The Empire State Building's New Meaning Since 9/11

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Mr. Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s magazine. He is the author of numerous articles and nine books in political and cultural theory, most recently Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams, in the Yale Press “American Icons” series.

Manhattan’s iconic Empire State Building celebrated its seventy-five birthday earlier this year, marking with every possible sign of love the three-quarters of a century its tough limestone-clad volume has graced the skyline of New York. Standing squarely at the center of the island, on a small lot that once supported the Astoria Hotel, the Empire State is at once a symbol and a beacon for New Yorkers and would-be New Yorkers everywhere. The architect Robert A. M. Stern aptly called it “the lighthouse of New York.”

Though nothing on earth can cast a literal shadow over the Building, at 102 stories and 1270 feet the tallest building on the entire East Coast, a psychological—one might even say a spiritual one—has loomed over the building since September 11th, 2001. Five years later, it impossible to look at the Empire State, now once again the highest edifice in New York, and not imagine a fiery collision. Nostalgic love of the building seems to fend off any association beyond a name with American empire, taking the old building on its merits as an icon of capitalism, technology, and the modern. And yet, the very same dreams that built this secular temple on 34th Street have since turned to nightmares and rendered its image a controversial property, enfolded in what is now a full-bore, if postmodern and spectral, American Empire.

No terrorist is likely choose the Empire State as a target, not least because the impact would not meet the case. Though relatively isolated in the Garment District, the Building has tall neighbours on three sides:it would be harder to strike than were, unfortunately, the large square-peg targets offered by the Twin Towers from their perch at the tip of Manhattan. Even if an aircraft could be deliberately flown into the side of the Empire State, its thick steel and stone construction, unlike the 1970s glass-curtain fragility of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center, makes internal melt-and-collapse catastrophe nearly impossible.

There is even some test-case evidence. During the Second World War a B-25 Mitchell, lost in bad weather on its way to New Jersey, suddenly poked through the clouds and found itself dodging through the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The pilot was unable to dodge the biggest of them all and struck the side of the Empire State, ripping a two-storey hole and killing a dozen people. The Mitchell is no 767 but it is a two-engine medium bomber with considerable heft; and yet the building stayed where it was.

There are other, less obviously material reasons. The World Trade Center was not for most people a symbol of New York, still less of the United States,but its high concentration of financial-service and global-capital firms made it a desirable target for anyone bent on terrorizing an America of heedless imperial domination through lawyers, guns, and money. The Empire State, by contrast, has some of the cheapest office space in Midtown and houses tenants that read like a time-travel catalogue in a pulp novel:diamond merchants, textile wholesalers, private detectives. And finally, as hyper-violent and brutal gestures of contempt go, there is nothing yet to compare, even in imagination, to the deliberate bending of one piece of advanced Western technology to the destruction of another. The cultural contradictions of late capitalism made into their own explosive object lesson.

I moved to New York not long after September 11th and it was obvious that one of lesser and probably unintended consequences of the attacks was that the older tall buildings, especially the Empire State and the Chrysler, were now openly cherished by otherwise insouciant New Yorkers. There was, and is, a strenuous debate about what should be built from the desolation of Ground Zero, a debate that has widened from the usual competition among stakeholders—the city, the Port Authority, the developers, the victims’ families, New Yorkers at large—into a large-scale discussion about the nature of architecture itself. Was it right to build tall again, maybe even taller?Was it right to admire the titanium swirls of Frank Gehry, one projected for a site nearby, which look (some suggested) like melted skyscrapers?Was it right to let Daniel Libeskind control the design?David Childs?Anyone?

And yet, behind this, there was an even more important debate, all the more significant for being almost inaudible. The Empire State’s beautiful height was a flashpoint:what has become of America in the years when a tall building goes from being a straightforward icon of success to becoming a target of hatred?

The Empire State was named when America was not yet an empire:it was George Washington who dubbed vast, resource-rich New York the “empire” of the new union. The building got its label as part of a public-relations and morale boost in the midst of the Depression. The doors were opened, deliberately, on May 1st as a tribute to the multi-ethnic community of labourers who stretched it, beam by beam, into the sky. It was meant, without irony, as a concrete expression of the American Dream, the optimism in technology and perseverance that can conquer all challenges.

The new light cast on the building seemed, briefly, to recapture that optimism; but this was an illusion born of romance and sadness. Times have changed. The American Dream was always a bill of goods, more Nathanael West than Horatio Alger, but that has never been more obviously true than now. Widening gaps between rich and poor dominate life at home while imperial adventures planned by the rich and fought by the poor dominate life abroad. American politics still runs its engine on fumes drawn from the old republic’s essence—isolationist, liberal, working for justice—but its postmodern reality is far different.In the process Paul Virilio describes as endocolonization, it has become an empire whose resources are not foreign territories but its own citizens and their desires.

Between 1979 and 2001, the after-tax income of the top one percent of American households rose 139 percent, to more than $700,000; the income of the middle fifth enjoyed just a 17 percent increase, to $43,700, and the income of poorest fifth struggled with a 9 percent rise. Despite its vast GDP, or maybe as a perverse function of it, poverty is growing in America, not declining:the Census Bureau reported last year that 12.7 percent of the population lived in poverty in 2004, up from 12.4 percent in 2003. The U.S. now ranks 24th among industrialized nations in income disparity; only Mexico and Russia rank lower.

The Bush Administration, meanwhile, has only derision for what one aide mockingly labelled “the reality-based community. ”Having a basis in reality “is not the way the world really works anymore,” the aide told a reporter from the New York Times Magazine. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Such as the current reality of Baghdad, one can only assume.

It is an enduring irony of this new American empire that it is far more postmodern, relativistic, and spectral than anything supposedly advocated by Parisian-inflected leftists. This empire has, in less than a decade, swallowed up what was once, for all its flaws, a thriving republic of two hundred years’ standing. Visiting the Empire State Building really is a form of time travel:the America that built it, and revelled in its being built, has been sold off in pursuit of an invisible enemy. There it stands, newly visible in the shadow of tragedy, but, for all its visitors, empty.

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