaten her evening meal, that what is perhaps the most interesting life is to be seen.”

Of its inherent exoticness: “One glance at the Arabic bill of fare, written in Arabic script on a flimsy bit of white paper, shows the impossibility of making head or tail out of it.”



There were clearly few frames of references for those who visited this district. A 1903 New York Tribune describes the population of Little Syria — aka “Aladdin land” — as “fugitives from the Sultan’s tyranny” and describes the streets like something out of a chaotic wonderland:

“The shop windows are filled with huge Turkish pipes, whose water filled bulbs and serpentine stems would seem able to bring to the smoker all the dreams of the Thousand and One Nights. Here too the passerby may see lamps of Damascus brass, both great and small, and lighted by innumerable tiny tapers. They look much as the imagination might picture the lamp of Aladdin.”

People may have been prone to stereotype Syrian shops, but in fact the Syrian Quarter was known for a wide variety of goods including jewelry, lace, embroidery, rugs, cigarettes, coffee and so-called ‘kimonos’ then (actually kaftans).



Over a quarter of a million people of Middle Eastern descent were living in America by the early 1920s. Although from a great swath of locations, they were frequently just called ‘Turks’ or ‘Syrians’. (The Sultanate of Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1922 and its territories made independent. )

The first Middle Eastern immigrants to the United States were Christian Syrians and mostly young men, following a similar pattern of immigration as the Italians.   Women and children began coming over soon afterwards once their husbands or brothers established themselves, either as workers on construction crews or as private business owners.

In 1903 the Tribune observed a line of “olive skinned women” diligently sewing on the street, employed as seamstresses in a scene being played out all over New York in other neighborhoods.  Many in the Syrian Quarter were silk and lace manufacturers back home, and some even commuted to work in Paterson, NJ, the so-called silk making capital in the United States at the turn of the century.


The pictures you see in this post were all taken sometimes between 1915 and 1916, a traumatic time in world affairs and the Middle East in particular. Some were Armenians, cut off from regular news from back home and only sporadically aware of the horrors their families were experiencing.

The men who met up in Washington Street cafes smoked hookahs, drank coffee and played games of chess or checkers.  Unlike the stereotypes presented in the press of ‘simple’ shop owners, many were well educated and spoke English. The Canadian author Norman Duncan wrote an entire book on the quarter called The Soul of the Street, focusing on the political conversations from the cafes. (You can check it out here although it’s a fairly impenetrable read today.)




While the earliest residents of the Syrian Quarter were actually Syrian Christians, by the 1910s both Christians and Muslims lived in the neighborhood.  The only vestige of Little Syria that remains today is the home of a former Catholic congregation — St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church at 103 Washington Street. 

The congregation moved here in 1925, but by that time, a larger Middle Eastern community was developing in Brooklyn on Atlantic Avenue. Many vestiges of Brooklyn’s ‘Syrian quarter’ still exist today along Atlantic Avenue between Court Street and the waterfront, most notably Sahadi’s.


Below: An illustration from a 1918 Methodist journal called World Outlook, marking the ethnic enclaves of New York

New Picture (7)


Most of Manhattan’s original Middle Eastern neighborhood was eliminated with the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel which opened in 1950 (although a long construction period cleared out the neighborhood by the early 1940s).  Those shops that managed to stay on shared the streets with a surprising new neighbor – radio.

Radio Row, considered Manhattan’s first technology sector, arrived just as terrestrial radio became the latest craze. Shops sold radio consoles, speakers and (after World War II) even ham-radio equipment, all centered at the corner of Cortlandt and Greenwich streets.





Upcoming history: New York City in new films and miniseries

Tired of superhero movies? An abundance of new period films and television mini-series are on the horizon, presenting unique aspects of New York City history (and the surrounding metropolitan area, as in the first example below).  Which ones are you excited for?



HBO, six-part mini-series, Sunday, August 16
From the creators of The Wire, this is the tale of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko and the complicated tale of desegregated public housing, a struggle which almost shut down the city.
Time and place: Yonkers in the late 1980s
Why see it? This is Oscar Isaac’s third period piece after A Most Violent Year (set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn) and Inside Llewyn Davis (set in Greenwich Village).


Courtesy Stonewall 45
Courtesy Stonewall 45

In theaters, September 25
Roland Emmerich is better known for earth-shattering blockbusters like Independence Day, so imagine what his take on the Stonewall Riots of 1969 will feel like?
Time and place: Greenwich Village in the late 1960s
Why see it? A document of important history and, hey, maybe with explosions!




In theaters, September 30
Not to be outdone, Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Forrest Gump) brings an IMAX, vertigo-inducing take on the story of Phillippe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the high-wire artist who walked between the Twin Towers.
Time and place: Manhattan in 1974
Why see it?  I’m interested to see how history translates in glorious 3D. This film seems as ambitious and high-risk as Petit’s original walk.



Above: From the Brooklyn Heights film shoot of Bridge of Spies (Courtesy Wikimedia/Autopilot)

In theaters, October 16
The last time Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaborated on a war-themed film, it was Saving Private Ryan. This cold-war thriller, inspired by true events, takes a Brooklyn lawyer (played by Hanks) behind enemy lines to negotiate the release of an American pilot.
Time and place: All of the world, it seems, but 1960s Brooklyn Heights plays a pivotal role.
Why see it? I’m looking forward to the on-location shots which temporarily placed the streets of Brooklyn into a kinder, cheaper era.


Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

In theaters, November 6
A wistful romance about a young Irish woman (Saoisie Ronan) who moves to Brooklyn for a better life.
Time and place: Brooklyn in the 1950s (although none of the film was made here)
Why see it?  One of the best recent books about New  York, in the hands of some great talent.


Courtesy the Weinstein Company
Courtesy the Weinstein Company

In theaters, November 20
Patricia Highsmith’s controversial novel (The Price of Salt) about an intriguing lesbian attraction between an older and younger woman is given the lush treatment by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).
Time and place: Manhattan in 1952 (although this too was mostly filmed elsewhere)
Why see it? A beautiful tale, in the hands of the perfect director and cast (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara)


And although these two films are not set in New  York City, they depict two uniquely important moments of historical relevance that might interest you:

This 1953 Boston police booking photo shows James "Whitey" Bulger after an arrest.. (AP Photo/Boston Police)
This 1953 Boston police booking photo shows James “Whitey” Bulger after an arrest.. (AP Photo/Boston Police)

In theaters, September 18
The wicked Whitey Bulger, the bloody gangster, who controversially becomes an FBI informant.
Time and place: Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s
Why see it? This year’s submission in the crowded field of period gangster films, with Johnny Depp finally in a juicy role.


Sufferagette Emily Pankhurst addressing a meeting in London's Trafalgar Square, 1908.
Sufferagette Emily Pankhurst addressing a meeting in London’s Trafalgar Square, 1908.

In theaters, October 23
The struggle for women’s right to vote in Great Britain, depicting many of the great crusaders of the day, including Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep)
Time and place: Great Britain in the late 19th century and early 20th century
Why see it?  Maybe this will inspire an equally exciting American version of the same tale! (NOTE: A reader notes that there is an American version — and a fine one at that — called Iron Jawed Angels, although I hope somebody makes another attempt at this subject in time for the 100 anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment.)


And that’s not even counting these other 2015 releases with historical themes and settings —  The Revenant (1820s North American Dakota Territory), The Hateful Eight (1860s Wyoming), In the Heart of the Sea (1820’s American seafaring) and Trumbo (1950s Hollywood).

Blackout! One ugly night in 1977

REVIEW The evening of July 13, 1977, will be remembered as one of the worst in New York City history, a catastrophic electrical blackout that plunged an already-weakened city into terrifying anarchy.

Meanwhile, up on the top floors of the World Trade Center, they were having a party.

The thrilling new documentary Blackout — making its debut tonight on PBS’s American Experience — reveals a city in paralysis and the differing ways people soldiered the evening of darkness.


The blackout was caused by a series of lightening strikes which took out electrical substations along the Hudson River. The timing was especially unfortunate, blanketing the region in darkness just as the sun had set.

Up at the World Trade Center restaurant Windows On The World, patrons were initially stunned, seeing whole areas of the city disappear into blackness. Fear turned into merriment; soon came the candles, the bottles of champagne and the drunken songs.  The extraordinary video footage in Blackout captures a lively moment, one which would fade into the late night. “‘We were on an island in the sky, isolated from what was happening in all of New York City.”

The blackout exposed the worst areas of the city to unpoliced chaos. The Bronx was already a disaster zone, even with electricity. Arson was a regular occurrence, emptying out whole blocks and endangering those too poor to leave. The blackout created a sort of delirium; trapped in hot apartments, people wandered outside and heard the sound of smashed windows, neighborhood stores under the threat of looting.

Courtesy The Moderate Voice
Courtesy The Moderate Voice

In some neighborhoods, it was a free-for-all.  Normally law-abiding citizens when wild. “Not a package of Pampers survived the looting,” says one commentator in the film.

This single night of madness destroyed life on some streets for well over a decade as business owners fled certain blocks, now afraid of their own former clientele.

Blackout is an intense experience, throwing you immediately into the dark evening with a sense of dizziness that many New Yorkers must have felt that evening.  New York City has suffered through other electrical blackouts — and for longer periods of time — but none were as damaging to the soul of the city as the one on July 13.

Blackout: American Experience

July 14, 9 pm EST (check local listings for further viewing dates)


‘The Walk’: The World Trade Center in 3D?

Robert Zemeckis, the Oscar-winning director of Forrest Gump, is turning the best documentary of 2008 Man on Wire — about Philippe Petit’s unbelievable tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 — into a feature length film. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  In 3-D. And, apparently, on IMAX.

So what do you think? I’m sort of dumb-founded this movie has to exist but I trust the talent behind it, so we’ll see.

For comparison here’s the trailer to the 2008 documentary:

Philippe Petit, just 25 years old, was not done with New York City after his death-defying tightrope walk between the Twin Tower. Just three weeks later, he strung a tightrope across the length of Belvedere Lake in Central Park and skillfully walked the length of it, all the way to the tower of Belvedere Castle,  to the delight of thousands of on-lookers.

This sounds far less dangerous than his WTC stunt, of course, but Petit was reportedly still frightened as he did not know how to swim!  Three lifeguards stood along the side of the lake, prepared to jump in should the aerialist stumble.

One week later, he tackled a more imposing body of water, walking a wire over the Great Falls in Patterson, NJ. (Picture courtesy Physical Comedy)

The grand opening of the World Trade Center on April 4, 1973; Richard Nixon, labor strikes and “General Motors Gothic”

Photography on this page, from various periods, by Edmund V. Gillon, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.  Check out their online gallery for some more beautiful black-and-white shots. 

Let me take you back to a simpler time, back to a time where it might have been okay to hate the actual World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center was originally seen as a representation of New York’s own dreams and failures.  The buildings represented progress to some, disruption to others.

An entire business district — Radio Row — was eliminated in its construction.  Another neighborhood — Battery Park City — sprang up in its shadow.  The monumental design by Minoru Yamasaki radically altered (distorted?) the skyline. Some of New York’s oldest streets were now blocked from sunlight. On the other hand, an area of Manhattan that would have been susceptible to rising blight was now renewed.  It was the apotheosis of post-modern design, the apex of New York City construction.

Everything grand and intolerable about New York City in the late 1960s/early 1970s was embodied here in these two impossibly tall shafts of metal.

Many saw a waste of resources and state governments with skewered priorities.  Business interests were hopeful the buildings would reinvigorate the Financial District.  They would, eventually.  But back in 1973 many openly wondered how its owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were even going to attract tenants.

Below: The view of downtown Manhattan from a New Jersey marina

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Edmund V Gillon
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Edmund V Gillon

After years of construction that transformed lower Manhattan, the buildings were officially opened in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 4, 1973.  Far from a rapturous embrace, the opening of the world’s tallest buildings was met with relief, resignation and turmoil.  Few were in a mood to celebrate two shiny new symbols of wealth in a city slowly nearing bankruptcy.

Here are a few more details from its opening day and its aftermath:

People were already over it:  The opening was occasioned by severe rain. (It’s in good company; the opening of the Statue of Liberty was also met with a downpour.)  Even without it, however, the celebration would have been heavily muted.  The ground was broken on the World Trade Center site almost seven years before, and New Yorkers had plenty of time to get used to the rising towers. The first tower had been completed by 1970, but by then, the city had become rather jaded to the expensive buildings.  As it was, lower levels of the second building were still not even completed.

Disagreements: The top luminaries at the opening were New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and New Jersey governor William T. Cahill.  The World Trade Center was a Port Authority project;  PATH trains to New Jersey were rumbling underneath (or were supposed to be, see below).

While the two governors seemed in playful spirits, Cahill openly resented the backseat his state took in the finished product.  According to author Eric Darton:  “Cahill implies that New Jersey’s commuter rail needs have taken second place to the trade center, and Rockefeller, still grinning, points towards the Jersey shore. ‘You see all those magnificent container ports,’ he says, ‘that took all those jobs away from New York.’ ”

2013_3_2_ 365

In Absentia: Gone were the days when U.S. presidents showed up at the opening of New York landmarks, but President Richard Nixon did send a statement, hailing WTC as “a major factor for the expansion of the nation’s international trade.”  That very same month, the Watergate cover-up erupted into the scandal that would eventually lead to his resignation the following year.

STRIKE! Not only was Nixon not there, but the man he designated to read the speech — Peter J. Brennan — was not even there.  Three days earlier, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen union began a strike against Port Authority.  Because of the strike, the PATH train — that glorious feature of the new World Trade Center — was closed for a total of 63 days.  Brennan was Nixon’s new Secretary of Labor, so it would hardly seem proper to break the picket line.  Nixon’s speech was delivered instead by a Port Authority chairman.


Critics, Part One:  Noted labor leader and powerful mediator Theodore W. Kheel was violently against the states’ interest in the World Trade Center.  Calling it “socialism at its worst,” he demanded the governors take the podium on ribbon-cutting day and sell the building to private investors “at the earliest possible date.”

Others were perhaps understandably concerned that the buildings, given special tax status, were now a quarter-filled with state offices and certainly destined to empty and bankrupt office buildings with no such tax breaks in the surrounding area.  Luckily, Kheel did live to see the building sold to private concerns in 1998.

Critics, Part Two: Somebody else was saving up some vitriol for opening day — noted architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable.  Having years to craft some well-worded jabs, she did so in a column in the New York Times the following day. “These are big buildings, but they are not great architecture…..The Port Authority has built the ultimate Disneyland fairytale blockbuster.  It is General Motors Gothic.”

Critics, Part Three:  Labor leaders were disgruntled. Critics dismissed it.  But many New Yorkers outright loathed it. It’s a bit disturbing to read such outright disgust over structures that we have very different feelings about today.  From the Village Voice a week after the opening:  “The ecology-minded and those who are concerned with the energy crisis are fond of predicting that the building will have to be torn down — or at the very least abandoned — on that not-to-distant day when the power it consumes puts an intolerable strain on our already-diminishing power reserves.”


Nowhere to Eat:  The World Trade Center could facilitate thousands of employees, but, on opening day, it had one restaurant, called “Eat and Drink,” where “the waitresses wear hard hats and its busboys wear vests inscribed “Ecologist” on the back.” [source]  In the second building, a makeshift sandwich shop opened on the unfinished 44th floor.  Needless to say, outside food vendors in the area were not displeased.

Subversion The ribbon-cutting ceremony also marked the end of One World Trade Center’s dominance as the world’s tallest building.  Chicago trumped it when Sears Tower topped out at 1,454-feet less than one month later.

In New York, the buildings quickly became a totem of excess, of something that could be symbolically overcome.  You may be familiar with the daredevil Philippe Petit and his insane and unbelievably majestic (and illegal) tightrope walk between the towers.  But you may not remember that it took place just sixteen months after the opening, on August 6, 1974.  Two years later, King Kong performed a similar sort of feat in the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange.

But there was magic in the air.  On the very same day as the ribbon-cutting, in a hospital across the water in Brooklyn, a woman went into labor and gave birth to a child who would later become the nightclub-loving illusionist David Blaine.  The World Trade Center and David Blaine — born on the same day!


A strange, new skyline: World Trade Center 1971

Two beautiful and unique 1971 photographs by Life Magazine’s Henry Groskinsky showing the nearly completed World Trade Center.  These are fascinating not only for the appearance of the towers as they prepare to lord over the ’70s skyline, but also to note what’s notably not there yet — the entire Battery Park City area. At this point in time, the land is still being formed using the excavated materials from the World Trade Center site and dredged sand from other places in the harbor.

Manhattan filmmaker Gary Kaskel made this jazzy student film about the Towers in 1972, highlighting a day of construction and capturing the wonder and strangeness of the towers. It’s followed by a post-9/11 report from CBS which used footage from the movie:


Defying gravity: New York’s most famous daredevils

Bird in the sky: The delicate Ms. Millman makes it look easy

Last night on my walk home, I observed something you just don’t always see everyday — a renegade acrobat dangling from the top of the Williamsburg Bridge! The perilous pair, Seanna Sharpe and Savage Skinner, performed this foolhardy trapeze as traffic whizzed by below them, and the two were later apprehended by police. Will this stunt place them in the annals of great stuntwork performed by others who have used New York landmarks as their own personal stages?

1 Jules Leotard
This young French performer, renown in his home country, performed at New York’s Academy of Music in 1868 where he essentially debuted the art of the flying trapeze to startled New Yorkers. While we would not consider his feats particularly compelling today, audiences went wild, with local papers calling him a ‘dazzling, plumed bird’ and the Tribute referred to him as ‘tremendous, as a son of thunder’. He would return to Europe, where his tight, one-piece uniform would be mass produced and eventually bear his name.

2 Hanlon Brothers
The lofty endeavors of tightrope walking and trapeze acrobatics were forever changed on November 1, 1869, when an acrobatic troupe brought an aerial show to New York so ambitious for its time that it required one of its members to invent the aerial safety net! (William Hanlon eventually held the patent for it.) But here’s the odd part. The venue for that performance? Tammany Hall, at the time at 141 East 14th Street — and nearby the Academy of Music — making the block a sort of revolutionary spot for 19th century stuntwork.  [source]

Steve Brodie
A teenage newsie looked over at the Brooklyn Bridge as it slowly rose over the East River during its construction in the 1870s. He looked and thought, “I’m going to jump off that one day!” And so he did, on July 23, 1886 — or so he claimed — and the single event transformed him into a minor celebrity. He toured in a stage show recounting the event and opened a popular saloon at 114 Bowery (at Grand Street) in honor of his claim to fame. Today most people attempting such a ridiculous stunt are hardly considered heroic.

Harry Houdini
The legendary magician moved to New York at an early age  in the 1880s, and as he honed his crafts of illusion, he frequently used the city as a backdrop to heighten the drama. He was thrown into the East River on July 7, 1912, locked in a crate and bound in handcuffs and leg-irons. (Time it took him to escape: 57 seconds.) And in another rather famous trick in 1916, the escape artist, bound in a strait-jacket, hung precipitously from a crane over an excavation for the New York subway in the middle of Times Square. (Escape time: 2 minutes, 37 seconds.)

Below: Houdini, coming up for air (Pic courtesy NYPL)

Bird Millman
The lovely queen of the tightrope (pictured at top) was a favorite of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, not to mention a featured performer for Florenz Ziegfeld. She performed hundreds of times within vaudeville theaters in New York well into the late 1920s, but occasionally she performed outside, dancing across tightropes stretched between buildings.

Evel Knievel
Garbed in his trademark patriotic colors, Knievel leapt over nine cars at Madison Square Garden during a series of shows in July of 1971 — his only major New York appearances. But the stuntman’s real dream never got off the ground:  the desire to jump his motorcycle from one great skyscraper to another. The city wouldn’t have approved of something so dangerous….

Philippe Petit

…which is why you don’t ask them. The eccentric French high-wire performer snuck into the World Trade Center several times to plan the specifics of an extraordinary display of daredevilry. And on August 13, 1974, this ‘Man on Wire’ walked a narrow cable from one tower to the other. A masterful display of personal courage, and a rather embarrassing on the Twin Towers’ lax security.

Alain Robert
This modern daredevil — the ‘modern Spider-man’ as the press has dubbed him — has scaled all sorts of tall surfaces throughout the world, including the Empire State Building in 1994. When the new New York Times headquarters was completed in 2008, it was like a red cape to a charging bull, and Robert took to the building on June 5, 2008, and unfurled a banner about global warming.

ALSO: Coney Island has been the site of a great many deathdefying performances over the decades. An August 14, 1904 issue of the New York Tribune marvels at the amazing stunts at the theme park Dreamland — “Men Must Do Much to Thrill The Public Now” — and notes one performer who fell off a rusty 725-foot sliding cable, tumbling into the ‘Shoot the Chutes’ ride!