New Lipstick, Same Pig

The Daily News and The New York Post both splashed their front pages in the city yesterday with headlines about the renaming of the Freedom Tower rising on the World Trade Center site. “NO MORE FREEDOM” read the Daily News, while the Post roared forth with “FREE DUMB TOWER.” New Yorkers can shell out a buck a day for these cupfuls of indignation.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, has made the decision to refer to the tower in official documents as ‘1 World Trade Center’, eliminating the Freedom Tower moniker. They’ve been tinkering with the idea for over a year, at one point last year removing signs with ‘Freedom Tower’ on them from the site. On Thursday, things were made official.

Apparently, business concerns were behind the decision. There were some who argued that calling the building the ‘Freedom Tower’, after a statement made by then New York Governor George Pataki, would set the building apart as a target for terrorists, scaring away potential tenants. After all, it is going to be hard enough to find tenants to fill a 102 story building in normal circumstances, but convincing businesses to sign on the dotted line for space in what essentially is a working monument to the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history only adds to the challenge. The existence of the building itself is a constant reminder not just of that day, but of our vulnerability. Apparently, the Port Authority feels much of the angst associated with terrorism will be assuaged by changing the name of the building.

‘Freedom Tower’ was just too much of a poke in the eye towards the terrorists, just begging them to hit the site again. No one seems to have noticed that the new designation for the tower, ‘1 World Trade Center’, was also the name of the north tower of the old World Trade Center, the bulk of which now lies in pieces in a New Jersey landfill. If ever there was a name associated with terrorism, it is ‘1 World Trade’, not ‘Freedom Tower’. But that’s neither here nor there. The name change is just a minor example of the bullshit that has invisibly filled the pit at ground zero, even as things of substance, actual structures, have failed to do so.

Seven and a half years after the attacks the new tower is only now rising above street level. This slow progress hasn’t been due to incompetence, necessarily, but by internecine wrangling by multiple bureaucracies, agencies, and interests with varying financial and emotional stakes in what rises from the ashes of ground zero. Real estate developers, politicians, and victims, all proclaiming prominence of opinion and vigorously defending their territory. What we have in downtown New York City is a turf war, and the city has suffered as a result.

The process began immediately. In his first press conference on the day of the attacks, Mayor Rudy Giuliani declared the site would be rebuilt, and the form such reconstruction would take began to take shape in people’s minds. Some envisioned a complete aesthetic reconstruction of the towers, structurally changed to prevent another collapse. This idea was quickly dismissed as morbid. Others pictured a reclaimed landscape, a natural memorial to the victims of the attacks in the form of a new and sprawling park, something the city is perpetually in desperate need of. This was laughed off as wasteful. The land that the World Trade Center occupied was far too valuable to turn over to the public for a park. Other ideas ranged from gigantic monumental structures commemorating the attacks to public works transit hubs, museums devoted to cultural understanding and tolerance, to residential towers. Design competitions were held with no guarantee that winners would ever see their visions realized. The space available was so sprawling that it became clear whatever was built would be an amalgamation of ideas, dividing the site largely between the interests of business and the interests of victims’ families, with a very visible layer of security to act as a deterrent. In the end, the myriad competing interests either squared away their positions and their power, or they faded away. Those left standing entered into a tortuous process that has given the people of New York and the nation what will eventually be a towering symbol not of resilience or remembrance, but of compromise — memorial by committee.

No reconstruction at ground zero could ever satisfy everyone, nor could the space effectively capture just what it means to be standing on the nation’s newest hallowed ground. At the same time, ignoring the history of the site would have been equally unacceptable. But what is rising is far from the perfect grandeur of something like the Lincoln Memorial or the simple elegance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The tower itself and the others that are planned to stand alongside it have become the focus of the site, and maybe they should not be. Maybe one of the earliest ideas was the best. Maybe in this crowded city where avenues are transformed into canyons and perpetual shadows greet even the brightest of days, the best memorial to what occurred at ground zero would be a patch of ground where the scale remains human, where there is nothing taller than the tallest person to walk the grounds. Maybe a site where the value of people is measured as greater than the value of office space would show that when we speak of freedom and remembering our dead, it’s not out of the corner of our mouths.