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We Can't Let Emotion Get in the Way of WTC

By Joseph Dolman  August 14, 2002


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On a frigid December day in his final week as mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani stood in the pulpit of St. Paul's Chapel at the edge of Ground Zero and declared the land outside as hallowed.

He delivered a remarkable oration for a man who seldom flirts with eloquence.

He talked about sacrifice. He talked about courage. He talked about the durability of our civic fabric. And then he proclaimed that the Ground Zero we create for the ages must instantly convey to all visitors "the great power and strength and emotion of what it means to be an American."

What he didn't tell us was how to do this.

Earlier this week, I stood on the south side of Ground Zero - it's a deep 16-acre pit right now - as a herd of politicians gathered under a wilting sun to praise the golden gods of federal largesse who recently saw fit to bless New York with $4.5 billion for a long list of downtown transit projects.

But I'll be honest with you. I didn't see anything that looked sacred. I didn't see the footprints of the Twin Towers. I didn't see a landscape that was hallowed. I didn't see the natural shape of a place that would inspire profound reflection.

Instead, I heard the clatter of heavy machines - from groaning dusty dump trucks to percussive rhythmic jackhammers to diesel-burning earth movers. I saw men in hard hats directing the job.

Meanwhile, protruding from the "bathtub" wall that kept the Hudson River out of the World Trade Center's sublevels, I saw the tubes that the New Jersey PATH train had used. Not too far off, I saw the ruined steelwork of a parking garage.

My point is this: No matter how strongly we may feel about the sacred nature of Ground Zero, we can't afford to get too literal as we reclaim the place. Anything we do on these devastated acres must - almost by definition - be symbolic.

This isn't Gettysburg we're talking about. This is a tightly packed piece of urban property.

It's important to bear this in mind, because the Port Authority's contractual obligation to build office space isn't the only reason why the first prototypes for the redevelopment of Ground Zero were such an awkward mess.

Another reason was the mandate to leave the footprints of the Twin Towers largely untouched. The result in several prototypes was a collection of ungainly office towers arranged like sentries around a disproportionately large chunk of green.

Remember the barren plaza - persistently cold and wind-swept - that was a key feature of the old World Trade Center? We might get it back - only with grass this time - if we're not careful.

I think it's no coincidence that the plan New Yorkers seem to like best, the one called Memorial Promenade, includes a slightly altered version of the towers' footprints. The two squares of green are one acre each - like the floors of the Twin Towers - but they aren't situated exactly where the real towers stood. This gives the designers more leeway for creativity. The slight liberty they take is not immediately obvious - and they still effectively evoke the footprints of the towers.

But never mind. Participants in July's town hall meeting on the designs made it clear that any fiddling with the footprints is unacceptable.

I think they're wrong.

For one thing, the whole idea of the footprints is illusory. What we saw at street level before Sept. 11 was never all there was to the picture. Under one of the towers, for example, was a turnaround for the PATH train. And even if builders were to preserve the exact position of the Twin Towers at street level, we would - in all likelihood - still be left with an illusion.

A case in point: There are plans at the moment to extend the rebuilt PATH train to Church Street, where it would link up with a new transportation hub. If that happens, its tracks will probably snake directly under the footprint of the North Tower. And if we don't have trains running under the footprint, chances are we will wind up with parking or some other business there.

You want authenticity? There's no such thing. Right now Ground Zero is a big empty hole. It is impossible to leave any part of this land as it was.

But with flexibility and ingenuity, we can do something great, something dignified, something that captures the astonishing sacrifice that took place on those 16 acres, something that conveys our profound sense of loss, something that expresses - yes - the power and emotion of what it means to be an American. Most New Yorkers - no, most citizens of the world - feel strongly about what happens on this land. That is only healthy.

But we can't let strong feelings trap us into a leaden project that never has a chance to soar.

 

Email: jdolman@pipeline.com        

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