I don’t know about you, but old enough as I am to remember how the killing of more than 200,000 Japanese civilians in the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially the technological feat of accomplishing it with a single bomb per targeted city, was positively celebrated by Americans (Just think! We killed all those Japs with one bomb!), and considering the indifference of most persons to the killing of an average 4,000 preborn babies every day since abortion was legalized in the U.S. in 1973, I have never believed that the death of fewer than 3,000 in the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center could by itself account for the emotional trauma of 9/11 and the continuing centrality of the event in the lives of so many who did not experience it except as they do so much else nowadays: secondarily via images on an electronic screen. What really gripped them and still does, I believe, was the very idea that the buildings could be destroyed. For a time they had been the tallest in the world, which translated in the popular mind as the most colossal work of man on earth. How could that be destroyed? If it could, what could not?
At once an intolerable affront and unacceptable threat to our modern understanding of the material world as the whole of reality and of ourselves as its masters, the destruction demanded retribution. That took the form of a war that proved unwinnable even when it became the longest in U.S. history — another blow to our hubris that we also refuse to accept, in this case by not acknowledging defeat. (How can we be defeated by a bunch of towelheads lacking helicopter gunships, smart bombs and night-vision goggles?)
The Twin Towers have been replaced by a single structure, Independence Tower, now the tallest building in Manhattan and which is, it has to be admitted, of some interest architecturally. That cannot be said of the apartment building nearing completion at Park Avenue and 57th Street. At 88 stories, it will be, for a time, the second-tallest building in Manhattan. I saw the steel-girder skeleton of it last October when I passed through New York City by train and was appalled. It is an architectural nullity, simply an unadorned shaft totally unremarkable except that it rises to an obscene height. Pete Hamill has written that it looks like the finger being given to New York. I think it looks like modernity giving the finger to Creation.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes somewhere that no buildings in a city should be taller than five stories because anything beyond that is not on the human scale. If you’ve ever been to St. Peter’s in Rome you’ll get his point. Twice I’ve walked into the mother church of Christianity with persons seeing it for the first time and heard them mutter, “Oh my God.” I had said the same thing the first time I walked in there. I suspect everyone does, if only to himself.
The point is that the space into which we walk at St. Peter’s is awesome because it is still on the human scale. A larger space would not be awesome. It would be crashing.
Awesome exalts and humbles at the same time. The apartment building I saw going up last October does not inspire awe. It is not even impressive. It is meant to dwarf, to overwhelm. “Look at this building,” it says. “You hardly exist compared to the men of money and power who live here. They are as gods, but not the God, the Author of nature enshrined in St. Peter’s, in whom Western men believed when they were Christian before they grew up and understood what they believed was simply another myth like the Zeus and Jupiter in which the ancient Greeks and Romans believed because they didn’t know better. The men who live here do, and prove it by building on this scale.”
The horror is that the apartment building at Park and 57th is to be joined by a dozen others like it or even more gargantuan — a forest of skyscrapers so tall they will keep much of Central Park in shadow much of the day.
Who will live in them? Many of the apartments’ owners will not. They are foreigners not looking to buy homes, but for investments to park cash which they possess in such huge quantities that all of it deposited in banks would draw the attention of government agencies, especially tax authorities. In most cases they can’t be identified. The apartments are bought in the name of dummy corporations and since the transactions are done in cash there is no paper trail left with mortgage lenders.
According to investigative reporters for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other media, some buyers are probably ones who could be guessed: Russian oligarchs and their relatives, children of African dictators, Chinese billionaires (although these latter, perhaps in rejection of the relentless verticality of their homeland’s new cities, seem to favor estates on Long Island or in Connecticut). Interestingly, Brits are reported to be the largest group. Presumably, these are City types, the only real beneficiaries of policies put in place by Margret Thatcher who have their U.S. counterparts in the hedge-fund operators born of Reaganomics now making four or five million dollars a day.
In any event, the persons are paying astronomical sums for their apartments. The penthouse of the building at Park and 57th sold for $95 million. The penthouse of another building yet to be constructed sold for $100.4 million. Another apartment is said to be available for $110 million. All of the apartments in all the buildings will sell for multiples of a million. Of course such sums distort the real-estate value of all properties so that the median price of a dwelling in Manhattan is now $1.3 million.
How many can afford such prices? They will not include the actors, dancers, writers and painters who used to call Greenwich Village home. Professional writers in the U.S. now earn an average of $16.000 a year. These persons moved across the East River to Brooklyn long ago. Now that developers are moving into that borough, where will they go? When they have left New York City entirely, what will make it a city worth living in? That is a question about which nobody cares, certainly nobody who can pay $100 million for an apartment.
The arts enhance life. Name a single superrich person known to spend money on that. Carlos Slim, perennial rival of Bill Gates for the title of richest man in the world, might be an exception, but more typical is Gates himself. Through their foundation, he and his wife Melinda spend vast sums supporting life-prevention (a.k.a. family-planning) programs in Africa. They may contend they are “eliminating poverty” and thereby doing good, but I wonder which would be preferred by an African: his poverty, or not being alive? I know as a writer living in poverty by U.S. standards, I give thanks to God every day for the miracle of my life. It is, after all, the means He provides, if lived rightly as a member of His Church, for getting to heaven.
People who see nothing wrong with the building at Park and 57th will also probably see nothing wrong with what the Gateses do with their wealth or with anything else done contrary to nature’s laws. All nature waits to be mastered and yet will be, they think.
What they don’t understand — what they refuse to accept — is that Creation is bound to visit on those who defy its laws reprisals whose savagery they can still ignore or deny because their full force has yet to be felt. The disappearance of entire races in Western Europe and North America is but one example. There are others.