The Rise of the Twin Towers

The author witnessed the construction of this New York City icon. Watching this process, Camilo José Vergara never imagined that he would outlive the WTC.

The World Trade Center rises above St. Paul’s Churchyard, 1970.
By Camilo José Vergara
September 10, 2021 | 12:04 PM

Bloomberg Opinion — The Twin Towers housed thousands of lives that were brought to an unspeakable end 20 years ago. I watched those buildings as they grew into the New York landscape. As time passed and they took root, my view of them grew from unease to admiration.

It’s hard to remember, but few urban districts in modern history have been more discussed than Lower Manhattan. And since 1973, when it was completed, the World Trade Center figured prominently in the discussion. Radio Row, a viable neighborhood of mom-and-pop electronics shops, made way for the Twin Towers, which were immediately and widely disliked for both aesthetic and political reasons.

I followed the construction of the towers, watching as heavy trucks brought in steel or hauled away dirt amid the noise of jackhammers and clanging metal. As they rose to become the tallest buildings in the world, they seemed to express the mistaken priorities of a troubled time. I tried to convey that contrast by photographing the towers with homeless people in the foreground, or in harsh sunlight that turned the buildings into gleaming blades. It could not have occurred to me that I might outlive them.

In time, my resentment faded, and I came to see them as great human creations — simple shapes that could turn into upright shafts of amber on late winter afternoons, or reflect summer’s passing clouds.


In the 1980s and ‘90s, after dominating Lower Manhattan for two decades, the Twin Towers were joined by Battery Park City, erected on landfill extracted from the World Trade Center site. Gradually, the entire southern end of the island was covered with massive shiny buildings. I no longer visited the site, except to take my children to the South Tower’s observation deck to marvel at the view.

The Twin Towers became a landmark, helping people orient themselves in the city. As you walked past, the space between them seemed to narrow, then widen. My panoramic photographs of New York almost couldn’t help but include them. They showed up in pictures of public housing projects, elevated subway stations, even ferry boats.

In design, unremarkable, perhaps even boring, the towers still impressed. Was it their size? The fact of being twins?


Many young people never knew the towers; others ironically think of these once state-of-the-art skyscrapers as “Old New York.” In my memory, they continue to rise.

The growing Twin Towers, seen from an abandoned pier in New Jersey, 1970.dfd
Construction, 1970dfd
Looking past St. Paul's Chapel, 1970dfd
A view from the Manhattan Bridge at Madison Street, 1970.dfd
Looking south from the Empire State building, 1970.dfd
the World Trade Center from the Staten Island Ferry, 1992.dfd

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Camilo José Vergara, a New York-based writer, photographer and documentarian, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2002 and received the National Humanities Medal in 2012. His photographs of the World Trade Center are on exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington. He can be contacted at