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We Rise or Fall Together
January 2021: through my attic window here in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, the World Trade Center’s glow spreads the night clouds and, through winter trees, I see the tower’s spire.
Darkness falls early these days. A literal plague ravages the land; its death toll has risen again, thousands of victims—an epic slaughter, a 9/11—every day. The American body politic roils in bloody disunion unseen since the Civil War, and though I am the grandson of four immigrants, truly grateful for all my country has given me and mine, I am no optimist. These days, I take comfort near—in my wife’s laugh, and in her arms, in imagining the next time we’ll be able to see our son, in each meal, movie, and book. Faith and hope rise twenty miles away, where the Freedom Tower soars. It is not a symbol. It is not a metaphor. It is a spire atop an office tower surrounded by other office towers. The faith and hope I feel seeing it isn’t abstracted patriotism or spiritual pap; it’s a practical belief and an existential proof: If we got that bastard done, we can do anything.
The key word in that last sentence isn’t anything or that, despite their italics; the key word there is we. Corny? I think not. I’m a cynic, by nature and by trade, and devoting a decade of my life to the tale of the Freedom Tower’s rising didn’t change me. The rebuilding was a clown show, a shambles, a mockery of all the civic values mouthed by every politician who paid lip service to 9/11 and its victims to amass power, and heaven knows it wasn’t only the politicians looking for an angle, the next play, aflame with desire and ready to fight for more leverage, money, power. It was the business machers, too, the land barons, bankers, armies of litigators, plus the media, which uses—and is used by—all of them to shape and tell public stories that pass for history.
It took me all of those ten years to learn and relearn that this massive endeavor, with so much at stake—hundreds of billions of dollars, the torn soul of a proud city’s skyline, the thousands of lives taken and families ruined—this absurd pie fight, was the only way the rebuilding could be accomplished. Because it was also the essence of New York City itself, and of our raucous, tribal, mutant union, these beloved United States, the collective We that New York City exemplifies, amplifies, distills, and anchors.
We Americans are an ornery, ignoble bunch, quick to take umbrage, quicker to incite it, ever fractured, never beyond healing. The best of us under the worst of circumstances can maybe find a way short of mayhem and mass murder to get some healing done, but maybe only if and when we suffer enough to love our freaking neighbor. Now—the eternal now, yes, but especially today—would be a lovely time for that healing grace. A spire is a spire is a spire, yet through my attic window you can also see the underlying bedrock truth of our American faith and hope: We rise, or fall, together.
The final section of the spire is hoisted onto One World Trade Center.
The idea of covering the Freedom Tower build from beginning to end was Esquire editor Mark Warren’s; the commitment came from then editor in chief David Granger. We had no idea what we were actually getting into back in 2005, when the Tower was then scheduled to be topped out by 2010. But two facts became clear as soon as I started: The Port Authority, owner of the World Trade Center, was not going to grant us access to the site, its plans, or its decision makers; and actual construction of the Freedom Tower would not begin for . . . no one knew. Months, for sure. This turned out to be a lucky break. I had time to start reading about the complicated histories of the site, the Port Authority itself, and the building of the Twin Towers. We were obsessed with the sheer complexity of erecting a building so tall, and the task of doing it at a place still flooded with meaning and fiery with emotion. The meaning and emotion made the story worth writing; what worried me, a guy whose Cro-Magnon manual skills don’t go beyond lefty-loosey righty-tighty, was trying to understand and to explain in words all it took to literally build the damn thing from bedrock to 1,776 feet.
As for access, we caught an even luckier break: Dara McQuillan, who works for Silverstein Properties, the site’s developer. Without his yes, with no foot inside the door, I had no chance to close the deal. Dara understood my mission—to write an accurate, truthful history of the rebuilding, more or less as it happened. I never pulled one punch, and Dara never gave me grief but once, when I referred to Larry Silverstein’s continual portrayal in the New York City print media as “the Fagin of Fifth Avenue,” and that’s only because Dara’s Ireland born and bred, and so has read many, many books. His generosity and faith in Esquire’s mission were absolutely crucial.
Dara McQuillan of Silverstein Properties outside 4 World Trade Center.
Five years of Esquire stories grew into ten. I worked the rebuilding story every which way: on the site, on the phone, on the road, or in a source’s office or a coffee shop for an interview. I can’t honestly tell you that reporting is hard work—try selling shoes—but it does take a certain set of skills common to spycraft and stalking. I broke news once in a while—when the Port Authority decided to officially rechristen the Freedom Tower as One World Trade Center, and when former New York governor George Pataki had a three-foot-tall model of the Freedom Tower built for him to tote around the country in 2008 as he raised money for what became a stillborn presidential run.
The Port Authority and George Pataki denied these relatively meaningless truths, by the way. This is one of the great truisms of journalism and society, and not merely in our time and place: Never, ever, under any circumstances, trust any politician or spokesperson to place the truth above their own best interests. Because I had the unique luxury of spending ten years on one story, and the support of a great magazine, I built a body of knowledge and a network of sources to depend upon and trust. I could also judge without worry the sorry parade of Ground Zero–adjacent politicians who came and went—Pataki and Giuliani and Spitzer and Bloomberg and Cuomo and Christie among them—kings for a day, building little beyond their own personal empires. Ten years, ten long stories—hundreds of hours of recorded interviews, thousands of photos and news clips. What I learned about construction, engineering, architecture, and New York City politics, I learned on the job, but what sticks is the feel of the place and the people who trusted me enough to let me ride along on their knowledge, insight, and wisdom. I tried my best to repay them and do justice to the place and its various meanings as I went along, telling the stories with fidelity to the truth as I saw it unfold, with all the feelings fit to print—the least I could do for the privilege and honor of doing my share with what tools I have. I’m no historian, barely a journalist, and certainly not one if that term involves “objectivity”—an abstract psychic distance from the story that shields a reporter and writer from bias and judgment. That’s not how the human brain works—history’s not written by machines; human objectivity is an intellectual sham—and it’s not how I’ve ever worked a job, especially the World Trade Center. To spend ten years writing and reporting about that patch of land did not make me less passionate about the place; quite the opposite. On a planet soaked in blood and suffering, Ground Zero was an open wound, a void, a nullity embodied by its emptiness. It is healed now. Yet the scar still speaks to me, and always will.
Scott Raab at the signing of the first steel column to be picked and placed into the foundation of One World Trade Center.
Funny, in a New York City way, but those towers were distinctly unloved before crashing to earth, neither admired nor respected by the critical arbiters of the 1970s. Lewis Mumford saw “purposeless giantism”; Ada Louise Huxtable dismissed them as “General Motors Gothic”; Jane Jacobs called the WTC urban “vandalism,” and not for nothing, these narrow, redundant towers upthrust from a so-called superblock, hedged by lesser, duller buildings that turned through streets into dead ends to form a barren concrete plaza shredded in cold weather by vortices of bitter Hudson River wind.
In life, they were at once impossible to miss and, to those living in and around the city, invisible. The Twin Towers were there and not there—seen a thousand times a year in movies and television shows, in millions of photos, instantly recognizable, globally iconic, and all but unseen in the city’s daily life: tall wallpaper; the towers served as a compass in the downtown sky, an isolated destination for office drones and tourists only. There they stood—fewer than thirty years—until the morning of 9/11. That day, across the planet, two billion people watched the news and saw them gashed and burning, then collapsing—vanished into gales of dust. Countless millions of Americans tuned in live on TV as the helicopters circled over the human beings atop the towers, scores of whom, trusting gravity to spare them the fire, arced to their deaths. It was reality TV, an endless sunlit nightmare of carnage inescapable, unbearable.
Lathers work on a latticework of rebar layering the subbasement floor at One World Trader Center.
And yet the plainest historical lesson of 9/11 was quickly obvious: New York City would overcome, prevail, abide. Within days of the attack, the politicians, the landlord, and the tenant were dueling for power over the rebuilding and the billions of relief and recovery dollars that would flow—business as usual in New York City. The bustle paused while the city and the sky went literally silent, but never the hustle, not here. There was no shame or falsity in that; the shock, outrage, grief, and fear following that sudden and vast destruction and death were no less real; there was even a certain reassurance: The towers were down, but the city was standing, the pigeons were pooping, and the power brokers were busy angling for an edge. Wall Street reopened for trading by September 17. George W. Bush asked a wary citizenry to keep the faith and keep shopping, lest the terrorists win.
In and around New York City, the grief hit hard and lasted, and the fear ramped up beyond anything the city had felt after the WTC was truck-bombed in 1993, killing seven people. The scale of human loss and the immensity of destruction on 9/11 were indeed terrifying, so the fear was fixed upon whether more attacks were imminent; there was never any fear that New York itself had been fatally wounded in substance or spirit, no doubt that we’d survive, rebuild, and thrive—none. Eight million people in the five boroughs, twenty-plus million in the megalopolis, the cold heart of capitalism, complete with a $2-trillion-plus GDP and more billionaires than anywhere else in the world, not to mention the secular capital of everything sublime—and satanic—in the worship of dollars, culture, and pastrami: New York doesn’t bluff, fold, or bet against itself.
And so twenty years later, as forensic scientists still parse bone dust, still search for DNA clues in the remains of hundreds of victims not yet identified, whose kin still hope for whatever closure may come, and as the “Tribute in Light” beams still pierce heaven dusk to dawn each 9/11—two brilliant blue-white shafts, ghosts of the departed icons, resurrected and heaven-bound, rising and revered—the work goes on. Another Silverstein-owned tower’s on the way, plus a performing-arts center that’s been more or less on hold for a full two decades. The creative genius and tragic flaw of humanity—our innate drive to build wedded to our urge to destroy—are not just visible here: They fill to bursting the eye—up close, they fill the cosmos—and the heart.
Joe Woolhead is a bighearted, honest man. His guerrilla style as a photographer, founded on personal knowledge of doing construction work, put him in the trenches every workday, every month of every year. He’s nimble, tireless, and never in the way. His photos of Ground Zero and the human army rebuilding those sixteen acres are a repository of American history and glorious illumination of the sole indisputable, absolute, and literal truth: Inch by inch, day by day, downtown has been reborn and New York City’s sky reclaimed. Joe scrambled on-site in the first days in the toxic smoking pit; twenty years later—even now, at Covid o’clock—Joe’s there shooting pictures. New York rats can’t outwork Woolhead.
If we got that bastard done, we can do anything.
We. The tensile strength of the city’s spirit transcends the magnetic force of money, because it is forever replenished, refreshed, and inspired by those who come from other places. New York is where humanity has arrived for centuries, bringing new life—language, food, music, and hope, ambition, energy, and courage—to add to the most ethnically diverse populace anywhere. Our country’s arms still open here. The citizens of scores of other nations died at Ground Zero on 9/11, and whether they sought this shore for any Lockean notion of liberty or just to freely chase a buck is beside the point: The courage and creative force they bring makes and keeps New York City true to the best of America’s best dreams. Every newcomer redeems the covenant with our collective self—the same compact joined by our own ancestors who came as strangers and struggled and stayed to become Americans.
New York City is where that pioneer promise still gets kept. It was pure political silliness that inspired George Pataki to call it the “Freedom Tower,” but seeing it shining down the harbor toward Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty doesn’t register as patriotic kitsch. Here the New World still beckons, more real, more joyful, older and truer than any parchment under glass. These are living markers of a sacred love born of scripture and lived right here:
Welcome the stranger. Love thy neighbor. Post no bills.
Once More to the Sky: The Rebuilding of the World Trade Center
Simon & Schuster
Humans being human, these are aspirational precepts; the goal, in theory, is to strive to live up to them. New York City is tribal in the usual ways, divided by race and class, but with three million foreign-born denizens and a population density of twenty-seven thousand people per square mile, this is a place where the striving is a matter of daily practice on the streets. It works out, more or less, because the stress of making a go of life in a world capital requires enough effort without paying a lot of attention to other folks’ business, and because a vast majority of humans—in New York City as elsewhere—are decent or better folk trying hard to get through the day with some measure of grace and absence of friction.
On 9/11, during the darkest hours of the most horrific day in the city’s history, New Yorkers united with loving kindness, feeding and consoling one another, searching for the missing and gathering in reflection and prayer, enacting a loving community that finds its echo in the civic suffering of these days.
Nothing reveals and defines the soul of a community, or a country, more clearly than tough times. Now, twenty years after 9/11, as we face a collective grief, suffering, and outrage on a scale beyond anything we’ve known in our lives, the Freedom Tower’s spire reminds me that nothing—no act of terrorism, no natural disaster, no pandemic: nothing—is stronger than the human spirit of community.
The Freedom Tower, looking east over Brooklyn.
Adapted from Once More to the Sky: The Rebuilding of the World Trade Center, by Scott Raab and Joe Woolhead, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission. Epilogue copyright © 2021 by Scott Raab.
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