December 1, 2005
A visit to the site of her childhood home—and the tragedy in New Orleans—has our columnist thinking about how we rebuild as a society.
In August I visit the site of my childhood home. I drive the familiar route—over the George Washington Bridge and onto Route 46—exiting near the shopping center where the woods used to be, hanging a right onto Edsall Boulevard, a long steep road that runs from the backside of the Palisades right down into the New Jersey swamplands. I notice that most of the old single-family houses have disappeared, replaced by lot-filling two-family brick homes. All the old trees seem to have vanished as well. I wonder, How long has it been since I’ve driven down this hill?
When I turn onto First Street, it looks all wrong. Our house—with the yellow aluminum siding, granite-front facade, slate walkway, towering blue spruce, and lawn that never grew anything but crabgrass—is gone, replaced by a bigger one made of brown, white, and red brick. The new house is three stories tall with bay windows on the two main floors, a sort of mock historical touch. A pair of two-car garages consumes the bottom level.
I stand in the street staring. Even though my sister had warned me that our house was gone, I am still shocked. Even though I know that this is exactly the kind of house they build in my hometown, I am still amazed at how ugly it is.
In September, after Hurricane Katrina smashes into the Gulf Coast, I begin to have dreams in which I return to my old house and find it in disarray—my mother, father, or cat somehow trapped inside. The connection between these dreams and the nightmare playing out on the TV news is quite clear.
I know there’s an enormous difference between losing a home in which you live and losing one with which you’ve had no connection for more than a decade. The thing that gets me is not the fact that my former home is gone but the nature of the replacement. A similar structure has replaced almost every single-family house in my old neighborhood. A motley assortment of houses has been replaced by structures that all appear to come from the same plan book. Variegated texture has given way to homogeneity. It feels as if the town I knew was lost and replaced by a different one, as if something as transformative as a hurricane had passed through without anyone noticing.
So I begin thinking about how we as a society replace the things that are intentionally or accidentally destroyed. And we’ve been losing some pretty big things lately—a sizable chunk of Manhattan, an ever larger hunk of New Orleans—and it’s not clear that we know how to rebuild, at least not in a way that serves normal human needs. Either we do it heedlessly, like in my old town, or we embrace lofty symbolic goals without realizing that our society is so polarized that any values-based effort is likely to lead to paralysis.
Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck, President Bush stood in front of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans and made a speech intended to reclaim lost political capital. He—or his speechwriter—was in an expansive mood: “We will not just rebuild—we will build higher and better,” he told the nation. The president proposed an Urban Homesteading Act. “We will identify property in the region owned by the federal government and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery. In return they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity.”
Urban homesteading is a nice idea—although it could easily play out as a byzantine landgrab. What the speech reminded me of, however, was the way politicians once talked about Ground Zero. A couple of years ago I sat through many of these speeches, and “higher and better” was always on the agenda.
I remember Governor George Pataki’s speech at the press conference in early 2004, when Santiago Calatrava unveiled his design for new World Trade Center transit hub. Citing Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s complaints about our inability to build big, Pataki proclaimed, “We were going to build these tributes. We weren’t just going to create a twenty-first-century infrastructure; we would do it in such a way that the buildings themselves would be a lasting tribute to those we lost and to the courage we showed on September 11th.” Higher. Better. More meaning.
In all honesty I think meaning is precisely what’s tripped us up at Ground Zero. Calatrava’s building is the one component of the plan that may get built more or less as designed because it has the highest ratio of function to symbolism. Yeah, sure, it’s a dove in flight, but really it’s just a glorified subway station. And we could use a station down there.
The 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower and the International Freedom Center are problematic because we don’t have a use for either one of them. The fact that the Freedom Tower will require its own built-in Jersey barriers to protect it from truck bombs suggests that the building will actually stand as a monument to freedoms lost. More painfully ironic is the way the cultural component at Ground Zero has been battered by ideology.
In an article headlined “Nutty 9/11 Art Nixed,” the New York Daily News reported the following: “The larger museum, the International Freedom Center, has sparked fears it will focus on acts of U.S. wrongdoing, like slavery and treatment of American Indians, while the Drawing Center, now based in Soho, was exposed in the News as displaying graphic and vulgar art attacking America’s war on terror.” In the article Governor Pataki declared, “We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom, or denigrates the sacrifice and courage that the heroes showed on September 11.” The Drawing Center in the end withdrew from the WTC site and the governor evicted the International Freedom Center.
Now all the competing interests—politicians, developers, oil refiners, environmentalists, survivors, hydrologists, social engineers, and yes, architects—are beginning to coalesce around New Orleans in a way that feels familiar. Everyone sees the ruined city as the place to trot out their pet theories and polemics.
Unlike the World Trade Center, which contained millions of square feet of office space that we don’t exactly miss, Katrina largely destroyed people’s homes. So it’s possible that practical considerations—giving those who return a place to sleep—will be so overwhelming that New Orleans won’t get suckered by the purveyors of meaning-laden skyscrapers and other dubious symbols. Maybe they’ll just start building houses. And maybe, with luck, some of them will be good houses. On the other hand, reports that Bush has deployed his deputy chief of staff, the king of political operatives Karl Rove, to stage-manage the reconstruction effort suggests that the project will have an ideological bent.
I hope the new houses they build in New Orleans are more distinctive than the soulless brick boxes that have taken over my old neighborhood (although, in truth, a two-family house perched atop a garage wouldn’t be the worst model for a flood-prone region). And I’d bet anything that whoever replaced my childhood home believed he was building “higher and better.”