At 7:15 on the morning of August 7th, 1974, Philippe Petit stepped off of the South Tower of the World Trade Center and began his forty-five minute celebration of transcendence. After years of deceptive trickery and secret planning, Petit and his team, armed only with an enormous steel cable and various riggings, snuck onto the rooftop of the South Tower in the dead of night to prepare for the dawn’s performance. They shot the cable over the massive void with a bow and arrow, bridging the gap between the Twin Towers and between physical reality and the vision in Petit’s mind. Once the cable had been secured and all dangers of friction between the cable and the towers minimized, the celebration began.
With only a 55 pound balancing pole to aid him, Petit made eight journeys across the space he created, a world of his own 110 stories in midair. A quarter of a mile below him, the morning masses of Lower Manhattan had stopped in their tracks. Petit could hear their cheers as he danced in the face of death, saluting the towers that he stood even with. The entire city of New York celebrated with him as the limits of human power fell burning to the ground. It seemed as if this dance would last forever, a public performance framed only by the rooftops and the sky.
But Petit had to come down from the wire at some point, and the limits he had shed were waiting for him on the ground. Petit was arrested on several charges, even performing without a permit, but these were later dropped; it seemed ludicrous to put handcuffs on a man who had broken free of the Twin Tower’s steel shackles. Instead of time in jail, Petit was given a lifetime pass to the World Trade Center’s observation deck. In the documentary Man on Wire, Petit is shown signing his name on the steel of the rooftop, permanently etching his triumph over the tower into the framework. Petit was not satisfied with merely transcending the limits of physical space. Now he had transcended the limits of human permanence, declaring his existence not just in the memories of Manhattanites, but in indelible ink on the surface of the South Tower’s roof.
Most monuments in New York, such as the Twin Towers, are built for permanence, as if they intend to disprove the limits of time. The Statue of Liberty forever gazes out on the horizon, welcoming journeymen to the melting pot of America; Grand Central Terminal still boasts the constellations on its ceiling, as if they could guide the passing travelers to a mystic destination via train. This dormant quality is found in many neighborhoods of New York as well – Park Avenue is one of these spaces. Along the Avenue in Midtown, ornately carved apartments from the early 20th century blend into an endless monolithic row. Pedestrians stride by at a productive rate, systematically disappearing one by one under the outstretched awning of a stony apartment building or through a corporation’s translucent glass doors. The wide street, bordered by the parallel buildings, is populated mostly with yellow cabs and sleek black town cars, separated only by the Park Avenue Malls.
For us, it does not matter so much the way the mightiest towers in our lives eventually disintegrate into rubble before our eyes. We are in motion within our panoramic circles, each step taking us closer to the new physical reality that will be built from the roots of that rubble. The high-wire dances we perform are not for the dance itself, but for the moment we step off of that wire and crane our necks up to the sky to see what it’s become.