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The Boston Herald


New York Mired in Defeat: Redesign Efforts Hampered by Sentimental Contradictions

August 11, 2002

By Steven Malanga

What has 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 Rudy 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 a 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 in the air of the discredited notion of certain intellectuals 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 mid-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 aimed at achieving decisive action.

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 rebuilding committee announced they were scrapping their preliminary plans, and added 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 rest of the country - indeed, the world - might be stunned to find such a sudden turnabout. They still imagine the New York of Sept. 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 whose politics is dominated by anti-business activists who question the very principles of capitalism that have fueled the city’s growth throughout the years. They welcome a rebuilding process that is in reality nonbuilding.

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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