Commentary Magazine


The Ground Zero Disaster

New York papers are properly full of incredulous indignation this morning because the new head of the agency with primary responsibility for Ground Zero has now acknowledged that there is no longer any timetable for either the beginning or the completion of the rebuilding. It will be more than a decade from the moment the planes hit the towers for there to be anything meaningful finished on the site — even, it is almost too shocking to say, any 9/11 memorial. America will note the tenth anniversary of the attack with yet another ceremony in a concrete hole.

The primary reason nothing got done is this: The responsibility for the site was divided among so many different agencies, players, and state officials that no one seemed to have enough power to herd the cats and get it done. Timidity of every sort was the order of the decade: Bureaucratic, aesthetic, political, moral, you name it. Whatever might have been put up would have come under so much attack that there seemed to be an incentive for everyone involved to have tons of meetings and stroke everybody’s ego and only make moves by consensus. The delays piled up during a decade when the cost of raw materials and construction and the like were increasing by 20 to 30 percent a year. Any pricetag for the work will now be something like five times what it would have been if building had begun in 2002.

Meanwhile, a grotesque notion came into play — the notion that, really, the original World Trade Center complex was a planning disaster and therefore the construction provided a wonderful opportunity to fix all kinds of things. Wish-list projects that had no reason to be included in the matter of defying the attackers and reestablishing the place they destroyed as a working American concern began to muddy the waters. There should be a theater devoted to the arts! There should be an opera house! Maybe there could be a one-stop train line built to JFK Airport! Most astonishing was the devotion of billions of dollars to a mammoth project to create a commuter train station in Lower Manhattan — with a stunning but entirely unworkable design by the brilliant Santiago Calavatra– that will never be built. Not to mention the destruction by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of nearly an entire city block of buildings to create an entirely unnecessary mass transit hub. Part of Lower Manhattan  was torn down for the purpose of saving Lower Manhattan, and now all of that is lost.

Most egregious was the tale of the design competition for the “Freedom Tower” intended to replace the Twin Towers, a preposterous folly with a public voting scheme that ended up being won by the ludicrous Daniel Liebeskind, who based his  concept around preserving the underground retaining walls (the so-called slurry walls that created a “bathtub” in which the Twin Towers sat) and using them as the key elements of a memorial. Because, you know, when people think of the World Trade Center, they think first and foremost of retaining walls 70 feet below street level.

The failure here was not merely one of bureaucracy or imagination. It was a failure of will.