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Lower Manhattan: Let the Public Decide

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from
the writer’s remarks at the public form,

“Reflections on Memorials,” sponsored by the
Metropolitan Studies Program at NYU on

November 30, 2001.

In the days after the catastrophic attack on the World Trade Center, many spontaneous moving memorials to victims appeared throughout the city, in places like Union Square, the Brooklyn Promenade and various triage information centers for victims’ families. While many local community organizations, art galleries, and museums are currently making efforts to archive and display these materials, there is also a clear need for a more permanent memorial on the site of the original Twin Towers.

This issue has been on among the many contentious aspects of the future Lower Manhattan that has been discussed in the mainstream news media since September 11. It has become inseparable from other vexing and politically divisive questions: Should the Twin Towers be rebuilt? Can the financial district recover? How should Lower Manhattan be redesigned? Who has the right to plan the future WTC site?

The destruction of the twin towers entailed not only a tragic and terrifying loss of life for thousands of innocent victims. It also entailed a major blow to one of the most strategically significant financial centers in the world. For this reason, debates on the question of memorializing the attacks and their victims have been immediately intertwined with broader debates about the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan as a globally competitive business district.

In this sense, Ground Zero is no longer merely Ground Zero of the attacks. Almost immediately following the events of September 11, it had also become Ground Zero of a titanic political battle over how to rebuild and reconstruct, over how to mourn, and how to represent what has been lost. Ground Zero is thus a contested space not only on the level of the practical decisions that will need to be made about its future, but also on the level of discourse, as people and organizations with competing visions of what it represents struggle to shape the way it is perceived in the public sphere and in the mass media.

If you read the newspaper accounts and websites regarding the debate on Ground Zero, you can find a few different tropes that are repeated, in countless forms. For many victims’ families, Ground Zero is a sacred place—hallowed ground where thousands lost their lives—that should be preserved as such. For the city’s business elite, it’s a space of opportunity for the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan and the centerpiece for new city-wide and even regional economic development strategies. And for Americans elsewhere, Ground Zero is a space that has not just local meaning, but national meaning: for them, it wasn’t just Lower Manhattan that was attacked but the U.S.A. and, as George W. Bush puts it, the “American way of life.”

In short, there is immense disagreement not only about the location and scale of any future memorial, but also about what any future memorial should actually memorialize. Should it be a mere add-on to a redeveloped office complex in the WTC plaza? Should it be a space of quiet reflection and mourning dedicated above all to the victims themselves? Or should it be a monument to U.S. nationalism, like other “war memorials” (Pearl Harbor, Vietnam). Or perhaps it should reflect broader humanitarian or cosmopolitan values rather than sectarian U.S. or local ones. New York City is a global city, and the population here hails from countries around the world. So why not construct a monument that reflects the cosmopolitan values of a single country?

Clearly, these are contentious issues, and we can expect to see them fought out in a number of political contexts in the coming months and years. I’m struck, however, by the degree to which the public discussion of such matters has already been slanted towards a very particular vision in which issues of economic redevelopment, mixed with a bit of populist U.S. nationalism, appear to have acquired an almost naturalized primacy. A few days ago, I heard on NPR that a new Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has just been formed which will be responsible for, among other tasks, the construction of a memorial at or near the WTC site. If I heard the radio correctly, no family members of the victims have been invited to join this Commission—though Giuliani insisted, when pressed by a journalist, that they would in fact be consulted. Under current conditions, it would seem, powerful corporate and real estate interests rooted in the Lower Manhattan real estate market and office economy appear to have acquired discretionary power over the space in which any permanent memorial would be constructed.

What exactly is going on here? Since when did Economic Development Corporations have any expertise or popular legitimacy in constructing memorials? Why hasn’t there been a greater public opposition to this apparent redefinition of the complex, multifaceted issue of memorialization into an economic one?

The case of Oklahoma City provides an interesting counterpoint against which to think about the current situation in Lower Manhattan. Even if the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City had different roots than the attacks of September 11, it represents another recent example of large-scale urban terrorism. Most crucial here is the way in which the task of memorialization has been confronted in context.

As in New York City after September 11, makeshift memorials were initially constructed near the site of the attack in Oklahoma City. Subsequently, the Mayor of Oklahoma City appointed a 350-member task force—and I quote from the website of the Oklahoma City National Memorial—“to explore ways to remember this tragic event, and especially to honor the 168 Oklahomans who died.” From the start, the committees on the task force were drawn from the families and loved ones of those who were killed in the bombing, as well as from the ranks of their survivors and rescuers. A design competition ensued and eventually the Oklahoma City National Memorial was dedicated in April of 2000.

I have not been to the Memorial, but the accounts I have read suggest that it has been very well received by the local community—not least because it was in large part designed by, or in consultation with, members of the local community. The Oklahoma City National Memorial has been welcomed with considerable public acclaim. In addition to its extremely moving memorial grounds located on the footprint of the original building, the Memorial includes an interactive learning center and museum as well as the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for Prevention of Terrorism. It is also worth noting that, while the Memorial has its own autonomous organizational structure, it is part of the National Parks service; and it is funded through the admissions fees and other indirect revenues.

Although Oklahoma City National Memorial has occasionally been mentioned in discussions of Lower Manhattan after September 11, there are at least two important differences between the sites of memorialization in each of these cities that deserve to be underscored.

First, while downtown Oklahoma City has and continues to have an important business district, it does not even begin to rival the strategic global and national importance of a place like Lower Manhattan (which is the 3rd largest business district in the U.S.A., after Midtown and the Chicago Loop). Thus, even though local real estate owners in Oklahoma City may have had an interest in influencing the reconstruction process in that context, they did not exercise the level of influence that is currently being exercised by real estate capital in Lower Manhattan. In Oklahoma City, the priority of building an appropriate memorial through a process which the public could directly influence, appears to have been embraced universally among all interested parties; and subsequently, the memorial itself has become an important asset to the downtown economy. By contrast, in Lower Manhattan, economic interests, particularly in the real estate and financial sectors, have major concerns about the redevelopment of this part of the city as a major financial node. Thus the discussion of a memorial appears to have taken a backseat behind supposedly more basic issues of economic planning. While the question of a memorial is, of course, mentioned recurrently in debates on the planning and redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, most recent accounts imply that the shape will ultimately hinge upon the broader economic development strategy that is given considerable credence by the recent announcement that the memorial plans will be decided by members of the Lower Manhattan Economic Development Corporation.

Second, the most important, the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was a public building, situated on public land. Under these conditions, state institutions were able to take control over the reconstruction and memorialization process, and thereby open up channels through which members of the public could influence the eventual outcome. It was the state’s role in the process, I believe, that ensured its participatory-democratic character and ultimately its deep popular resonance. We arrive at the essential difference between the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the WTC site. The WTC site is in fact located on public land; it was constructed under the auspices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Back in 1973, shortly after the completion of the WTC complex, the Port Authority had declared its eventual goal of selling it to the private sector. This was not accomplished, however, until April 2001, when it was leased for 99 years to Silverstein Properties for an estimated 3.2 billion dollars.

This state of affairs has created a situation of considerable legal ambiguity at the present time with regard to issues of redevelopment and memorialization. It has certainly confused the question of who has the legal right to plan the rebuilding of the site—is it a corporate real estate firm; or is it a public agency? On the one hand, many people argue that Silverstein Properties has a legal right to determine the future design and use of the site. After the attacks, on Sept 17, Larry Silverstein was quoted by many newspapers for a speech he gave to business leaders at the Regency Hotel: “Should we rebuild the World Trade Center, the symbol of New York? Absolutely […] Because to do anything less would be simply to give an incredible victory to those who sought to destroy our way of life.”

However, there are a lot of cloudy legal and political issues that would have to be resolved before this could happen. First, there are questions about Silverstein’s insurance coverage. Depending on whether the events of September 11 are classified as one attack or as two attacks, Silverstein appears to be entitled to between 3.6 and 7 billion in insurance proceeds. Which amount he is allotted has major implications for Silverstein’s financial solvency, and more specifically, for his ability to continue to pay the rent due to the Port Authority. Silverstein continues to maintain that he has a legal right to decide the future of the site: “We paid for [the World Trade Center],” he maintains, and “We’re doing what we have to do because we have a huge investment in this thing.”

Most of the discussions of redevelopment I have read take this interpretation as a given; the question then turns to how the visions of Silverstein Properties might be linked to other public concerns. But this, I would argue is just one possible interpretation of the situation—and, I would argue, it is not in the public interest.

To be sure, the long-term health of the New York economy is most certainly in the public interest: it seems cleat that Lower Manhattan has to be part of any economic development strategy for the city and the region. My view, though, is that this priority of economic redevelopment does not at all justify the type of elite-dominated strategy of corporate reconstruction that seems to be in the making at the present time. On the contrary, both for the question of redevelopment and for the question of memorialization, more public involvement and more democratic accountability are urgently needed. As the case of Oklahoma City demonstrates, such involvement will ultimately enhance the meaning of any memorial that is eventually constructed.

In a public forum on Redevelopment and Rebuilding in Lower Manhattan held at the New School last month, Columbia University Prof. Elliot Sclar suggested that the Port Authority should buy out Silverstein’s interest in the complex and take responsibility for redevelopment on its own, in direct consultation with all the interested parties, including the victims’ families and other local interests. Some officials in the Port Authority share this view. The Port Authority Commissioner, William Martini, has argued that it is in fact best equipped to lead the redevelopment effort. But meanwhile, Silverstein has hired a team of architects, urban planners and an army of lawyers to defend his right to the space and plan its future. It remains to be seen how this battle will be fought out in the coming months.

I would endorse Sclar’s recommendation: Port Authority—or some branch of the local or state government—should take control over the reconstruction process at Ground Zero, including the question of an appropriate  memorial. I would like to mention four key reasons why this would be a more appropriate, desirable and effective means of constructing a permanent memorial—and indeed, of redeveloping Lower Manhattan itself.

(1) LEGITIMACY. A public agency would have more legitimacy than a private capitalist firm. If the future of the site were planned in conjunction with extensive input from the public—including the victims’ families and survivors—its eventual outcome would be more likely to be embraced by New Yorkers and other visitors to the city than a site designed by corporate capital for corporate capital.

(2) EQUITY. The federal government has allotted over 20 billion dollars to subsidize redevelopment in Lower Manhattan; and some portion of these funds may be used for the memorial. A public agency could ensure that the funds are allotted according to publicly acceptable criteria rather than to parties that are simply trying to capitalize on sunk investments.

(3) ACCOUNTABILITY. A public agency would ensure that the process through which the future of the site is decided is transparent to the public and that the officials in charge of planning the reconstruction are publicly accountable for their decisions.

(4) DEMOCRACY. And finally, taken together, a public agency could ensure that the site is redesigned in a democratic way, with input from the people who worked and lived there in the past and who may continue to work and live there in the future. The Port Authority is not particularly transparent or democratic at the present time; but perhaps the challenges of the present situation may provide us with an occasion to consider democratizing the organization as well.

There are, no doubt, countless issues to consider in planning an appropriate memorial to the victims of the September 11 catastrophe. It seems crucial, however, to remember the political-economic context in which choices and aesthetics, architecture, design and planning take place. A more democratic and transparent debate about the future of Lower Manhattan would be much more desirable, I believe, than the elite-dominated and corporate-led discussion that is currently unfolding, The tasks and responsibilities of memorialization should not be entrusted to an agency whose primary purpose is economic development and private investment. It’s simply too important—politically, symbolically and morally—to handover the task of memorialization to an organization whose basic goal is to make a profit.


Neil Brenner

Neil Brenner teaches Sociology and Metropolitan Studies at New York University.


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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