Milestones, millstones and the arc of history

Milestones, millstones and the arc of history

O  P  I  N  I  O  N

911-memorial.jpg
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware. It’s a small world, after all. It’s a small world, after all.
— Lyrics by Sherman & Sherman, 1963. Commissioned by Walt Disney.

by ROB McMANAMY in New York City | May 7, 2015

It may seem absurd to put those two quotes together, I agree. But I was stunned this week to discover that the trite, oft-mocked Disney ditty was written specifically to reassure children all over the world, and to promote peace, in the anxious aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. So, it may seem silly now, but it was anything but, way back when.

Indeed, history and anniversaries have been overwhelming me of late -- spurred by a recent trip to New York's transformed Ground Zero -- causing me to reflect on the state of our species and ultimately the collaborative hopefulness fueling not just BuiltWorlds, but so much of our built environment, nowadays.

Seventy years ago today, in fact, on the Seventh day of May, 1945, Germany surrendered, ending World War II in Europe. At that time, much of the continent, from London to Berlin to Moscow literally lay in rubble, smoldering and shell-shocked. For all of its problems now, who could have envisioned a Europe then that is as unified and as functional as it is today? Bickering and sniping continues, of course, and terrorism and civil wars flare up in pockets, but the world, itself, is not at war.

And few of us who are not crazy can even imagine a scenario where the great powers would take up arms against each other again. So, today is far from perfect, but who can argue now that we are not in a better place than we were in 1945, or 1963?

Human link between OKC & WTC: Among the names engraved in the Ground Zero memorial is that of RAYMOND DOWNEY, Deputy Chief of the NYFD.

Human link between OKC & WTC: Among the names engraved in the Ground Zero memorial is that of RAYMOND DOWNEY, Deputy Chief of the NYFD.

I arrived at this conclusion quite by surprise, last month when I traveled to New York for Engineering News-Record's 50th Anniversary Award of Excellence dinner. Two days later, on April 18, I visited the expansive site at the tip of Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. Coincidentally, I was there on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, a story that I had covered for ENR in 1995. So I was already in a somber mood as I toured the memorial and read the names of those who had perished on 9/11. Among those names is one Raymond Downey. He was the NYFD Deputy Chief who led the urban search and rescue effort at both the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and later the World Trade Center in New York, where he died. According to his family, when Tower One fell, Chief Downey had in his pocket a set of Rosary beads given to him six years earlier by OK Gov. Frank Keating. 

Standing statement: At 1,776-ft, 1WTC is now the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere. Open since last fall, it will finally admit visitors to its observation deck later this month. It was designed by David Childs of the NY office of SOM. Its cost? Close to $4 billion! It broke ground nine years ago, on April 27, 2006.

Standing statement: At 1,776-ft, 1WTC is now the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere. Open since last fall, it will finally admit visitors to its observation deck later this month. It was designed by David Childs of the NY office of SOM. Its cost? Close to $4 billion! It broke ground nine years ago, on April 27, 2006.

So, these were the sort of thoughts running through my mind as I revisited this hallowed ground.

Admittedly, I must say, my initial, visceral response was revulsion, akin to the Bible story of Jesus seeing moneychangers in the temple. As a native New Yorker, my first trip back to Ground Zero in years at first was jarring. Emerging from the largely rebuilt, $4-billion subway station to see Santiago Calatrava's soaring, skeletal stegosaurus, flanked by SOM's and AECOM's massive new 1 World Trade Center ($3.9-bil.), and the sprawling, serene 9/11 Memorial --all part of Daniel Libeskind's 16-acre master plan-- was indeed awe-inspiring.

But the cacophony of crass commerce surrounding the site, the pervasive hawking of souvenirs, mementos and commemorative 9/11 books, hats, shirts, socks, spoons (spoons?) was equally overwhelming. A sea of commercial distractions at a sacred place.

Annoyed and now on a self-appointed mission, I ducked into an official Ground Zero gift store -- next to the old Ladder Company #19 fire station -- to conduct a personal inspection. I wanted to see how much of the patriotic, heart-tugging merchandise, if any, had actually been made in the U.S.A. Turns out I couldn't find any.

Nada. Zippo. Zilch. 

PATH less traveled: Calatrava's 'Oculus' transportation hub is not yet complete. Its tab? Also $4 billion, or so.

PATH less traveled: Calatrava's 'Oculus' transportation hub is not yet complete. Its tab? Also $4 billion, or so.

Thumbs up: Chao Ling has been selling 9/11 souvenirs for more than a decade. (NY pics by Rob McManamy)

Thumbs up: Chao Ling has been selling 9/11 souvenirs for more than a decade. (NY pics by Rob McManamy)

Every NYPD tee-shirt, NYFD baby onesie, FBI ball cap was made in China, except for the occasional item from Haiti or Honduras. Outside a store called Liber-Tees!, I encountered a Chinese street merchant selling a slick, full-color, 9/11 magazine, Never Forget - Special Edition 2015, priced at $19.99. When I started to walk away, he said, "Five dollar." I smiled, and said, "Thanks, but no thanks." At which point, he countered, "Four dollar."

So I stopped to talked to him. I purchased his product and asked a few questions. Turns out, his name is Chao Ling (sic), and he came to NYC from Shanghai in 2003. He now has 30 family members in the U.S. with him, he said. Also, it is possible that I misunderstood him, but he added that he has been selling 9/11 souvenirs at Ground Zero since he arrived 12 years ago. Checking inside the back cover of his magazine, I was not surprised to see that even it was made in China.

I was certainly courteous to Mr. Ling, who was kind enough to let me take his photo. But at the same time, I was again repulsed by the whole profiteering aspect, however belated, of this metropolitan bazaar. Looking around, though, it finally hit me.

This was not a church or a nature preserve. This was New York, for goodness sake, just steps from Wall Street, the capital of capitalism. More so than possibly any other place on the planet, Lower Manhattan, within view of the Statue of Liberty, no less, is where the world comes together to trade. So the name indeed resonated with me anew:  One... World... Trade... Center.  One World.

An extraordinary moment

That seemingly obvious revelation even made me rethink the experience I had just had 48 hours before at the ENR dinner. That night, the winner of the magazine's 50th Award of Excellence was young HT Tran, a 35-year-old Vietnamese-American and former U.S. Army Sergeant who is now CEO of Anvil Builders Inc., San Francisco. Gravely wounded in Iraq in 2008, Tran lost an eye among other severe injuries. But through personal will, grit and character, and a network of mentors, including the 100 Entrepreneurs Foundation Inc., Tran has reemerged as an inspirational leader. He also is dedicated to hiring as many fellow veterans as possible.

Striking a blow: Anvil CEO HT Tran, a wounded warrior, receives ENR's big award in NYC on April 16.

Striking a blow: Anvil CEO HT Tran, a wounded warrior, receives ENR's big award in NYC on April 16.

This came 50 years after the first winner of the award, Lyman Dwight Wilbur, was honored in 1966 for leading legendary contractor Morrison Knudsen's crash construction program to build hundreds of infrastructure projects for the U.S. military in Vietnam. In between, Tran's grandfather Tran Von Chon, a rear admiral in the South Vietnamese Navy, served 25 years in a Communist "re-education camp" after Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of that traumatic event. This week in Hanoi, Turner Construction's international subsidiary -- the same firm that provided the key mentor for HT Tran's award-winning comeback -- held a project-wide safety meeting at the Norman Foster-designed VietinBank Towers project, a 300,000-sq-m, mixed-use development that joins two, 68- and 48-story towers via a seven-level atrium. In Hanoi. Vietnam.

Let that sink in for a minute... 

A world-class architect and construction team... building a bank, hotel and offices... in conjoined skyscrapers... in the Communist heart of a one-time enemy state. How's that for a time warp?

Hanoi Hilton? No, but a hotel will be part of the new VietinBank Towers complex, designed by Foster + Partners. 

Hanoi Hilton? No, but a hotel will be part of the new VietinBank Towers complex, designed by Foster + Partners. 

At the ENR dinner, there were all sorts of other encouraging signs about our industry and even our planet. Tran told me he would gladly come to Chicago to speak to the BuiltWorlds community about his passion for hiring military veterans to work in this industry. Similarly, honoree John Struzziery, a senior program manager with consulting engineer Kleinfelder, also said he would love to speak here about the innovative green stormwater program that he has been overseeing in Cambridge MA for nearly two decades now. There, the Alewife Stormwater Wetland public project --which uses natural, sustainable techniques to resolve a significant combined sewer overflow problem-- is on track to meet its court-ordered deadline by the end of this year.

Bridges to Prosperity CEO Avery Bang & the author.

Bridges to Prosperity CEO Avery Bang & the author.

Struzziery feels sure that lessons learned on the Alewife Project can be applied in other cities and states with similar challenges around the world. In Cambridge, Kleinfelder has been careful to restore the area’s natural hydrology, protecting and enhancing the local ecosystem, and creating new recreational and educational features for the community. Once separation of the combined sewer system is fully complete upstream, the combined sewer overflows to the Alewife Brook will be reduced by 84 percent, or 43.6 million gallons annually.

Among the other past and present honorees on hand was Avery Louise Bang, CEO of Denver-based Bridges to Prosperity. With the support of multinational engineering and construction firms around the world, her nonprofit quite literally builds footbridges in remote villages to provide access to schools, hospitals, food, and other necessities. Founded in 2001, B2P regularly works in Central America, South America, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, with firms such as Arup, CH2M Hill, Hochtief, Flatiron Construction, Turner, Kiewit, Thornton Tomasetti, Black & Veatch, T.Y. Lin International, and more. "And we're hiring now," Bang said enthusiastically.

This year's crop of ENR Newsmakers also included these leading innovators:

  • Michael Quinn - Samson Rope - Developed first synthetic mobile-crane hoisting rope;
  • Nikolaos Rigas - Clemson - Started unique industrial design lab for wind energy testing;
  • George J. Pierson - Bucknell - Launched mentoring program to boost engineering diversity; 
  • Denis Hayes - Bullitt Center - HQ is first self-sustaining office building to seek LBC rating;
  • Chuck Jablon - Skanska - Delivered Fla. Tech's Calatrava-designed Innovation S&T on time;
  • Horia Hangan - Univ. of W. Ontario - Created WindEEE tunnel lab to study tornadoes;
  • Bill Johnson - HOK - Designer of Falcons NFL stadium, a first for sports sustainability.

In all, inspired by these feats and the ground-breaking works of so many others, I returned to Chicago as energized and optimistic about this industry, and the world, as I have ever been.

Like never before

Filled with young and talented people unburdened by the nationalistic silos of our youth, the world today is trading like never before, teeming with opportunity. Thanks to technology, we are collaborating, communicating, critiquing and implementing solutions today like never before.

Granted, this connectivity presents us all -- parents especially -- with anxious challenges. But just think of how easy it is now for new methods and best practices to spread swiftly around the globe. Creativity and imagination have never been so enabled and empowered. Trial and error is over and done faster than ever. Which means that improvements can be made and progress can be achieved, on every front, faster than ever, too. 

Of course, our future remains fraught with peril. But standing at the foot of 1 WTC, watching families from all over the world stroll by on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I was struck by that arc of history. By any measure, Osama bin Laden had not won. The jets of 9/11 had sent all of us into a panic of poor decisions for years. But in spite of ourselves and despite all of the countless petty, selfish and childish mistakes --both large and small-- that we have all witnessed over the last 14 years, I still found my way to this reassuring conclusion: We have survived. We have moved past that dark moment.

Our species persists.

To borrow from Lincoln, the better angels --the smarter angels-- of our nature simply refuse to surrender. Enormous, historic challenges remain, of course. But just look around you. The answers are everywhere. And technology is helping more of them to find the right questions every day. Indeed, if necessity truly is the mother of invention, then today's incredible, unprecedented needs should spark an era of never-before-seen creativity and ingenuity. That era is already here.

The 20th Century was the most inventive yet. But considering how many more of us there are now than there were in 1915, the 21st Century will need to be exponentially smarter. 

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For a spectacular view from the top of the new tower, courtesy of TIME, click here.

Below, a rendering of how Ground Zero will look after the next three towers are completed.

Rendering courtesy of Silverstein Properties.

Rendering courtesy of Silverstein Properties.

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