A personal memoir of the World Trade Center, of big events that impact little lives ...on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
I was 14 when I first saw the World Trade Center buildings in New York. It was August 1970 and I had gone to New York to visit my sister Sukanya who had just moved there. The Beatles had split up and “Let it Be”, their last film, had just been released. My sister had moved into a ‘loft' on East Broadway in Chinatown with her painter husband Ted. Loft living was an unusual feature specific to New York in those days — they were full floor spaces in old industrial buildings which artists found perfect to convert into studios. Most at that time were illegal to live in and her loft was not far from the site where the Trade Center buildings were coming up. To me, this was all very hip!
I knew all about the buildings. My father, Habib Rahman, was Chief Architect of the CPWD back in Delhi. The Trade Centers were to be the tallest buildings in the world, rising above the Empire State Building in New York and their design and engineering were being followed by architects around the world. For a teenaged Meccano model-maker like me, the structures were fascinating. They were the biggest buildings being built using the exterior wall-support tube structures in steel — a system which had been devised by Fazlur Khan, the structural engineer of Bangladeshi origin. I knew about him too, my father had told me about him and had met him in an international conference on tall buildings. The building was prefabricated in Japan, large sections of the steel wall coming by sea. The architect, Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), was of Japanese American ancestry and well-known across the world.
When I first saw them from the Circle Line cruise boat on the Hudson river, it was a surreal site. There were sandy beaches of landfill with the huge two towers coming up in the dunes. It was the first time I had seen a self-raising crane in the central structure which went up as each floor rose. I made some of my earliest photographs of these structures with a plastic Kodak camera.
Many years later (1979), freshly graduated from the Yale Art School, my classmate George Shakespeare found an advertisement for a ‘raw' loft for rent in the Fulton Fish Market on South Street. ‘Raw' meant that there was a staircase which came through the floor, there were two electric plug outlets, and basic water and sewage pipes to which any toilet and kitchen fixtures could be attached. Many windows were missing. But it had a spectacular view of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge and it was huge. George put down the deposit and it was ours. It was a historic 1834 building of brick and wood which had been used to manufacture sails for the schooners docked across the street. The Fish Market was a short walk down Fulton Street from the Trade Centers. My loft became an adda for India's artists and filmmakers.
The observation deck at the top of the towers became a mandatory stop for any tourist visiting New York, and if you could afford it, a visit to at least the bar of Windows on The World, the tallest restaurant in the world with a spectacular view. We all did it with visiting parents. My father and I were also given a technical tour of the buildings by an Indian engineer who worked for the Port Authority which owned the buildings. The architectural style of the plaza and the lobbies was oddly ‘cool'. With lots of steel and glass, this public plaza did not have the welcoming feel of the great public plaza in New York, Rockefeller Center. Huge and windy, the plaza was dominated by the severe vertical lines of the two towers looming overhead. Ironically, Yamasaki had developed an architectural vocabulary which was almost Islamic — stylised pointed steel arches in close repetition which looked like cloisters around a mosque courtyard. The best news stand in New York was run by desis in the basement. It carried newspapers and rare magazines from across the world and was a favourite hangout of mine. There were also great sandwich and pizza joints in the basement from where one could also catch the PATH trains to New Jersey. Most memorable were the rows of long escalators going down to the Path station which were dizzying with their seemingly endless depth.
When it happened
I was on assignment photographing the jazzy new bar in the Park Hotel in Bangalore on September 11, 2001 when a friend called and said I should turn on the TV, “Don't you live near the World Trade Center ?” she said. We turned on a full wall of TVs and I saw the burning towers repeated on 30 TV screens. Later that evening in an even more surreal setting on the roof of the hotel, I was running out of Dominique Lapierre's book launch and saw in the adjoining room the towers come smashing down. Luckily, my loft faced the East River so it missed the direct blast of the debris cloud which came smashing down Fulton Street and all of the tip of Manhattan. It took me hours to hear from my roommate Zette who had got into a PATH train in the basement of the towers to her job in New Jersey minutes before the first jet hit the north tower. From a distance, it was unreal. I knew the scale of the buildings and couldn't believe that both had come down.
When I flew back on October 2nd, my neighbourhood was under curfew. There was no surface transport though the subways were running. I took a taxi with my luggage to the closest point I could get to — artist Krishna Reddy's loft in Soho. Unpacking my luggage there, I took the subway home with two shopping bags of clothes. Residential IDs had to be presented to get to the Fish Market which had been closed and temporarily shifted to the Bronx. It was strange to see all of downtown with empty streets but filled with police and army vehicles. Huge refrigeration trucks were parked where normally fish trucks would be. But these trucks outside my door were to preserve human remains as they were found in the ruins down Fulton Street.
I will never forget the smell. The debris was smoking and smouldering for months and even though our windows faced away, there was no getting away. I took architect Charles Correa to the ruins and as he looked sadly at the burning twisted steel he told me that his first apprenticeship after his undergraduate studies in Michigan had been with Yamasaki. “He is the only architect to have two major projects blown up,” he said, as I looked at him astonished. The other had been the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St Louis Missouri, a classic case study of public housing which became a hotbed of social and criminal problems and was actually dynamited by the city! (built in 1954 demolished in 1972). It was a chilling and poignant moment.
Looking at the smoking debris I couldn't get a thought out of my mind — how this was America's Babri Masjid moment. I had seen the debris of the Babri Masjid after it was demolished, walking through those barriers of steel surrounded by suspicious armed guards, and this was strangely reminiscent of that. My friend Paul turned white when a man came up to me at the ruins one night and yelled at me to go back to where I came from. Just as the mosque demolition changed India forever, 9/11 changed America. It also made me think of the passions which can be aroused by a building … a creation of an architect. Both structures had become the focus of attacks by extremist political outfits using religious rhetoric for their justification. The New York attacks were led by outsiders, unlike the Ayodhya one. Both buildings had motivated symbolism projected onto them, quite unintended by their designers. Even after the passage of years, that rhetoric of hate and fear focused around these sites has not diminished there or here.
The historic fish market was finally moved for good in 2005, a victim of the changes to lower Manhattan brought on by 9/11. The neighbourhood had been a hotbed of artist lofts (many famous) since the 1950s. The market move led to the loss of my loft. The historic building had been bought just a month after 9/11 by the canny son of a New York architect who sensed a great investment opportunity. During the legal procedures as he tried to evict existing tenants, he called the police on a false complaint against me. When the cops entered my loft without a warrant and body-searched me I knew what it felt like to have a Muslim name in America after 9/11.
Seeing the slow rebuilding on the site, I have mixed feelings. The attacks unleashed two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing scores of people. They made the Muslim community a hated one and led to America turning inwards. I am happily back in Delhi, only apprehensive of another Babri Masjid here. Big events like these impact little lives like ours.