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The Tribute in Light shines above a reflecting pool at the National September 11 Memorial on the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Mark Lennihan / AP Photo
The Tribute in Light shines above a reflecting pool at the National September 11 Memorial on the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

Book review: Battle for Ground Zero reveals searing debate over future of WTC site

Elizabeth Greenspan chronicles the highly emotional and politically charged process
of planning and building the 9/11 memorial.

Battle for Ground Zero
Elizabeth Greenspan
Palgrave Macmillan

Like many New Yorkers who lived through the Al Qaeda terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I experienced the chaos of that day first-hand: the gritty, smoky plume that fouled the air; the hordes of office workers, glassy-eyed and dust-covered, some sobbing, as they trudged miles to their homes; the mountains of debris at the World Trade Center (WTC) site.

But what really brought home to me the impact of that day was a friend, whose sister had tragically perished on a top floor of the North Tower, telling me months later that her family would finally be holding a funeral. "Oh!" I responded, impossibly naive. "They found her body?"

"No," my friend replied. "But we did get a piece of thigh bone."

In short, the worst terrorist act in US history, at the WTC in Lower Manhattan, also known as Ground Zero, left those 6.5 hectares not just a place of remembrance and rebuilding - but a graveyard.

No wonder emotions ran high and politics ran hot when it came time to decide the WTC's future - a process chronicled in Elizabeth Greenspan's exhaustively researched book, Battle Over Ground Zero. "It wasn't long before the list of things for Ground Zero to house reflected a host of irreconcilable desires," Greenspan writes. "Revenge, rebirth, peace, power, empathy, the latest in green design, a park, commercial space, and last but not least, affordable housing."

"The conversations weren't limited to Americans," continues the author, an urban archaeologist and Harvard lecturer. "More than two billion people watched the 9/11 attacks in real time or saw images of them that same day." Because of the timing of the attacks, just before 9am New York time, when the largest percentage of the Earth's people are awake, more than two billion people watched the 9/11 attacks in real time or saw images of them that same day.

The WTC became the place where people debated the meaning of post-9/11 America, she says, "the country's newest public square", and as such it was difficult, in fact well nigh impossible, to please everyone. One party that certainly had to be pleased was über-developer Larry Silverstein. Ten days before the attack, Silverstein had paid $3.2 billion (Dh11.18bn) to the Port Authority (a bi-state regional transportation authority, shared with New Jersey) for a 99-year lease at the WTC. The lease gave Silverstein 10 million square feet of office space at the World Trade Center, which in turn sat above the massive transportation hub the Port Authority was building. And Silverstein was not about to sacrifice all of his commercial investment to a memorial.

Then there were the politicians, especially the then-New York State governor George Pataki, the current New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the new Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Most powerfully, there were also the very vocal families of all 2,977 victims from that day, including those trapped in the WTC buildings, the first responders who came to save them, and the casualties of the coordinated terrorist atrocities that took place at the Pentagon in Washington and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Finally, there was the American public, who for weeks after the attacks left lorryloads of teddy bears and flowers along the fence of adjoining St Paul's Chapel, along with US flags, T-shirts, victims' photos, and messages - most hopeful ("we will overcome") but some hateful ("murdered by Islam").

Such outpourings at sites of death are "gifts of presence", anthropologist Miles Richardson tells Greenspan who, as a graduate student in that field, first developed her interest in the politics of rebuilding at sites of violence and war, like Berlin, Hiroshima and Oklahoma City.

Ground Zero is another such site, equally fraught with anguish. Today, its Memorial Plaza welcomes visitors from around the world to a beautiful 3.5-hectare, tree-lined park with huge, man-made waterfalls that cascade into reflecting pools set within the footprints of the original Twin Towers. "Freedom Tower", also known as 1 WTC, Silverstein's nearby 541-metre-high (1,776 feet, a nod to the year the country declared its independence from Britain) office tower is almost complete, as are an underground 9/11 museum and the Port Authority's transit hub. Greenspan's accounting of the dry minutiae of how these elements came to be, and the feuding that went along with it, may not capture every reader. But she does touch on some fascinating details of the development of Ground Zero's new "public square".

There is, for example, the 9/11 artefact known as "the composite": a one-metre-tall, 15-tonne mound containing four or five building storeys compressed during the towers' collapse and the subsequent intense fire. Pieces of filing cabinets stick out of its surface, as do bits of office documents.

Family members objected to the display of this and smaller composites in the eventual museum, arguing that there might be human remains inside it, but tests for human DNA were negative - a relief, since museum officials already had decided not to display or collect human remains - even those ground to dust. This stance differs from other memorial museums, for example, at Auschwitz.

Another interesting facet is Hangar 17 at JFK Airport, which the author toured and describes as a surreal scene of enormous twisted steel beams, mangled automobiles and fire engines, along with thousands of artefacts kept in temperature-controlled rooms. Then there are the tricky judgements the museum had to make, like how much space to devote to the philosophy of Al Qaeda. The final decision: 74 square metres out of a total of 930.

There are the ordinary people Greenspan spoke with, like Jan, a tourist from the Netherlands, who, despite having no connection to 9/11, had inexplicably tattooed an image of the towers and the words "Never Forget" on his bicep. And Bob, the father of a victim, whose grief support group Greenspan attended in Philadelphia. "This has a lot of meaning for me," Bob tells the group, tenderly unwrapping his son's still-dust-covered wallet. The fact that the wallet is intact, Bob says, suggested that his son, whose body had been found 95 per cent burnt, died from falling burning metal in the street rather than making the unimaginable decision to jump off the 110-storey building - as many others had.

Then there are the better-known players whom Greenspan also interviewed: one is Mayor Bloomberg, with his unfortunate habit of making insensitive remarks: "There are 15-odd [victims'] families where the spouse, I think it was probably all women, they just kept crying and crying," he told the Memorial Competition jury at one point. "It's not my business to say to a woman, 'Suck it up and get going,' but that is the way I feel."

Another is architect Daniel Libeskind, who submitted the winning Ground Zero master plan and let everyone know it ("I am the people's architect!"), as he battled with Silverstein's own chosen architect. Making peace between the two, Greenspan quips in the book, was like "brokering a peace between two warring middle-school cliques".

There is the second key architect, Michael Arad: short-tempered, yes, but also a major talent whose concept of a 9/11 Memorial "square voids" approach beat out 5,200 other designs. Arad further conceived of a way to list the victims' names at the memorial, using "meaningful adjacencies" for those whose who had worked together or come from the same firehouse or flown together on those four ill-fated flights.

Finally, there is the matter of the Islamic Center. A proposed prayer space and community centre at an abandoned department store two blocks from Ground Zero, the centre was shepherded by Imam Feisal, whose credentials for patriotism and interfaith cooperation were impeccable. Yet the project's proximity to the WTC stirred up the "haters" and conservatives, who labelled it a "victory mosque" signalling America's defeat. Angry debates in the media followed - the presidential candidates even became involved.

The response was so overwhelming that a 2010 protest attracted 6,000 people, half in favour of the centre, half against. Things were so tense, Greenspan writes, that one enterprising youth dressed up as a polar bear and circulated through the crowds with a sign saying "Free Hugz". That's how heated the issues of WTC redevelopment have been overall.

"9/11 means a whole lot of things besides just the day of 9/11," Michael Shulan, creative director of the museum, tells Greenspan. "It can mean a clash of cultures, it can be grief, it can be confusion, it can be betrayal, it could be our justification for military power… ."

Yes, Greenspan's readers may concur, it can be all those things. But, hopefully, the memorial's tree-filled plaza, serene waterfalls, and forever listing of those lost can provide a place of reconciliation to the many deep emotions roiling post 9/11 America.

 

Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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