New York’s Still New York: Evaluating Ground Zero in Middle Age

Despite years of rancor surrounding it, the WTC site still possesses a deep emotional power.

They say these things take time, but I was surprised by how long it took before I really grieved for September 11. I had seen the events from a Brooklyn rooftop, far away, but not really so far as I had adopted the habit of saying. An uncle who had been married in the old Windows on the World a few years after the towers were finished pointed out that in crow-flight miles it was not very far at all, and those few nearly dead downwind. Still, when asked, I would say that I had the standard experience of millions of New Yorkers not immediately affected: the blue sky and the sparkling column of smoke, the sirens heard from horizon to horizon, the double collapse, and then the silent mounting grimness of the day.

Even after several years, many of them spent at Ground Zero among the strange tribes concerned with the site’s reconstruction—even after at no little pain turning that immersion into an account running 85,000 words—I maintained that I was at home with the aftermath. The instant memorials had not gotten to me, neither massed candles nor vain posters of the “missing.” The Tribute in Light, that importunate civic grandiosity, left me blank when it made its debut the first spring after. And none of the formal memorial designs, professional or amateur, ever impressed me as the least bit fitting, let alone moving or, god forbid, “healing”: it was processed, I was done.

So imagine my surprise when I first found myself in tears at the site as late as the summer of 2006. The catalyst was not a vision of the still distant shrine-pools conceived by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, still less those dual-role future memorials—Calatrava’s train station or what’s left of Libeskind’s master plan—the effects of which, through careful imagining, I had long ago dismissed as emotionally neutral. Instead the artistic team that finally cut through my cynicism was the comparatively humble duo of David Childs and Jenny Holzer—an architect who builds with little pretension to transcend and a now hackneyed artist of the severest sterility. I should add the great E. B. White too, since it was his Here Is New York, scrolling in huge white letters on Holzer’s screen in Childs’s lobby at 7 World Trade, that finally broke me down.

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I was there with my kids on a Sunday morning a few weeks after the tower’s opening. They started playing on that shiny red, somewhat obscene Jeff Koons sculpture in the new little park across the street; no one was around, and I sat down on a bench and looked west through the street-wall glass at the running text on the blast-shield wall protecting 7’s elevator banks. The screen was displaying the section of White’s essay-form love letter that discusses the island city’s tenuous supply chain: how everything has to be trucked in every day—tons of this and tons of that—and how, though it teeters on the edge of disaster, this system never fails. Three understated paeans to the city’s resilience: a simple tower, a simple screen, good words—that was the formula that at last reminded me of the miracle of New York’s being New York and the impossibility of its being anything else. The location did the rest.

When the towers first fell and, in practically the same moment, so many turned to imagining their replacement, I was appalled. Later, when I started to write about the site, I avoided proposing designs of my own, both because they were banal and impracticable—I thought it would be cool to flood the bathtub—and because I felt such activities were beyond the scope of a responsible critic. I would often say, however—as I think I wrote or at least implied here once—two things: that the ultimate form of the reconstruction was unimportant as long as the process to achieve it, from the first planning session through the ribbon-cutting, was conducted with dignity; and second, that New York should be left to be New York.

It was as obvious then as now that those two ideas were in absolute conflict—that the city could in no way be the one we love and also comport itself with a special reserve—so I concocted a third idea, one that has proved remarkably durable, by way of resolution. It is an end-around bit of post-facto justification with just a touch of convenient sophistry, but it pleased me and it works: It is a good thing, I thought, that everyone—everyone—associated with the reconstruction was behaving so poorly, thwarting and suing one another, grandstanding for political ends, that the right solution for the site would necessarily come from the accumulation of so many wrongs. We don’t want to see the blow to New York that would change its native ways.

So the process bobbed along and I mostly with it—plans were drawn, approved, and forgotten—and at length we came to early September 2006 and the unveiling of the three newest towers: the motley assortment, not too much loved in the press, by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Fumihiko Maki. With the pruned train station and the half-price, simplified-by-committee memorial, we now have a fairly complete view of what might come to pass at Ground Zero by 2012 (or, with Mr. Silverstein’s recent deadline extension, 2013). The buildings to replace the wounded Deutsche Bank, and Frank Gehry’s mysterious performing-arts center, are now the only holdout ellipses.

At first viewing, at the scales and levels of resolution presented, the three new towers—all huge, all glass—are not what anyone would call brilliant. Foster’s is a busy affair of bundled diamond shafts that strains at the top to recall Libeskind’s long-ago proposed (and otherwise defunct) notion of a spiral of prisms descending from the mother-gem of his original angular Freedom Tower. Rogers’s building, a block south, is an even more mundane affair, strapped from sidewalk to spire with busy wind-bracing. The last and smallest, Maki’s tower, is a simple composition of a rectangular base and a shifted triangular top; sleek and mute, it could be anywhere.

All three towers, in fact, might be built anywhere—Foster’s has a distinctly Dallas feel—but if they are built at all, they will be built at a site that will confer meaning on even the most anodyne object. And if they can be built as 7 World Trade was built, with a good eye, a light touch, and perhaps a splash of decent art, then we all stand a fair chance of someday seeing a whole that does justice to the events that cleared the site: buildings that may be compromised and uninspired, products of more rancor than most, that still possess the power to lift jaded New York souls.

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