When you think of the southern part of Manhattan over by the Hudson River you probably think of the World Trade Center. But for most of the 20th century, it was known for something quite different; it was the place to buy radio electronics. Before the World Trade Center was built, this area was 12 small city blocks, and from 1921 into the 1960’s, it was filled with small store after small store selling radios. It was known to most people as Radio Row, and it contained the largest collection of electronic stores in the country.
Like the internet, radio was a great advancement that allowed large numbers of people to communicate at the same time, and like the internet, it had a huge growth boom. The first radio stations were launched around 1919 and 1920, people wanted to listen to them, but didn’t know where they could find radios. That’s when Harry Schneck opened his ‘City Radio’ store at 63 Cortlandt Street, (where Tower Two would one day stand). Word got around quickly about his radios, and he began selling them in droves. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that 100,000 radios were sold in 1922 and that it was ten times that in two years. Many of those radios were sold at Radio Row. In later years, as electronic technology advanced, so did the Radio Row offerings, it remained the place to be.
The area had a few restaurants, furniture stores, florists, and even a clothing shop called Merns, run by Seymour Merns, who would later become more well known to us as Sy Syms. But the reason people came to lower Manhattan was to get radio equipment.
“Find what you want, buy it and get out of my store, there are other people waiting” was how one shopper remembered the buying atmosphere. According to the Quarter Century Wireless Association, storefronts were crammed with radio equipment. There were televisions, tape players, short wave radios, tuning fork oscillators, stopwatches, alarm clocks, televisions, washing machines, dryers, and anything else you could dream up. There were boxes of raw materials lying around in case you wanted to make a creation of your own.
What One World Trade Center Looked Like Before 1973
The picture on the right is of Dey Street between West and Washington Streets. This is right in the where the north tower of the World Trade Center would stand. The photo is looking northeast (see map in the lower right hand corner).
The beginning of the end for Radio Row came when Chase Manhattan bank chairman David Rockefeller moved to create a center of trade in lower Manhattan. At first he looked at the east side, near the Fulton Fish Market, but his plans quickly moved west. The area here could more easily be acquired and built to tie in with the many rail lines nearby. This included the Port Authority Trans Hudson (or PATH) line which would go right to the center. David’s brother, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller helped use the power of eminent domain to take over the area, and 12 city blocks were swallowed up into one single World Trade Center superblock. Radio Row and its businesses put up a valiant protest to stop the project, led by radio shop owner Oscar Nadel. Nadel pursued every legal avenue and organized regular protests to get media attention. He claimed that the city was making it impossible for the small businessman to succeed within its boundaries. By 1966, most of the area had been cleared for the future World Trade Center.
One World Trade Center, The Tower, 1973 – 2001
Although the building began in 1967 and the towers were deemed completed in 1973, the construction of the World Trade Center never really ended. The Windows on the World restaurant was added at the top of Tower One in 1976. The surrounding buildings of the World Trade Center block–World Trade Centers 3,4, 5, 6, and nearby 7–were added in the 70’s and 80’s. The World Financial Center, a huge complex to the west, was added in the late 80’s and 90’s. The area did in many ways truly grow into being the center of world trade. Financial firms such as Marsh and McLennan, Cantor Fitzgerald, and Bank of America occupied multiple floors in Tower One by the end of the century. Major financial firms and exchanges moved into the many of the new area buildings.
When you look at it in photos, Tower One (or the north tower) can be distinguished from Tower Two (or the south tower) by the 360 foot antenna which stood on its roof. You can use the positioning of the two buildings to tell where the shot was taken from. If Tower One is behind Tower Two, the shot was taken from the south. If tower one appears closer, the shot is from the north. If Tower One is to the left of Tower Two (as in the above photo) the shot was taken from west, and if its to the right the shot was taken from the east. That antenna was used to broadcast every television station in New York City, as well as most of its radio stations. Although it’s pretty much impossible to tell, Tower One was six feet taller than Tower Two.
Tower One was at the heart of the World Trade Center bustle of traffic. It was close to the World Financial Center and unlike Tower Two, its basement was an open walkway. Only its elevators were blocked off by security. Tens of thousands of people walked right through Tower One every day.
At first many New Yorkers didn’t like the way the Towers looked–they didn’t seem to fit in with the skyline, some thought they looked boring, others too gaudy. But over the years, the city seemed to warm to them. As nearby buildings went up it seemed to fill them in, and the towers started to look like they were meant to be there.
When The Windows of The World Restaurant opened in ’76 it marked the first time people could really embrace the towers. Between the fine dining there, and the observation deck, and open 110th floor at Tower Two, the buildings offered the best, most spacious most luxurious view in the city.
While nothing can be compared to the 2,751 lives that were tragically lost at the World Trade Center September 11th, 2001, the damage to buildings and infrastructure was enormous. Besides the two towers, at least another ten area buildings had to either be destroyed, condemned, or simply collapsed from the weight of the towers falling on them. Even now, ten years after 911, just as the personal wounds remain, so do the physical ones. The work of rebuilding is far from complete. A new single World Trade Center Tower One is in the process of going up, with other World Trade Center buildings to follow.
One World Trade Center, What Will Be
The new World Trade Center One (also referred to as the Freedom Tower) will be located a little north of where the old Tower One stood. This is because the original footprints of both towers are sacred ground forever to be memorialized by two new waterfall monuments that will stand where the buildings once did. These are to be initially dedicated on September 11, 2011, so we should be seeing them in use for the first time in a few days. A picture of the new North Tower Waterfall Monument is below.
Nobody would argue the construction of these buildings has been slow, but it does appear progress is being made. The lower Manhattan construction command center currently projects a completion date for the new Tower One of November 2013.
The base of the Freedom Tower will be the same dimensions as the original towers. The observation deck will be at 1,362 feet: the height of the tower, and the roof will be at 1,368 feet: the height of the original Tower One.
I was hoping to do a story on all the buildings in the vicinity but I found this to be enough of a task. I’ll try to get to a look at other area buildings later.