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Highlights Archives

Birth of the World Trade Center

Looking up at the construction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center under construction, 1969 (WHI 32004)
WHI 32004

The media is filled this week with reflections on the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. The phrase 9/11 has become not just the abbreviation of a date but also the symbol of an event that altered American history. As experts expound on how we've changed since 9/11, we call attention instead to a Wisconsin photographer's images of where it all began — Richard Quinney's photos of the World Trade Center under construction.

How the Photographs Were Taken

"During the many years required for the project's construction," Quinney wrote afterward in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, "I was living in New York City and teaching sociology at New York University. The spring semester of 1969, I enrolled in a photography course and roamed the streets and edges of Manhattan, photographing the sights that caught my eye. I was the classic migrant from the Midwest (from a farm in Walworth County), and all things of the city were new and exciting to me, worthy of a photograph. With color film loaded in my camera, I walked from my apartment in Greenwich Village to the construction site of the emerging World Trade Center. On the days that I did not teach or have other duties at the university, I would spend the day at the site.

Microcosm of Confrontational Times

"Hippies and flower children, as they were called by the media, were on the streets and in the lofts. Abbie Hoffman came to talk in my sociology class, and 'Hair' was opening at the Public Theater on Astor Place. By the end of 1968, the nation had been shocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April and Robert Kennedy in June. Exhausted by the resistance to his Vietnam policies, LBJ announced he would not run for re-election, and Richard Nixon was inaugurated president in January of 1969. A few months later, as I wandered with my camera along the streets of lower Manhattan at the trade center construction site, I observed the times in a microcosm.

"My self-proclaimed project, as a sociologist and student of photography, was to document what could be seen as one world comes down and another goes up. The public had not generally endorsed the building of the World Trade Center. Many regarded the project as the triumph of big business over the public interest. Local shopkeepers were losing their stores; indeed, the entire neighborhood was vanishing, bulldozed to make way for corporate headquarters. The city established heavy police patrols of the area, and the presence of the police, guardians of the established order, which included involvement in Vietnam, was in stark contrast to the nearby neighborhoods.

Unexpected Significance

"For over thirty years, I kept trays of color slides of the photographs that I had taken in the spring of 1969. As I moved from one place to another, the trays of slides relocated with me, closet to closet. Someday, I believed, the documentation might serve a purpose beyond the satisfaction that I experienced as I was committing the images to film. If nothing else, the photographs would show the passing of time and the changing of the landscape. I did not know, until September 11, 2001, that the photographs would take on a meaning and significance beyond anything I could imagine."

:: Posted September 8, 2011

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