Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Centerby Elizabeth Greenspan
In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans came together in a way not seen for a generation, pledging unity to rebuild after the horrific loss of the Twin Towers. People were signing up to go to war; rescue workers were laboring to clear rubble. But instead of becoming a rallying symbol in the fight against terrorism, Ground Zero has been plagued by intense conflict
In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans came together in a way not seen for a generation, pledging unity to rebuild after the horrific loss of the Twin Towers. People were signing up to go to war; rescue workers were laboring to clear rubble. But instead of becoming a rallying symbol in the fight against terrorism, Ground Zero has been plagued by intense conflict and controversy from the very start. Battle for Ground Zero goes behind the scenes of this fight to rebuild, revealing how grieving families, commercial interests, and politicking bureaucrats clashed at every step of the way, confounding progress and infuriating the public. Since the fall of 2001, author Elizabeth Greenspan has been documenting the drama—conducting interviews with neighborhood residents, architects, officials, rescue workers, and victims’ relatives, as well as key New York players like Mayor Bloomberg, uber-developer Larry Silverstein, and Governor Pataki. Here she provides a warts-and-all look at this pivotal decade—from the bitter feuding between city officials and victims’ families, to the endless controversy over the memorial design, to the fraught tenth anniversary, against a still-unfinished building. Publishing just as the memorial is finally completed, Battle for Ground Zero is an exhaustively researched reminder of how long it took to put a brave face on the horror of 9/11.
“Elizabeth Greenspan, an urban anthropologist, vividly recounts the dysfunctional process and controversies that put her favorite graffiti, "America the Re-build-iful," to a grueling test that is only now about to be graded by the public… a valuable and highly accessible primer for everyone who wants to better understand how government works and why it does not.” The New York Times
“Riveting... an engrossing and evolving portrait of unrealized expectations and political gamesmanship…Greenspan's exactingly researched and artistically rendered reportage thoughtfully details its twisting journey upward.” Publishers Weekly
“A must-read study of the power of democracy and shared memory to shape our public spaces.” Kirkus (Starred Review)
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Battle for Ground Zero
Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center
By Elizabeth Greenspan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Elizabeth Greenspan
All rights reserved.
MARK LIVED THREE BLOCKS FROM THE WORLD TRADE Center, on Church Street. He was a twenty-seven-year-old screenplay writer, and on the Tuesday morning of September 11, he was at home, as usual, working on his computer. When the first plane hit the North Tower, the impact jolted him from his desk chair and threw him onto the floor. He rushed outside, where he saw people screaming and running away from the towers. Soon ambulances raced toward them, driving down the wrong side of the road. When the second plane hit the South Tower, a piece of the plane's engine, "larger than the size of a keg of beer," as he put it, landed on his street corner.
Mark did not flee his apartment immediately. He had a friend who worked in the South Tower and an ex-girlfriend who also worked in the area. "I thought one of them might come by," he said. "The guy was my best friend. They were close people." Mark decided it was time to leave his apartment after both towers collapsed, but unlike the thousands of neighbors evacuating, he instinctively wanted to stay as close to home as possible.
He headed to a friend's place in SoHo, the next neighborhood up, and then went to his favorite bar near his apartment building to look for his friend. He did not find him. That night, he tried to get back into his apartment, but the police had padlocked it. So, instead, he climbed the stairs leading to the roof of his five-story building and sat alone, watching as teams of rescue workers covered with gray dust maneuvered on top of twisted steel beams. Angled spotlights lit up the mounds of craggy, fiery wreckage.
Earlier that day, National Guard troops armed with machine guns had filed onto 14th Street, about a mile north of the wreckage, to control the flow of people into Lower Manhattan. No one could cross below the militarized line without official permission. This is why thousands of New Yorkers congregated in Union Square that afternoon; it was the closest any of them could get. The guards left 14th Street a few days after the attacks, but, for Mark, the boundary had been set. Fourteenth Street was his line, the temporary edge to his new New York. His sister lived uptown, on 86th Street, but he refused to visit her. "My sister kept telling me to come up there," he said. "But that was like a different city."
Mark found Lower Manhattan weird and unsettling — "There were cops everywhere, people in streets, people stapling up memorial signs," Mark said — but this was precisely why he wanted to stay. "Downtown was the only place that felt normal," he said. "It was the only place that felt like you did. Completely fucked up." For weeks, 14th Street was the farthest Mark would go before turning around and heading back toward Ground Zero.
Almost everyone I spoke to in those first weeks and months after 9/11 had their own sense of this line, the invisible boundary that separated the destruction from the rest of New York City. Most in Manhattan lived north of their line, outside the disaster zone, and the question they faced was how close to travel to it. Some kept their distance, observing the line from afar, while others made regular pilgrimages, spending a few minutes each day at their chosen boundary marker to reflect on the violence and destruction. As time passed, people's lines shifted and moved closer to the site.
Two months after 9/11, I walked to Ground Zero from Midtown to see where I would first notice something akin to a line. When I mentioned my plans to a friend who lived in New York, he said two words: "Canal Street." Canal Street was south of 14th Street, about three-quarters of a mile from the wreckage. I wouldn't see the destruction, he said, but this is where I would smell it. For him, this was the de facto border: the place where the smell began.
When I arrived at Mark's line, at 14th Street, Union Square was back to normal. The only traces of the thousands of people who had gathered here in early September were spots of colored wax, speckled with an occasional burnt wick, stuck to concrete walkways. Police had cleared the thousands of bouquets, candles, and handwritten notes weeks earlier. Likewise, at Canal Street, the odor had already disappeared. The sidewalks were filled with customers walking in and out of electronics shops and looking over street vendors' designer knockoffs. It wasn't until Chambers Street, about six blocks away from the sixteen-acre site, that I first noticed a smell of stale dust filling the air and heard the constant, heavy hum of machinery and high-pitched jackhammers.
Most of the streets within this six-block radius were closed to car traffic and packed with people. Rescue workers in full fire gear, covered in ash, walked slowly from the site, taking breaks from their shifts. Downtown workers in suits carried briefcases and often wore white face masks to filter the air as they maneuvered around slower movers. The vendors were the most ubiquitous. Some wandered corner to corner selling American flags and patriotic banners from black trays hanging around their necks, while others hawked a greater assortment of goods, including full-color books on the Twin Towers and hats and T-shirts branded with "FDNY" (Fire Department, New York), from rickety card tables. Handfuls of tourists, some with American-flag bandannas tied around foreheads and biceps, encircled their tables negotiating for better prices.
The wreckage was surrounded by a series of tarp-covered, chain-link fences and plywood walls. The ad hoc structure blocked nearly all ground-level views of the destruction; all you could see from street level were the pieces of jagged facade, a bit distant, that rose up from the center of the sixteen-acre hole. But people wanted to see more. Some bent down on hands and knees, necks twisted, cheeks against the sidewalk, to look through slivers of space where the tarps were not quite long enough to touch the ground. Others stood on tiptoes or balanced on top of emergency railings, necks arched, to peer over. And some went to even greater lengths. Later in the afternoon, I came upon a man shimmying his way up a streetlight just outside the walls. We were at the intersection of Fulton Street and Broadway, which featured a large break in the fencing and a close, unobstructed view of the serrated remnants of the North Tower. At least fifty people stood shoulder to shoulder in silence. Meanwhile, the climber inched his way up the streetlight, a camera bumping against his chest. When he reached the top, he teetered and cautiously extended an arm to take a few snapshots. It was impossible not to watch him, and soon a series of flashes popped below him, which prompted the man to smile and wave his camera-filled hand in recognition.
It was a little shocking to watch and be a part of such a spectacle: rescue workers were still searching for bodies. But I instinctively began to take a picture of the teetering man too. The only reason I didn't was because I had already filled the exposures on my quickly purchased disposable camera.
I was a graduate student from Philadelphia, and the year before I had become interested in cities and how they rebuilt in the wake of violence and war. I had read books about Berlin and Hiroshima and Oklahoma City and the contentious reconstruction efforts that went on for years, sometimes decades. The books nominally concerned architecture, but they were really books about politics and history — and, of course, real estate. Time and again, fierce battles broke out among every imaginable constituency — architects, developers, residents, politicians, tourists, victims' families — as they vied to control land and the narratives being told about it. There was a sense of urgency behind the battles; people were anxious to repair the cityscape and to determine what the historic events meant. In every instance, a stretch of land or an iconic building suddenly belonged to an array of groups and, for better or worse, brought everyone together to talk about it.
After 9/11, these same struggles began to unfold on op-ed pages and in press conferences about the WTC site, so I took a break from my books and went to New York. The questions people were debating were both extremely straightforward and incredibly open-ended. Questions like, what should be rebuilt? How should we decide? And, most contentiously, what will different choices say about us, about America?
THE TALK IN THOSE EARLY DAYS WAS mostly metaphorical. Few people were discussing specific plans or buildings — it was too soon for that. On September 18, Daily Dish blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan posted this: "Someone sent me this small quote from a book on architecture. It's from Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the World Trade Center. Yamasaki wrote: 'The World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the co-operation of men, and through this co-operation his ability to find greatness.' No wonder these demons destroyed it. I want Bush tomorrow to say that we will rebuild it — taller, bigger, stronger."
A few days later, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a rejoinder to Sullivan on its op-ed page. "Yamasaki's claim that the WTC represented individual dignity is laughable," philosopher Crispin Sartwell wrote. "The gleaming glass and steel rectangles were objects of a kind of unimaginable ferocity, a human imagination so dedicated to its own annihilation that it was the opposite of anything mammalian, a kind of refutation of the human body. ... Let's build something human," he declared. "Not a symbol, a real place; not a place to die, a place to live."
The rhetoric was epic, practically biblical. There were "demons" on one side and, on the other, "a human imagination dedicated to its own annihilation." (And this was in the mainstream Philadelphia Inquirer, not some little-known alt weekly.)
Non-pundits were weighing in too. Americans were calling television stations like CNN and describing visions for memorials, parks, plazas, and buildings. Larry Silverstein, the developer who owned the lease to the Twin Towers, received nearly three thousand letters in the first month after the attacks, telling him how and what he should rebuild. It wasn't long before the list of things for Ground Zero to house reflected a host of irreconcilable desires: revenge, rebirth, peace, power, empathy, the latest in green design, a park, commercial space, and last but not least, affordable housing.
The conversations weren't limited to Americans. In his book Watching the World Change, David Friend reports that more than two billion people watched the 9/11 attacks in real time or saw images of them that same day. CNN's coverage of the attacks was seen in 170 million households in more than two hundred countries; ABC, CBS, and NBC also aired original broadcasting all day long. Altogether, media analysts believe that over a third of the earth's population watched the events of 9/11 that very same day. In the current Twitter and Facebook era, the international viewing of the attacks is perhaps a bit less remarkable, but the timing was still uncanny. Robert Pledge, head of Contact Press Images, told Friend that the timing of the attack on the Trade Center in particular — just before 9 a.m. EST — was precisely when the largest percentage of the earth's people are awake. "It never happens with the Olympics or the World Cup," Pledge said. "During all major events in the recent past — Tiananmen Square, the Gulf War, the Iraq Invasion — there's always a part of the world that's in the dark. But this could be seen at once, anywhere, in both hemispheres, any latitude ... live — something that we've never had happen before."
It was the most watchable moment, unfolding in the one of the world's most filmed locales. This was the other reason, of course, that so many saw the Twin Towers collapse: the city housed an incredible concentration of media outlets ready to transmit images around the globe. In addition, New York City is home to millions of immigrants and travelers, whose families wanted information too. Of the 2,980 who died in the three sites of attack, 329 were determined to be foreign nationals, and initially the numbers were believed to be much higher. Just as names and photographs filled American newscasts, names of non-Americans feared dead scrolled down television screens in their home countries. They were bankers and consultants, students, cooks, security guards, and janitors. Some lived in New York, others were passing through, and some were undocumented.
On the evening of the eleventh, thousands congregated outside the American embassy in Berlin with candles, flowers, and peace signs. In one photograph, a teenager holds a sign that reads, "No World War 3." On Friday, September 14, forty-three cities across Europe held a coordinated moment of silence.
Some celebrated the violence. In Peshawar, Pakistan, thousands filled streets holding signs and banners honoring Osama bin Laden. And some tried to define a third option, something between total allegiance and total opposition. A few hours before President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress on September 20 to announce the beginning of the War on Terror, in which he declared that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," a few thousand marched through Rome behind a large white banner that read, "NO al terrorismo alle guerre. Un altro mondo è possibile." ("No to terrorism and no to war. Another world is possible.") Three days later, students in Santiago, Chile, demonstrated behind a sign that read, "George & Osama: you are not the owners of the world."
At the center of this unfolding public expression was Ground Zero, a walled-off piece of real estate where rescue workers were laboring twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, searching for bodies and loading tons of twisted steel beams onto trucks headed for Fresh Kills Landfill, the unfortunately named Staten Island site receiving WTC wreckage. (In Dutch, kille means stream, and the landfill, which dates back to the late 1940s, sits on the banks of a freshwater estuary, also named Fresh Kills.) At first, practically everyone commented from afar, but people began to travel to New York again a few weeks after the attacks, and slowly but steadily, they congregated on the streets and sidewalks around the site.
"I just wanted to come see it," said Steve, a middle-aged businessman from Michigan, standing on Broadway in mid-November. He had come downtown during the lunch break from his dental conference. Sarah, from North Carolina, stood next to Steve. "To pay respects," she said when I asked her why she had come. Sarah had short, wispy brown hair and wore a windbreaker. She added, "I fly every day. These are my fellow travelers. It could have been me."
THE MOST CROWDED SPOT AT GROUND ZERO was St. Paul's Chapel, which stood next to the intersection of Fulton Street and Broadway, and its striking sightline of the destruction. St. Paul's was one of the few buildings close to the WTC to remain undamaged after the towers' collapse, and volunteers quickly transformed it into a resting place for firefighters and rescue workers taking breaks from their shifts. Soon, everyone else transformed its fence into the area's largest grassroots memorial.
One sliver of fence displayed more than seventy pieces. There were six worn T-shirts filled with messages from California, Texas, and Florida, and eight baseball caps, including a red one with the French message "avec toute notre amité" ("with our affection"). It looked as if, in some instances, visitors and passersby, unexpectedly moved to contribute, had taken off the hats they were wearing or the T-shirts on their backs. Some even refashioned trash: one person left behind an empty Nesquik bottle sporting a miniature American flag in place of a straw. There were dozens of handmade posters, quilts, and cloth banners. A handwritten poem from Samantha, age ten, was titled "we will overcome." There were three bouquets of flowers, four teddy bears (one of which featured a black question mark drawn on its belly), and ten laminated newspaper clippings and obituaries of victims. There were twelve American flags, three British flags, and one flag of Ireland. A pair of worn, white ballet toe shoes lay on the ground with the words "Now you are really dancing" handwritten on one slipper. And someone, a Sesame Street–loving child, perhaps, contributed a small Ernie figurine (without Bert).
Excerpted from Battle for Ground Zero by Elizabeth Greenspan. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Greenspan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Elizabeth Greenspan is a writer and urban anthropologist currently teaching at Harvard University. She is the author of Battle for Ground Zero. She writes regularly about cities for the New Yorker’s Currency blog. Her writing has also appeared in Salon, the Atlantic online, and The Washington Post, among other publications, and she has worked for the Associated Press Rome Bureau, and National Journal magazine. She lives in Boston, MA.
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