Can't Let Emotion Get in the Way of WTC
By Joseph Dolman
August 14, 2002
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But we can't let strong feelings trap us into a leaden project
that never has a chance to soar.