After starting a handful of different books this week, I finally finished one today. AMERICAN GROUND by William Langewiesche is the book-form of three articles he wrote for The Atlantic, chronicling the “unbuilding” of the World Trade Center after 9/11. I love how he uses that word: unbuilding. The firefighters, in particular, objected whenever anyone called the job a “cleanup,” but “unbuilding” is poetic bureaucracy.
This story focuses tightly on the construction workers, engineers, and civil service. All men, and a specific kind of man. I wasn’t halfway through the book before I realised I was seeing the David Simon miniseries in my head. East coast, blue collar, street-level politics. He would do something great with this book.
I was 19 when 9/11 happened. I remember that day, but I knew nothing of the aftermath. I was too far away, in all the ways that mattered. The next big moment I remember is when discussion began about how to replace the towers. This book is about how they made the hole.
Langewiesche was on-site for months. In the middle of the country’s biggest city, after an era-defining disaster, but he keeps his focus on the trucks, on the uniforms, on the few hundred people working in those few blocks. This could’ve been a saga, one author’s life’s work. But Langewiesche picked the story of what the workers on the ground called “the pile.” He told that one story, and when the Twin Towers were unbuilt, he and everyone else went home.