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Reading the Pictures: As 9/11 and the New World Trade Center Overrun Labor Day

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I suppose it's telling that the New York Times Magazine -- the day before Labor Day -- fronts a photo-essay evoking the tenth anniversary of 9/11. And though, in poetic quotes and stunning black-and-white imagery, the piece is constructed around the experience of the workers rebuilding the Trade Center, the primary focus here is the building and it's steel, the presence of the workers significant only in their risk-taking, their muscle, and, above all, their appreciation for "the privilege" of straddling and caressing all that steel in putting a landmark edifice back together again.

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McGowan, whose father and grandfather both worked on the construction of the World Trade Center's twin towers, says his father took him to the site when he was 5.

''It was 1970, and the building was still going up, and he and my grandfather brought me onto the building. It was nice then to see the site. Now that I'm older, I can see even more. The vision is getting a little wider.''

John McGowan can see more?

In the same issue of The Times that offers us this photo essay, we also find Robert Reich's painfully illuminating article in The Week section, "The Limping Middle Class," with a dead-on diagram showing how, since '79, worker incomes have radically trailed the 80% increase in worker productivity, income in the bottom fifth having actually declined.

With that graph in mind, and the perfunctory passing of Labor Day, these pictures and quotes remind me how America romanticized the working class, the policeman, the firefighters, and the maintenance and construction workers as heros, the same way America lionized the work-a-day soldiers committed to extracting revenge for the attacks. In the midst of the mountain of perfunctory 9/11 anniversary hamburger, one question I don't see being asked anymore is what made the edifice of the WTC -- that symbol of might situated at Ground Zero of the U.S. financial market -- such a target in the first place?

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''It's crazy watching all the progress that's been made and even crazier thinking that when it came down, my dad was here helping to clean it up,'' says Tim Conboy, 22, whose father was a fireman on 9/11. ''And now, 10 years later, I'm helping to build it back up.''

All the progress that's been made?

Far from stakeholders in their toil, Mr. McGowan and his cohorts are romanticized for their brawn and the "lucky fortune" of being part of the legacy of this re-building. Their words are no more significant than the presence of the chaps in the famous Ebbets photo lunching on a cross beam, Mr. McGowan and Mr. Conboy, along with the others in the slideshow, functioning largely as pin-up models as they set the WTC back in place. So here's to Labor Day, and the memory of their fathers and father's fathers, the economic well-being of today's death-defying American worker -- from the artistry of this imagery to the chatter of the 2012 campaign trail -- scoring about as much sensitivity as the dust the last behemoth was reduced to.

NYT Slideshow: Raising High Steel Atop 1 World Trade Center

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(photos: Damon Winter for The New York Times.)