Biography of a Life
Cut Violently Short
When life came to an end for the subject
of Eric Darton's recent biography, the obituaries were
spectacularand they continue to be written. No wonder
that the Hunter College graduate and former faculty member has
seen his Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York's World
Trade Center (Basic Books), which appeared early last year,
recently become a best-seller. Anyone involved in planning the
reconstruction of the ground zero site and hoping to avoid old
(or new) mistakes would do well to read the book.
Several chapters of the lyrical and scholarly studywhich
contains a decidedly contrarian critique of the urban planning
that produced the Centerbegan life as part of Darton's
Master's thesis, titled "Sovereign Conjunctions: A Social
History of the World Trade Center." After earning his degree,
Darton taught at Hunter College, notably offering a course he
designed on "Media Technology and Cultural Change."
At the same time, responding to the encouragement of his Hunter
colleagues, Darton turned those chapters into a full-length
CUNY's role in the gestation of Divided
We Stand was significant. It began, Darton explains at the
outset, "quite unintentionally in 1992 as a research paper
written for a seminar on mass media and contemporary culture
taught by Stuart Ewen at the Graduate Center."He also recalls,
"Serafina Bathrick, then chair of the Hunter Media Studies
Department, insisted with convincing firmnessin her dual
capacities as mentor and friendthat I pursue the expansion
of this work into its current form.
Among the many passages that read eerily differently now is
this describing the structural standards the architect of the
Twin Towers, Minoru Yamasaki, held himself to: "Yamasaki
had engineered his towers to withstand the force of a 747 shearing
into them-the nightmare scenario of an earlier, more "innocent"
era-and though shaken by the February 1993 blast, his squared-off
tubes remained standing. Six people died, but scores of thousands
might have if the columns had failed. Though the terrorists
had used sufficient explosives to do the job, according to Eugene
Faso, the Port Authority's chief engineer, they had built 'the
wrong kind of bomb." And the epigraph that stands alone on Darton's
last page, from Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space,
carries a whole new meaning now: "When your house trembles
in its beams and turns on its keel, you think you are a sailor,
rocked by the breeze."
Darton is now working on a study that will examine New York
as a city both physically and psychologically in transition.
Clearly, the attack will loom large in this project. "I feel
an obligation to ask questionsquestions about where our
culture is headed," he says. "I sense the beginning of
a language. . .that began with a scream and could lead to a
new way of thinking." The biography of the WTC, Darton
is making sure, will continue to be written. He maintains a
Web site titled "New Yorks WTC: A Living Archive" (www.ericdarton.net).
Visitors to the site, which is interactive, are encouraged to
post their thoughts and pictures in an attempt not only to build
a memorial, but to allow dialogue on the WTC and the implications
of its violent demise to continue. The site, Darton says, was
"designed to be a sort of living history at a crucial juncture."