Every resident of New York City has their favorite neighborhood. Sometimes it’s the neighborhood where they live, sometimes where they work or play. My favorite is the East Village, more specifically Alphabet City, the clean cousin to the north of the Lower East Side. Its one of those neighborhoods where people who have been in the city long enough are heard to utter the refrain, “It’s just not the same as it used to be.” Mostly this is meant as a lament. Things change, as they say. The merits or minuses of gentrification aside, it’s the neighborhood that most feels like home, even though I hang my hat in Queens.
I don’t make it downtown that often. Downtown Manhattan has nothing that reminds me of home. It has tall, grey monoliths. The chasmal streets echo with the roar of office building machinery, unseen to the eye, yet making its presence known by giving the very sidewalk a pulse, and the air an unnatural breeze. Towers breathing, and only experienced at night, when one’s only company on the streets of downtown are watchful gazes from security guards and cameras, and maybe the occasional rodent or drunken suit. During the day, all this is drowned out by the bustle. Millions of people generating billions of dollars move this way and that, from sunup to sundown. Downtown is all business. It makes no pretensions. It is not warm, it is not friendly. There are few homes. Few businesses wait until the sun has disappeared behind the hills on the far side of the Hudson to drop their gates. No, downtown is too crowded during the day, too bleak at night, for my liking.
Downtown New York seems to push away anyone trying to find solace, and this aspect of the area is only exasperated by the hole at ground zero. Tourist attraction, pilgrimage spot, rallying point, memorial, cathedral. There it stands in all its inverted glory, a seven story hole to nowhere. An acre across, and still deep enough that its depths are hidden from streetside onlookers. It’s been four and a half years since 500,000 tons of screeching metal, concrete, and flesh came crashing down into our worst nightmares, and still ground zero exists. Its not just a forlorn place, it EXISTS.
This far along, there should be no more ground zero. There should be something that shows evidence of healing. But repairing a place that demands the uppermost humanity, whose very weight requires a compassion the direct opposite of those who destroyed the World Trade Center, is a process caught in the jaws of powerful men.
Larry Silverstein would seem to be an unlucky man. He signed the lease on the World Trade Center weeks before it was destroyed. Bad timing like that would ruin an ordinary man, but Larry Silverstein and his partners have already made profits in the tens of millions on the site and its reconstruction. Governor Pataki has eyes on the Oval Office, and can’t stand the reek of a squandered legacy attaching itself to his stump speeches. Mayor Bloomberg, billionaire businessman, is the odd man out, because the entire site sits on land the city does not own. None of them can close the deal to rebuild ground zero. Not that they should in its present form.
The most important project in the history of the city has been reduced to a real estate deal, with Mr. Silverstein fiercely protecting his already profitable interests. In addition, the design has all the cherished beauty of any compromise. The lasting memorial to the worst day in American history will feature a tower whose ugliness will cast a shadow from Montauk to Trenton.
It’s hard to put into words the frustration that is felt whenever I do find myself downtown, and my eyes take in ground zero. The space is vast. From south of Canal Street, it is all but unavoidable. Any line of sight longer than a few blocks ends in either water or ground zero. For people who work near there, it is a reminder every day that they walk amongst ghosts. For the rest of the city, the reminder is a patch of empty sky once occupied by two gigantic towers. It is a reminder that whatever they feel, whatever peace they may have made with that day, in the real world, little has happened to repair the damage. Wars launched in its name may be far away, but right here at home there is allegory in a pit that took the lives of three thousand people. Overseas we may have already lost. Things look frighteningly the same at ground zero.
What is even more frustrating is that in order to get something built, anything to fill the hole, the city and the nation will be left with another drab addition to the canyon walls of downtown. The people of this city have lost faith in the ability of our leaders to rebuild ground zero in a fitting way that will both memorialize 9/11 and provide a space worth visiting. It’s taken far too long, and has been far too unimaginative.
No matter when this deal gets done, and what gets built, one thing is for sure: it will fit in with the rest of downtown Manhattan perfectly.