The Rebirth of Downtown Began 39 Years Ago


In the summer of 1974, America was witnessing the complete disintegration of a presidency.

Richard Nixon and his cronies were caught in the middle of the Watergate scandal. The nation fixated on the subject for months, wishing that it would go away but returning every evening to learn more, a veritable habit we could not get rid of. Then on Aug. 7, the day before President Nixon would go on television and announce that he would be resigning from office, a 5-foot-7 Frenchman named Philippe Petit walked a tightrope less than an inch wide between the two World Trade Center towers in New York. For a brief period, America had something else to think about.

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There may be no greater primordial thrill for a human being than to watch someone risk his life for no other reason than that he wants to. On that magical day, Philippe Petit walked, ran, pranced, lay down on his back and jumped up and down on the wire and caught the country off-guard for 45 minutes, 1,368 feet above New York.

Mr. Petit took years to plan this artistic endeavor. After studying the buildings and the security network, Mr. Petit and his colleagues created fake identity cards and passed themselves off variously as architects, construction workers and even ironworkers who were supposedly creating a fence near the top of the buildings. Though the buildings were open, there was still significant work being done, and for the most part they were being built speculatively, as they remained largely vacant.

The night before the historic walk, Mr. Petit and his crew brought their gear to the buildings, hid there and then shot a crossbow bolt from one building to the other to begin the process of setting up the wire. It took many hours to accomplish. Finally, the time came, and Mr. Petit stepped out onto the wire above New York in the early morning. As tens of thousands of people began to congregate below, America became entranced with Monsieur Petit as he walked back and forth across the wire between the two buildings eight times. People all over the world felt a childlike innocence at the wonder of it all. America was in the middle of one of the most depressing periods in the 20th century. President Nixon would resign due to the Watergate scandal the very next evening, and the country was tired of the drama. America needed a brief escape, and she got one. The Twin Towers had been open for 16 months when Mr. Petit performed his high-wire act. It captivated the world, and though he was arrested afterward, Mr. Petit became famous.

The daredevil feat also brought much-needed positive attention to the buildings. Mr. Petit had brought celebrity and interest to the site, and eventually the buildings were successfully leased.

Now, as we witness the new World Trade Center, a symbol of courage, rebirth and greatness, we see a different history. Post-9/11, New York has seen the magnificent 1 WTC tower top out. The glorious Calatrava transportation hub will be completed in 2015. The unforgettable 9/11 memorial is both timeless and reverential. All of the new buildings, now in various stages of construction, are slated to be finished over the next couple of years.

Rebirth indeed! New York is a great city because it always moves forward.