The Emotional Impact of New Skyscrapers

By Sara Goodyear The Atlantic Cities

It was just a shadow I saw from the corner of my eye as I walked down the hall, but it was enough to stop me. I turned on instinct to look out the window facing west from the top floor of my house in Brooklyn. And there, where for nearly 11 years there had been nothing, the top of what will be One World Trade Center was just visible over the tops of the brownstones to the west.

One World Trade Center building is seen above skyline of Manhattan in New York. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

I realized as soon as I saw the crane-topped new tower over the rooftop horizon that I hadn’t, in all that time, expected to see anything in that exact spot ever again. When I did see it, I wasn’t sure I really wanted it to be there. When we moved into the house, we talked about how we would show our kid the Twin Towers from that window once he was born. We never got the chance. I was three months pregnant the last time I saw them. To my son — he’s 10 now — they’re not even a memory, just a story from that abstract part of history that happens before you’re born.

There is something about building a tower that is plainly irresistible to humans. There is another tower that you can see from my window, much closer. Just two blocks away, in fact. This is Christ Church, an Episcopal church built in 1842 by the great ecclesiastical architect Richard Upjohn, who brought the Gothic Revival style to the United States.

Last week, when a derecho storm hit New York, one of the four spires rising from the corners of the belltower was struck by lightning. Already damaged by last year’s earthquake, the structure had recently been enveloped in blue scaffolding in advance of repairs. The lightning caused the spire to topple, killing Richard Schwartz, a 61-year-old neighborhood guy (and an assistant attorney general) who was walking on the sidewalk below the scaffolding. He was the storm’s only fatality in the city.

The ultimate fate of the church, which features windows and an exquisite mother-of-pearl altar by Louis Comfort Tiffany, isn’t yet known. The falling stones tore a huge hole in its roof. What is certain is that the three remaining spires are being dismantled by a demolition team. And that in a few days, I won’t be able to see Christ Church any longer. Once again, my skyline will have a hole in it.

There is something about building a tower that is plainly irresistible to humans. When we put them up, they take on an almost animistic power. They come to seem inevitable, like urban mountains. When they get knocked down, we want to build them up again, but bigger. Before the skyscraper era, churches were often the tallest things around, and they got struck by lightning a lot. That didn’t stop anyone from building them back up.

The whole skyline of New York, which people come to gape at, is the product of this urge to build higher and higher, and up, at tremendous cost and sometimes to no real purpose except to achieve height. Sure, skyscrapers create much-needed density. But they also fulfill some other need. You can call tall buildings and church steeples grandiose, or hubristic. You can cite the Tower of Babel. But you probably can’t keep yourself from looking up.

Each September since the original World Trade Center came down, a memorial called “Tribute in Light” has been visible through my window at the anniversary of the disaster. It’s simple, and perfect: two towers of light beaming up into the sky until they disappear into the heavens. The city and the memorial’s sponsors at first said they would stop producing it after a few years; now it looks like it will go on indefinitely.

When you love a city, every change in its skyline is a sign of how it has aged with you, like a scar or a wrinkle. It may look different than when you first met it, but it is still yours. The “Tribute in Light” is one of those scars, a phantom limb made visible for just a few hours each year. It’s a comfort, if a painful one.

I’m slowly getting used to the real building that is now pushing up into my own personal New York skyline. In time, I will get used to the absence of the Christ Church spires that Richard Upjohn raised up more than 150 years ago. The changes may sting. But sometimes it’s good to remember that cities are only human, after all.

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