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Steven Malanga
Heroic Gotham Surrenders to Defeatism
The debate about the World Trade Center site is all about emphasizing loss and victimization, rather than reaffirming New York’s strengths.
14 August 2002

What happened to the New York City the world watched with such admiration in the days immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center? Led by Mayor Giuliani and the city’s indefatigable rescue workers, that city seemed unbowed by the losses it had suffered and determined to recover and rebuild as quickly and energetically as possible. But since then, another city has begun to emerge, displaying some of the worst tendencies of American culture, and of New York itself. This city seems uncertain about what made it great in the past, irresolute about its future, and awash in its own sense of victimization.

Nowhere is that other city more evident than in the debate on how to rebuild on the World Trade Center site. That discussion, which began so resolutely and even defiantly last fall—when New Yorkers vowed to replace what the terrorists destroyed with something more magnificent—has now devolved into a sentimentalized wallowing in death and loss, like those Victorian pictures that show a young widow grieving over the tomb of her husband, shadowed by a weeping willow tree. Instead of looking to rebuild in a manner that celebrates New York’s irrepressible vibrancy and its great strengths, the city is moving ever closer to turning much of Lower Manhattan into memorial parkland that will do more to mark the success of the terrorists attack than it will to help the city revive. There is even a whiff of Sontagism in the air: the notion that because our global economic success irritated the terrorists enough to knock down the Twin Towers, we had better rein in our economic vitality to placate our backward enemies.

The worst elements of this debate were on display in the so-called “electronic town meeting” that took place in New York in July, when about 4,000 people gathered to tell the committee planning for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan what they thought of its designs for the World Trade Center site. While the title of the event suggested some combination of 21st Century technology and 18th Century American democratic ideals, the spectacle was actually more reminiscent of Oprah Winfrey than Thomas Jefferson, more like a therapeutic TV talk show sentimentalizing the issues at hand than an expression of robust democratic ideals and an exercise in rational discussion aimed at achieving decisive real-world action.

As gigantic TV screens broadcast the proceedings over the course of eight hours, trained discussion “facilitators” (whatever they are) transmitted reactions from the audience to the event’s host onstage, while “grief counselors” stood by—one more indication of the event’s lachrymose and self-pitying keynote. Organizers, meanwhile, issued a report on the demographics of the meeting that described many attendees in terms of 9/11—family of victim, survivor, and so forth—as if we are all now labeled entirely by our relationship to that day. Hardly in evidence was a trace of the courageous resolve that built the world’s metropolis and its powerful engine of finance and commerce. In fact, the monuments shown at the meeting as possible models for a WTC memorial were all mawkish indulgences in private grief rather than strong affirmations of our national resolve to triumph over loss, to come back stronger than ever before, and to celebrate our life, strength, and the principles of freedom and enterprise that the terrorists sought to destroy.

At best, what this sideshow produced was a series of contradictions. On the one hand, participants told the planners not to build on the footprints of the old towers—even though they encompass about half the site—but on the other hand, build something grand and magnificent. Participants also advised the planners to reduce the amount of commercial space on the site, but also not to destroy downtown Manhattan as a center of finance.

Rather than see these conflicting recommendations as the product of a participatory process run amok, the committee charged with directing the rebuilding determined to go back to the drawing board. Scrapping their preliminary plans, the planners announced that they would consider reducing the amount of commercial activity in Lower Manhattan in favor of even more memorial space. Suddenly, the terrorist attack has become an excuse to transform downtown from a center of finance into parkland.

The committee pronouncements were the surest sign yet of the transformation that the city has undergone since 9/11. Immediately after the attack, New Yorkers boldly declared they would rebuild the Twin Towers in all their gigantic glory—whatever the cost and regardless of whether such a project were economically sound. The rebuilding process reflected that resolve early on, when Governor Pataki appointed a strong board of directors—including some of the city’s preeminent business executives—to lead the reconstruction. But since then the city’s political and business leaders have allowed a few small constituencies—the families of the victims, the no-growth advocates, the anti-business community activists—to shift the debate away from the notion of a vigorous rebuilding.

The rest of the country—indeed the world—might be stunned to find such a sudden turnabout. They still imagine the New York of 9/11—a city in control of its destiny. But in truth, the other New York, the one that is now starting to take control of the rebuilding process, has never been very far from the surface, even after the attacks. That “other” New York is the one dominated by cultural elites who question the very principles of capitalism that have fueled the city’s growth throughout the years. These elites welcome a rebuilding process that is in reality non-building. This other city is the one whose activists before 9/11 held uniformed workers—police and firefighters—in contempt and who planned to construct a memorial to those rescue workers based on the famous picture of firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero, while changing the race of the actual firefighters, because the men in the photo were not sufficiently “diverse.” It is the city awash in anti-development sentimentality, anxious to protect striped bass and dilapidated housing here at home, and impoverished societies abroad, from the ravages of economic growth and the change and rebuilding that it brings.

With these elites and activists reasserting themselves, the transformation of lower Manhattan into a memorial landscape of death is evolving rapidly. It is a project that the city’s political culture isn’t likely to object to, either. The World Trade Center site, which in the days before the bombing had been leased back to the private sector, under the plans being discussed would likely revert largely back to government, which will organize and manage an industry of bereavement tourism on it in Lower Manhattan.

The only question now is how much the rest of the country, through the federal government, will subsidize this gloomy, defeatist model. To accomplish its rebuilding goals, especially if the planners reduce the amount of commerce on the site, New York will need vast new sums of money, for which the planners will doubtless turn to Washington. But before the Bush administration forks over federal tax dollars, it should look closely at what it is paying for. The rest of the country might not be so eager to endorse the grim, death-affirming vision of New York’s elites.

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More by Steven Malanga:
Welcome to the Jungle
Trolling for Dollars
March Labor Madness
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