What exactly is a ‘world trade center’? Any exchange of goods across continents may amount to ‘world trade’. Although the idea is ancient, it is only in the 1970’s that the name world trade center (usually abbreviated WTC) arose in the United States and Japan, lead by New York City's World Trade Center; which puts together in one location, all the services associated with global commerce, providing networking access between corporations and government.
Trade in goods, whether silks, spices, coffee, timber, flour, electronics or hardware - was often accompanied by an exchange of ideas. Simple and striking modern examples are Coca-Cola or Levis jeans, with their power to carry ideals of freedom; or even an exotic tea, which can represent contemplation, simplicity, and mystery within a more materialistic culture.
There is now a World Trade Centers Association, founded in 1970 and based in New York City; which represents an organization of nearly 300 world trade centers in almost 100 countries. NYC may earn a distinction for being the earliest, largest and most diverse among the late 20th century world trade centers, but it is not the only one, which may be a popular misunderstanding that undermines Democratic ideals of fair trade, cultural exchange and interdependence that are inherent to world trade. Art historian Giovanna Costantini provides the following comments.
Both "World" and 'Center" pose semantic difficulties. "World," unlike "global" conjures visions of Atlas and releases a fury of demythologizing energies. "Center" begs for de-centralization in the form of pluralistic networks increasingly identified as "hubs." But Global Trade Hub goes nowhere. During the Renaissance pertaining to Florentine trade and financial activity abroad during the fifteenth century, the economic and commercial networks that were established throughout the world included bases in Cyprus, Africa, Turkey, Bruges, Antwerp, Seville, Geneva, London and many more locations. The stock exchange (borsa) was instituted in Antwerp based on the name of the Venetian Della Borsa merchant whose house in Bruges served as the locus of Italian trading before moving to Antwerp, while four "fairs" in the Champagne region of France provided "centers" for international exchange in the Thirteenth century--to say nothing of the maritime ports and powers: Venice, Pisa, Genoa, Marseille. What I like about this model is its mosaic conception. At no time was any one center preeminent, nor is one conceived as being so today in Europe. I think this pluralism is economically astute and with respect to Pearl Street, I find its unique identity, history and revival in relation to hegemonic symbols to be significant.
Identifying the first world trade center may depend on how the term is defined. But according to New York historian Kenneth L. Jackson, lower Manhattan following construction of the Erie Canal (c. 1825) was “…the first district in the world devoted entirely to commerce”. The “…three thoroughfares of South Street, Pearl Street, and Wall Street contained most of the concerns vitally connected with the workings of the port" (Albion, 1952). Examination of the city tax records shows that the city’s one hundred highest valued properties are located on Wall St., Broadway and Pearl Street, the last being “…the richest street in New York”.
211-215 Pearl Street was at the center of the city’s highest valued commercial block. Of what we know about these properties, and no. 211 in particular; they actualized the benefits of international exchange to an unusual degree. An early occupant, Seth Low Sr., was among the first to open up trade with China and the East, specializing in chemicals, spices and exotic items - even a gong is on the auction lists. His son would found the leading Far East trading company, A.A. Low & Co. Another occupant, Joshua Scholefield, was a Birmingham, UK based hardware merchant and a leading figure in bringing modern Democracy to England in the early 1830's. A number of other merchants in the building were likely involved in overseas trade, particularly hardware. But one intriguing instance of cultural exchange survives as part of the buildings architecture, an interior brickwork artifact that point towards influences from European esoteric currents, giving the artifact intercultural importance.
In terms of global trade meeting modern Democrocy, lower Manhattan in the early 19th century was the first realization of this economic and political ideal since ancient Athens. Although not explicitly called a world trade center, it was rapidly taking shape as one during the late 1820's and early 1830's, with the formation of a trade district in which transportation, finance and mercantile firms were in close proximity; the New York Stock Exchange (1835) was established; foreign merchants with N.Y. directory addresses existed; the Custom's House (b.1835, collecting 90% of U.S. taxes from imports) was constructed; and a wide range of goods moved in and out of New York port; connecting an ever widening population across the globe - from the American heartland to the Orient.