Today at The Carle, on the day marking ten years since the World Trade Center towers fell, we hosted a very touching presentation by award-winning artist and author, Mordicai Gerstein about his Caldecott-winning picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. We gathered together to remember the World Trade Center Towers and their history, including the strangely fascinating and memorable stunts of French aerialist Philippe Petit.
One night in 1974, after years of planning, a young street performer named Philippe Petit, snuck to the roof of one of the towers of the newly built World Trade Center and (with help of his disguised accomplices) managed to string a tightrope the 150-foot distance between the two towers. When dawn came, he proceeded to not only walk across the tightrope, but run, jump, dance, kneel, and even LIE DOWN, for almost an hour, a quarter of a mile in the sky, with the high winds and no safety rope.
Being able to talk with Mordicai Gerstein, we heard the amount of research that went into capturing this amazing story into a book for children. It was fascinating to learn how much work and planning went into Petit’s stunt. After walking a tightrope between the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, he set his heart on next attempting to walk the gap between the World Trade Center towers. He flew to New York City and began to plot and plan. He disguised himself multiple times, sometimes as an architecture student, sometimes a construction worker, to get into the towers to scope them out.
On the night of the big event, he and two friends disguised as construction workers hauled 400 lbs. of steel cable up the elevator and then up the remaining ten flights of stairs to the roof, where they then had to hide under a tarp to keep from being spotted by security, until night fell. In the darkness, they began the hard task of erecting the tightrope. One person on one roof shot an arrow with lightweight fishing line to the opposite tower’s roof, where they were then able to pull a rope and then finally the steel cable across. Dawn was already upon them as they finished tightening the cable and Petit took his first steps across as New York City began its morning bustling below. Onlookers on the ground (helped by a few strategically places friends) gasped and pointed to where he was defying gravity and death in the sky, while police raced up to the roof of each tower, frantically trying to get him to come down. It was indeed a crime, albeit a crime of art, and at the end of the performance, Petit was handcuffed and brought to trial, where the judge sentenced him with a mandate of one night of performing for New York City children in Central Park.
Here’s an amazing juxtaposition of an actual photograph of Petit and an illustration from The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.
It was fascinating to hear how Gerstein (who himself is actually afraid of heights) was able to perfectly capture the amazing height and feeling of vertigo in his illustration. He explained how he created space with overlapping planes that twisted, playing with horizon lines. With amazing fold-out full-page spreads and evocative text, Gerstein is able to get across the beauty and awe of the moment. “Out to the very middle he walked, as if he were walking on the air itself. Many winds whirled up from between the towers, and he swayed with them. He could feel the towers breathing. He was not afraid. He felt alone and happy and absolutely free.”
Above all, Gerstein stressed the infinite and amazing power of the human imagination. “There’s nothing you can’t do,” he said. “The human imagination is vast and marvelous. It can make things and destroy things.” This truly captures the day. Today not only were we aware that the human imagination can devise methods of destruction, but together we marveled at the imaginations that bring us great moments of art. The imagination of architects who brought New York City such massive and majestic buildings. The imagination of Philippe Petite, who followed his dream and brought his skill of agile art to New York City’s skyline. The imagination of Mordicai Gerstein, who was able to picture it and share it with the world and all of its children in such a beautiful way.
“Now the towers are gone. But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there.” Gerstein reminds us in our minds, anything is possible.
For more about Philippe Petite, check out the Academy award-winning documentary, Man on Wire or his wonderful book, To Reach the Clouds. Here’s the trailer for the documentary: