PRINT Summer 1993


Andrew Ross' Weather Report

THE WORLD TRADE CENTER BOMBING contributed only a few images to the media memory banks; the rest was left to the imagination, aided, perhaps, by Towering Inferno. The images showed office workers caked in soot, partially asphyxiated, and looking like the victims of some environmental Yet it was less the bombing than the building itself that had been an ecological catastrophe.

The Twin Towers are not a smart building. The bombing easily neutralized their computerized command-and-control facilities (Die Hard y’all), proving them incapable of protecting their occupants. Indeed, in some ways the building’s structure endangered further the lives of its workers, entrapping and almost entombing them like a high-tech version of the malevolent house in the Gothic novel. And, like most sealed high-rise office towers, this was already an environmentally “sick” space, with concentrated indoor air pollution.

As the most visible symbol of New York’s transformation from the nation’s largest manufacturing town into a central A node of the international network of capital and credit, the World Trade Center has a story to tell about the social ecology of the urban redevelopment that has restructured the conditions of the city’s life. Low- and middle-income populations have been displaced, affordable housing has effectively disappeared, and real estate speculation and gentrification have exploded, all in the name of the “urban renewal” process, which systematically devalues whatever in the built environment stands in the way of investment. None of this occurred “naturally”; this was not some evolutionary development driven by the invisible hand of capital. Rather, the state played a major role in funding and directing urban renewal, just as it had invested heavily in the earlier manufacturing city.

The all-too-visible hand of state intervention confutes the ’30s, Chicago School model of urban ecology, which is based on social-Darwinist notions of predation, invasion, and succession. In this still-influential approach, the city’s transformation would be seen as an organic outgrowth of internal laws of competition. But the World Trade Center is no evolved creature. Erected by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an independent public agency endowed with extraordinary powers to borrow and build, the complex was financed by low-interest-rate loans and maintained by user fees from commuters who derive no benefit from its life as a capital service-and-processing center. The Twin Towers and their operating authority are more accountable to global investors than to local residents, many of whom vigorously opposed their construction.

What is the relationship, if any, between this picture of New York’s changing social ecology and its natural ecology of islands and waterways? To establish that relationship may involve augmenting ecologists’ conventional description of the city and its population as a single organism occupying a specific land niche with a limited carrying capacity. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s New York Environment Book, 1990, for example, argues that the city’s public authorities are failing in their duty to safeguard its natural resources and protect its citizens’ health. But this assumes that the function of the state is to serve its citizens’ interests and to maintain its lands. Actually, most of us suspect that the public interests that the state most effectively serves are those that coincide with the interests of speculators and investors—handlers of the private capital that the state must ultimately opt to protect.

When New York boasted a large working class, it was the state’s job to create low-to-middle-income housing, subsidize education, and generally mitigate private industry’s need to look after its labor force. The city’s fiscal crisis in the ’70s effectively relieved the state of this burden by signaling the end of a guaranteed public subsidy for workers who were no longer needed. What remains of the working-class city is increasingly an austerity regime, with entire neighborhoods terrorized by occupying police forces and the gangster cadres of the informal economy. Public education is in shambles, and the public health system is visibly defined by the city’s AIDS map and by its vast homeless population. Blaming the victim, hyping the sociopathology of crime, and bemoaning the helplessness of public officials have become the focus of the city’s media organs, which are responsible for the image of a lawless, uncivil society in a virtually unlivable city.

The state abdicated its role, not from lack of resources, but because that role was no longer required of it by private capital. In New York’s image mythography, extraordinary individuals were nominated to fill the vacuum created by its abdication. When they were not investors like Felix Rohatyn or ostentatious developers such as Donald Trump, they were comic book superheroes. The villains of the Batman and Ghostbusters films are associated with toxic and genetic mutations, chemical accidents, psychic slime in the sewers; they are, then, the products of modern biohazards (just as the original superheroes were often mutant products of cold war atomic experiments). And their counterparts, the forces of redemption (Who Ya Gonna Call?), are privately subcontracted vigilantes acting in the name of the old New York—of Bruce Wayne’s philanthropist-aristocrat class, or, in Ghostbusters II, of the Statue of Liberty, the canonical Daughter of the Patrician Revolution. The discourse of the vigilante subcontractor merges smoothly with the populist call for community empowerment and self-government. As Bobby Brown put it, with all the funky-ass discipline of New Jack Swing, in his song for Ghostbusters II, “On Our Own”: “Well I guess we’re gonna have to take control.” While a film like Do the Right Thing expects nothing from the centers of public authority, many of the new films of the “black renaissance,” in common with the Batman and Ghostbusters movies, assume from the first that the problem of control and authority is paramount.

Yet we should be wary of seeing all contemporary urbanism simply as a response to the reorganization of international capital. For one thing, the city, the state, and capital are not vertically aligned, each acting smoothly in the interests of the more powerful body in the food chain. City and state act to protect their own sovereignty, and so are often in conflict with each other and with global capital. Nor has the city rolled over and surrendered in the face of urban renewal. New and powerful forms of urban activism have developed around the crises of homelessness, AIDS, police brutality, overdevelopment, environmental hazards, and queer-bashing. The desocialization of the city’s infrastructure has also given rise to hip-hop, the most creative counterculture to come out of the urban scene in decades, and the most politically incisive by far.

For critics who see the city only as the site of rampant urbanization and corresponding decline, these responses will always be a victim’s culture. In addition, they argue, the modern city has irreparably damaged the ecological balance that once existed between town and country. An element of antiurban demonizing has long been a wearisome component of the environmentalist tradition, but little is to be gained by ostracizing city residents, most of whom, for historical reasons that include class and racial exclusion, have limited access to the trees, rivers, mountains, and wildlife that are the environmental movements’ star actors. Nor is it sufficient to see the city only as a bioregional unit of such density that it exacts an impossible toll on its resource base. If ever there existed a natural limit to the city—a scale of urban activity appropriate to the resources of its location—then that moment was over in a millisecond. The relationship between town and country that was so important to Marx’s ideas about economic history makes increasingly less sense in the new, postindustrial city, traversed by information and capital flows that have more meaning in Tokyo than in New Jersey.

When Jersey spoke with February’s smoke and thunder, the voice allegedly originated in an Islamic fundamentalist community within the new, postcolonial, migrant city, for whose members the Great Satan resides here, not because all cities are satanic, but because this is a Great Western Capital. The bombing, then, was a new kind of affair—both local and global, residentially un-American in ways that fit with the new anti-Islamic war of the State Department, yet full of totally native U-Haul violence. The real resident alien, however, was the World Trade Center itself.

Andrew Ross is now the director of the American Studies Program at New York University. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.