Thursday, April 13, 2006

What's Happening at Ground Zero?

NYPD OPERATOR: Police Operator One-Eight-Eight-Six. What is your emergency?
Christopher Hanley: Yeah. Hi. I’m on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center. We just had an explosion on the, on the like 105th floor.
NYPD: The One-O-Six floor?
CH: Yes.
NYPD: One-O-Six. Ok. Um…
CH: We have a conference up here. There is about 100 people up here.
NYPD: What is your last name?
CH: Hanley. H – A – N- L- E-Y.
CH: We have smoke and it’s pretty bad.
(Operator can be heard typing.)
NYPD: This is on the One-O-Six floor, right?
CH: Hello?
NYPD: OK, we have the job. Let me connect you with the fire, OK?
CH: Yes, there is fire, smoke…. We can’t get down the stairs.
NYPD: Hold on. Let me connect you with fire.
NYPD: Come on now.
FDNY DISPATCHER: Fire Department 408. Where’s the fire?
CH: Yeah. Hi. I’m on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center. We just had an explosion up here.
FDNY: Ok. One-O-Sixth floor…. What building are you in, sir? One or Two?
CH: That’s One World Trade…. Yeah, there’s smoke and we have about 100 people up here.
FDNY: Sit tight. Do not leave, OK? There is a fire or an explosion or something in the building. All right? I want you to stay where you are.
CH: Yes…. We’re on the 106th, the 106th floor.
FDNY: All right, we’re there. We’re coming up to get you…. We’re on the way.
CH: Huh?
FDNY: We’re on the way, sir.
CH: OK. Please Hurry.
FDNY: All right, just keep the windows open. It’s going to be awhile because there’s a fire going on downstairs…. OK. Just sit tight. Just sit tight. We’re on the way.
CH: All right. Please hurry.

—Excerpt from the transcript of the 911 call made by Christopher Hanley on September 11, 2001.

Four years and eight months after terrorist hi-jacked planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, effecting a permanent disequilibrium in our lives, one thing is clear: Christopher Hanley’s call to 911—the first logged from a victim of the attacks—marks the last instances of pure equanimity, unselfconscious dignity, and clarity of purpose in regards to the events of that day. According to people close to Chris Hanley, despite uncertainty, staggering confusion, and doubt about his fate, he acted with characteristic poise and concern for the well-being and interests of others.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the cadre of politicians and other parties charged with commemorating the persons whose lives, including Chris Hanley’s, were lost on September 11, 2001 and restoring usefulness to the site of the former towers. Theirs is a story of misguided efforts and a rush to rebuild without foresight, critical thought, and examination, all of which require time and reflection. The message at Ground Zero is that policy must be dynamic and vigorous, and executed immediately.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation [LMDC] implements official policy for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site and its surrounding area. LMDC was formed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks by the New York Governor’s office, occupied then as now by George Pataki, and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The scope of development is ambitious in that it encompasses not only the 16-acre site of the former trade center, but everything south of Houston Street, the idea being that the impact of the terrorist attacks reached beyond the epicenter and into the entire district, crippling the economy there like nowhere else in the city.

The LMDC therefore assumes responsibility for facilitating commercial development around the footprints of the two towers, as well as a “9/11” memorial and other buildings, which, as plans have evolved over the past four years, have included at least two hotly debated and subsequently rejected museums—the Drawing Center and the much-maligned International Freedom Center, which we will get back to later.

One of the most contentious and sensitive components of the redevelopment policy is the memorial to the dead, many of whose remains were never recovered. This fact alone infuses the site with a sacred quality and iconography unparalleled at any disaster site in our nation’s modern era, including that of the former Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Every discussion of how to treat the actual acreage of the former World Trade Center, and the program for development there, must first address the site as the final resting place for the dead. The survivors of 9/11 victims form a dominant and highly influential coalition. Most recently, their collective voices highlighted safety concerns about the planned memorial as well as raised objections to proposed admission fees at the memorial museum. Their considerable clout in all matters related to the memorial development is indisputable.

Which brings us back to the International Freedom Center. Conceived as a place to “celebrate freedom as a constantly-evolving world movement in which America has a leading role,” the center’s fate seemed doomed from the outset. Where in the mission statement, people must have wondered, was the relevance to the actual events of that late summer day in 2001. To be sure, one of museum’s key components was an exhibition program that would “tell personal stories and explore crucial themes in the history of freedom, detailing the contributions of countless individual men, women and children throughout the ages, including the heroes of September 11.” It’s that final clause that must have struck a nerve among many of the people debating the center’s purpose: September 11 as afterthought.

The International Freedom Center’s downward spiral and eventual conceptual demise is actually a telling example of an instance where LMDC’s policy for Ground Zero failed. It also reveals a key reason why the policy continues to falter. Their mission is, in part, to “remember and honor the thousands of innocent men, women, and children murdered by terrorist in the horrific attacks of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001.” It is in their expansive effort at inclusiveness that the LMDC shifts off point.

The defining events of September 11, 2001 happened in three distinct locations: Washington, Pennsylvania, and Manhattan. The Pentagon’s destroyed western ring segments have long since been restored, and the peripheral areas, including roads, parking lots, bus terminals, and building entrances, bear little resemblance to what they were pre-9/11. The policy of rebuilding in Washington was clearly one informed strictly, and some would argue appropriately, by matters of security.

While the LMDC’s literature may be true in asserting that the very foundations of democratic ideals on which the country was founded were attacked when the World Trade Center was struck by planes and later collapsed, it is a mistake to identify the site as a symbol for national spiritual rejuvenation. Whatever happens there must be a symbol for the city of New York, not the nation. It must not serve as a tangible expression for the world of our democratic ideals.

The Freedom Center failed because it’s agenda was too broad. Various aspects of the memorial have been criticized along the same lines, most notably in the placement and arrangement of names of the deceased. Some argue that the randomness favored by the memorial designers confuses where people died, Washington, Pennsylvania, or New York, and the agencies with whom individuals were affiliated, Goldman Sachs, NYPD, FDNY, etc.

The LMDC claims its plans are transparent. And, in all fairness, it has, in fact, been faithful about including New Yorkers in the design selection process for the commercial towers and site development at Ground Zero. These meager, and some might claim strictly symbolic, overtures are, however, a far cry from what happened a little more than twenty years ago and several hundreds of miles away in Manteo, North Carolina.

There, Randolph Hester’s experiment for planning around the needs and wishes of a local community was a resounding success. Can that same kind of success be replicated on a much larger scale? New York City may have a population of nearly ten million people, but the masses and the scale don’t need to be an obstacle to a respectful and sensitive redevelopment policy.

And, it’s easy to forget that while New York City, and Manhattan specifically, is a formidable urban center, it is also composed of distinct neighborhoods to which New Yorkers cling with pride and proprietary interest. Urbanites are as provincial a people as can be found anywhere. We rarely venture out of our local surroundings. I live in Washington, but I have several friends who live in New York: Chelsea, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Battery Park City, the East Village, and in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. Unless pressed by work or entertainment, they hardly ever venture out of their milieu.

With this in mind, the LMDC might focus locally, which they claim to be doing by concentrating their efforts below Houston Street, rather than nationally and globally in their commemorative efforts. The development of the acreage at Ground Zero must benefit locals and New Yorkers first. It must tell their stories before speaking for the nation and sending a message to the world. Leave the exposition of “Freedom” for another context. Let the World Trade Center Memorial tell the stories about the events of September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center. Let it honor those who died there, not in Washington and Pennsylvania, and on that day, not on a February morning nearly a decade earlier during a different terrorist attack.

The Manteo experiment, an innovation in addressing a community’s needs before leaping ahead to develop, might seem a world away from the contentious battles at Ground Zero in Manhattan. No arena anywhere has been subjected to more scrutiny than the parcel of land on which Minoru Yamasaki’s two buildings stood. Still, there’s a lesson in Manteo for the LMDC: Policy is first about addressing the needs and concerns of individuals. It’s not about the expression of national pride and democratic ideals.