Forty years ago, the EPA's Documerica project captured the first weeks of life in Lower Manhattan after the Twin Towers debuted. 

One World Trade Center officially became the tallest building in the Western hemisphere last week, its spire bringing the new tower's height to 1,776 feet. Forty years ago, New York City completed a similarly ambitious project, constructing the original World Trade towers on the site of a former landfill in Lower Manhattan.

There's been no shortage of complaints about the slow timeline for the current World Trade Center's redevelopment (groundbreaking occurred in 2004), but the truth is the Twin Towers project took much longer, with the initial idea proposed in 1943, the first designs released in 1962, a groundbreaking in 1966 and the official ribbon cutting in 1973.

The Environmental Protection Agency sent photographer Wil Blanche out to capture images of the neighborhood as part of the EPA's Documerica project, created to draw attention to environmental concerns and everyday life around the country in the 1970s. The World Trade Center officially opened in April 1973, and Blanche documented the site around the same time: many of his Documerica photos were taken that May.

Below, we see what Blanche saw 40 years ago this month as he recorded a rapidly changing Lower Manhattan, an area forced, by the actions of terrorists on September 11, 2001, and by the highly politicized redevelopment process that followed, to change again since.

Overlooking the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan, the Towers of the World Trade Center Soar Skyward to a Height of 1,350 Feet 05/1973"

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Outflow of Drainage from the World Trade Center, New York's Latest Giant, Under Construction between Vesey and Liberty Streets in Lower Manhattan. There Is No Provision for Waste Treatment as Is the Case with All Westside Buildings, Sewage Will Go Directly Into the Already Badly Polluted Hudson River"

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Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan Seen From West Street 05/1973"

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The Newly Constructed Towers of the World Trade Center Seen From the South Side on West Street 05/1973"

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St. Paul's Chapel on Lower Broadway at the Foot of Wall Street. Behind Loom the Towers of One of Manhattan's Newest Giants, the World Trade Center 05/1973

"Freight Handlers with Stack of Boxed Women's Wear Outside Warehouse on Reade Street, Lower Manhattan--Looking East From West Broadway 05/1973"

Construction on Lower Manhattan's West Side, Just North of the World Trade Center (Tall Building in Background) 05/1973"

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Rusted Remains of a Burnt-Out Pier on the Hudson River near Lower Manhattan's Newest Giant, the World Trade Center 05/1973"

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"Manhattan Side of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel 05/1973"

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Construction Begins on the Battery Park Development Across From the World Trade Buildings on the Hudson River 05/1973"
 
"Without Breaking Stride, Homeward Bound Commuter at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal Reaches for Leaflet from Street Distributor 05/1973"
 
Youngsters Playing in Battery Park, on the Tip of Manhattan Island 05/1973"

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"In Battery Park, Lower Manhattan 05/1973"

"Pause for Relaxation on a Pier Overlooking the Hudson River a Few Blocks North of Lower Manhattan's Newly Built World Trade Center 05/1973"
 
"World Trade Center (Left) and Lower Hudson River Shipping Seen From the Staten Island Ferry 05/1973"
 
"On the Staten Island Ferry, Looking Back Toward the Skyline of Lower Manhattan. To the Left of the Cluster of Buldings Are the Towers of the World Trade Center 05/1973"
 
All photos by Wil Blanche, courtesy the National Archives.

About the Author

Mark Byrnes
Mark Byrnes

Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design, history, and photography.

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