Below is a picture of New York’s first World Trade Center building, part of the 1939 World Fair in Flushing Meadows, a neighborhood of Queens. (If you squint a little, you can make out the words near the entry.)
The World Fair was organized during the depths of the Depression with the goal of promoting economic activity.
In fact, the World Trade Center building was an afterthought, put together only after China declined the space allotted for its exhibit. The empty slot was offered to the International Chamber of Commerce and similar groups. It was built with the motto of “world peace through world trade.”
By the time the fair closed, World War II had begun and the pursuit of world peace through war occupied everyone’s attention for the next six years.
After the war, the idea of a World Trade Center lingered in the minds of Gotham leaders. A state agency was created to plan a permanent trade exhibition space in the city for the display and promotion of products for sale and trade.
The trade center never was built because leaders agreed that investments in ports and infrastructure would yield greater benefits. Today, trade exhibitions in New York mostly are held in the enormous Javits Convention Center on 11th Avenue.
Still, the World Trade Center name animated the imaginations of big thinkers, including uber-planner Robert Moses and businessman David Rockefeller. Over time, a project came to shape and was planned for lower Manhattan, which was home to many small businesses but was seen as losing ground to newer skyscrapers in Midtown.
The Port Authority
World Trade Center planning was taken up by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a two-state agency created in the 1921 to develop ports and transit within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty.
A key piece of real estate, a large two-block train station that anchored a Newark-lower Manhattan train line was acquired along with a bankrupt railroad, now known as the Path (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) in 1962. Many other buildings were condemned, bought and razed — often over owners’ strong objections — to assemble the final 16-acre site.
What was planned was an eight-building office complex with the two prominent square towers, World Trade Center 1 and World Trade Center 2. Wags at the time said initial mockups of the towers looked like the packing boxes for the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, Midtown’s two most prominent skyscrapers.
The towers, which opened in 1973, were the tallest in the world at their time. In a sad irony remembered only later, construction plans stressed that either tower could withstand the impact of a plane as large as a Boeing 707. (There were no Boeing 767 airliners then.)
A Good Idea?
The World Trade Center was an example of city planning writ large.
No agency smaller than the port authority could have pulled the thing off. It required government involvement to assemble the necessary properties and to sell bonds to fund the construction. (New York’s financial situation was not good at the time; the city nearly went broke in 1975.)
When completed in 1974, the trade center was a collection of big office buildings that happened to house some port authority offices. Despite its name, the project had little if anything to do with trade. For years, people questioned why an agency whose mandate included ports, airports, tunnels and bridges had got itself into the office-building business.
Early on, the World Trade Center complex had trouble leasing its office space. It filled up with time, but it is fair to ask whether a similar neighborhood transformation would have happened anyway.
The other notable feature of lower Manhattan is the New York Stock Exchange, the symbolic heart of the city’s financial district. In fact, financial employment went wild in the years after the WTC opened.
According to a 1991 Bureau of Labor Statistics report on New York employment, there were 101,000 banking jobs in the city in 1960.
Thirty years later, banking employment had rise to 166,000, and a new financial category, securities and commodities brokers, accounted for another 129,000 jobs.
At this point, the financial institutions were making very good money. At least two investment banks planned their own privately funded skyscrapers near the NYSE building. Others might have done so as well if the World Trade Center had not been built.
We know what happened to the Twin Towers in September, 2001.
On Wednesday, I’ll discuss changes to the World Trade Center between 9/11 and the current day.