A Living Memorial
September 11, 2002
As we write these words, we can look down from our offices into the six-story crater where the Twin Towers once stood. Like everyone else, we want that site to be rebuilt in a way that honors those who died a year ago. But we also think the best memorial to those who perished would be a living one.
The site of the World Trade Center calls forth many emotions, especially today: anger, grief and respect for the many acts of heroism that took place there. But underlying it all is the memory of the enormous vitality that distinguished the towers before they were attacked and was a large reason they were targeted. The best expression of the spirit of New York and of those who died would be to once again see thousands of people from dozens of countries working, meeting, shopping, eating -- that is, engaged in the sort of productive work and play that used to take place there. Osama bin Laden should not be allowed to have turned it into a cemetery.
But restoring this memory is not what the discussion in New York has been about. So far no one is talking seriously about the vigorous rebuilding of downtown Manhattan, which lost 100,000 jobs when the Trade Center fell. Instead the discussion centers on the size and scale of the memorial, and on satisfying every political interest now clamoring for a piece of the action. New York's political leadership, and its financial and media elites, are squandering a historic chance to rebuild a better, more prosperous city.
This is in part the fault of the commission tasked with figuring out what to do with the site. In consultation with New York Governor George Pataki, who is thinking primarily about his own November re-election, the commission made the decision to focus first on the memorial. The Manhattan Institute's Steve Malanga argues that the commission would have been better off setting aside a limited space for the memorial, getting on with the rebuilding and then returning to the memorial. This is in essence what the Pentagon has so successfully done -- rebuild immediately and set aside two acres for an outdoor memorial, a design for which has yet to be decided.
A big part of the problem in New York is that the city's anti-development activists know an opening when they see one. They want the World Trade Center site -- and even some surrounding areas -- transformed into an enormous park. These political advocates have had plenty of practice at turning proposed development projects in New York into a nightmare of delay and litigation, and the World Trade Center site is now getting the same treatment. Worse, they are cynically using some bereaved family members to advance their own anti-development agenda in the name of "honoring" the dead. One family group even called a press conference to reject as disrespectful a proposed train line under the site.
We are not experts in designing war memorials, but we're confident that a gigantic park in the heart of the world's financial center isn't the appropriate choice for those who died a year ago. The great cities of Europe and Japan, devastated in World War II, have all rebuilt, and with memorials that are integrated into modern urban life. Perhaps the most powerful is found in Rotterdam, the Dutch port city reduced to rubble by German bombing, where survivors erected a statue of a man with a hole where his heart used to be.
In this country, the practice has been for the names of war dead to be inscribed on the walls of institutions with which they were affiliated. If you walk into Nassau Hall at Princeton University, you'll find the names of 644 alumni who died in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Southeast Asia. No one thinks it disrespectful to the dead that the life of the university goes on around the walls containing their names.
In New York now, it would help if political leaders looked beyond the emotional tug of the victims and their families to the city's future. Rudolph Giuliani, now that he's out office, wants the entire 16 acres devoted to the memorial. Governor Pataki has called for no structures on the "footprints," which, being in the center of the site, would severely curtail options. Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially raised his voice in favor of commercial development but was bloodied by the press and has since ducked for cover.
Maybe things will be different after this anniversary is past. Maybe those responsible for the World Trade Center site will start thinking more about the next 50 or 100 years than the past 12 months. The best way to honor the dead is by reviving normal life and commerce.
©2002 The Wall Street Journal