Q: Can you describe what Radio Row was like before the World Trade Center was built there? People, shops, homes, etc?
Answered by Mike Wallace:
On the surface Radio Row was just a wholesale/retail/resale outlet area, bounded by West, Church, Liberty, and Vesey Streets, with its axis along Cortlandt Street. From the 1920s on, its dilapidated old buildings, featuring radios and parts (some obtained from radio operators whose ships docked at nearby westside piers) drew radio amateurs from far and wide to get components to build devices and set up stations. After the second war, Radio Row sold war surplus electronics (equipment that originally cost thousands went for $25-50), televisions, radios, and high-fidelity sound equipment and parts, and particularly an infinite variety of vacuum tubes, the goods piled so high they spilled out onto the street. As late as the 60s the district had the largest concentration of electronic parts and equipment stores anywhere in Gotham.
I suspect, however, it was more than just a consumer outlet area, like Canal Street or later 47th Street, but something of a petrie dish for a then nascent electronics industry. Some important firms grew up there, like that of Charles Avnet, who began selling surplus radio parts in 1921, went on to produce radio antennas during the war for the military, merged with two other Courtland Street denizens, and expanded to become a major electronics company (and then moved away). The area's destruction by the WTC may perhaps have contributed to one of the most puzzling questions of NYC's recent history‹why California, and not Gotham, became host to Silicon Valley.
New York had long been a leader in the development of new communications technologies. It had crucibled the telegraph, hi-speed printing presses, motion pictures, radio, and tv, and rolled over its primacy with each new invention. As late as the 1950s, Gotham seemed poised to do the same with computers, but it proved to be the invention that didn't bark in the night. Despite the area's pioneering work in transistor development, despite the regional presence of Bell Labs and IBM, despite wartime electronics contracts and a thriving electrical engineering area in Radio Row, it would be Silicon Valley, not Silicon Alley that captured the lead.
To some extent, it may be that New York shot itself in the foot; the World Trade Center's being erected on the ruins of Radio Row was emblematic of a widespread demolition of manufacturing facilities around town and their replacement with office towers, and the city passed up opportunities to develop university-based hi tech engineering centers a la Stanford or MIT. There were many other reasons for New York's faltering, such as the mammoth flow of military contracts that galvanized aerospace development in California, Massachusetts, Texas and Florida, but the future may yet judge that we managed to nip our own computer industry in the bud. And who knows what possibilities may yet be precluded if we throw up millions of square feet of office space downtown rather than diversifying its economy; we may be set to repeat the very same mistakes we made before.