Sbarro, Tom Hanks, And The Commuter’s Cafe: A Look Inside The Old World Trade Center

I’m not into 9/11 remembrances. This is not because I don’t have respect for the events that happened or the families who lost loved ones. Although I bore firsthand witness to the events, I was lucky enough not to have lost anyone personally, and I just don’t feel I have anything to add to the conversation. Since 9/11 is an everyday thought for most of us over a certain age, I prefer not to magnify it on its anniversary.

But today, eleven years and two days later, I was thinking about the (old) World Trade Center. Usually when I think of the WTC, the first image in my head is not, believe it or not, a pair of rectangular smokestacks. In fact it’s not any image of the skyscrapers from outside or above. I usually think of the WTC the way I saw it for almost two years: from below and inside.

My first two years living here, I really lived in Jersey City, New Jersey. For those not familiar with the Tri-State Area, Jersey City is directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, just a 5-10 minute train ride away. I took that train, the PATH, from my stop in Journal Square either to 33rd Street in Midtown, or (more frequently) to the World Trade Center station, in the bowels of one of the towers.

I didn’t take these photos; I found them on About.com and from Skyscraperpage.com. But they fairly well illustrate some of the sites I’d see on my way to work or out for a night on the town. This photo shows a down escalator headed to the PATH station. In fact, there are today escalators in the same location headed to the same station, but before 2001 they were enclosed rather than open-air.

https://i1.wp.com/0.tqn.com/d/manhattan/1/0/U/E/flickr-jaysonhawley-wtc-pathescalators.jpg

Photo by Jayson Hawley

One thing I wish I could find a photo of was the Commuter’s Cafe, a bar located just to the right as you come off the escalators, just before the turnstiles. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. Gazing inside as I rushed from the PATH to the E train, I saw a dark but lively space, businessmen and -women grabbing a Scotch before they headed back to Jersey. Its sign was one of those fonts that screamed 70s (much like the bar itself), brown cartoonish letters stuck onto the shopping mall-style faux marble Trade Center wall. Alicia Bridges’ disco hit “I Love The Nightlife” blared from the stereo, promising passers-by an evening the bar could never hope to deliver. It was really an airport bar in the middle of lower Manhattan. I never had the pleasure of going inside; at age 24-25 I no doubt considered the Commuter’s Cafe too lame for my time or money. Days after the attacks, I remember seeing an NBC camera crew forage into this very spot, showing viewers the inside of the bar. It looked like the war zone it was, that is, wrecked. Yet strangely the bottles and glasses on the shelves were intact, unbroken.

If anyone has any images of the Commuter’s Cafe, I’d love to see them. The only morsels I could find online were from HudsonCity.net, which shows a menu from the Cafe from the early 60s. That means the bar and grill predated the World Trade Center (completed in 1973). As you can tell from the illustration on the cover, it had a street entrance with an address of 32 (Church Street?) near the PATH entrance or “Hudson Tubes” as they were sometimes called.

https://i0.wp.com/www.hudsoncity.net/tubesenglish/commuters-cafecover800-opti.jpg

And here’s a peak inside the menu:

https://i1.wp.com/www.hudsoncity.net/tubesenglish/commuter-menu-2-800.gif

HudsonCity.net says the $6.50 filet mignon would be roughly $43 in 2006 dollars, which places this menu at about 1963. In 2012 that works out to a little more than $48.

The escalators led up to a ground-level shopping mall, the entrance to which can be seen here:

The shopping mall was like most malls. It had a Borders bookstore, a Sbarro pizzeria, a J. Crew, even (sign of the times alert) a Warner Brothers store. (I bought a set of superhero pint glasses there.) There was also an airline ticket counter with a few major U.S. airlines, presumably for the convenience of business travelers.

https://i2.wp.com/0.tqn.com/d/manhattan/1/0/S/E/flickr-jaysonhawley-wtc-concourse.jpg

Photo by Jayson Hawley

The mall may have looked dated, but the World Trade Center had a gorgeous lobby, modern but timeless. Light from outdoors poured in through the tall, narrow windows, and flags from every nation hung inside.

https://i0.wp.com/0.tqn.com/d/manhattan/1/0/D/F/flickr-TomWallace-wtc-lobby.jpg

Photo by Tom Wallace

From the lobby’s upper level, an indoor overpass that doubled sometimes as a marketplace of sorts connected one of the towers to the World Financial Center on the other side of the West Side Highway.

Another place I never saw, but would have loved to, was the observatory and the Windows on the World restaurant. From the 107th floor, the view and the dining experience must have given one a sense of what it was like to live through the triumphant 20s, when man conquered Manhattan’s clouds with ever-taller skyscrapers.

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Photo by Sebastien Des Sens

Alas, as with many attractions, I assumed it would always be there for me. At the time of the attacks, I was commuting daily to work on Canal Street via the WTC. Since it was summer, I would arrive at the PATH station, ride the escalators, make my way out to Church Street, and walk the rest of the way. That morning I was lucky enough to have gone to the gym in Hoboken and fallen behind schedule. By the time I showered and was leaving I saw on the TVs near the treadmills that the towers had been hit. They were still standing when I got to the waterfront not five minutes later. The rest, as you know, is history.

For a plethora of images (and even a video) of the World Trade Center, from construction to destruction and in between, check out this thread.

And, because I hate to end on a maudlin note, here’s a cameo role from the Twin Towers in a 1982 made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks. It’s a classic.

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This entry was posted in Americas, History, New York City, New York State, Travel, United States and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sbarro, Tom Hanks, And The Commuter’s Cafe: A Look Inside The Old World Trade Center

  1. Norma Rae says:

    Hello, I’m interested in understanding where the Commuter’s Bar was located. Would you be able to help me? Thank you

  2. that was my life 1970 1992 got layed off after big Wall st layoffs in the late 80s. commuted from Hoboken to wtc i would also love to see pics of Cafe from70-90s

  3. bill says:

    i was a bartender at the commuter cafe and the trade inn back in the 70’s

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