Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Where Is The Memorial?

This is a tremendous article written by Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, about the WTC Memorial debacle. Debra was the first to expose "The Great Ground Zero Heist,"about the plans to put in that ill-conceived International Freedom Center at the WTC site. Her article led to the successful fight to get rid of it. I've had the pleasure of meeting her on a couple of occasions, and she's quite a lady. This article is a bit long, but worth reading. (Many thanks to the good people at for sending it along.)

Where Is The Memorial?
By Debra Burlingame

I am an ironworker. I held you in my hands. I did not know who you were and now I am showered clean . . . yet I still feel dirty. I don't know why, but I feel ashamed. WHO WERE YOU? --Anonymous message, left at Ground Zero.

They came and would not leave, an army of ironworkers and heavy-equipment operators, stopping only when the scent-trained dogs barked out a signal. They cut and moved twisted steel and steaming concrete, clearing an astonishing 1.8 million tons in a continuous convoy of trucks and a 20,000-barge armada. The last steel beam, covered from top to bottom with handwritten prayers and messages of hope from those who worked the site, was hauled away in a solemn site-closing ceremony that left grown men weeping quietly. "The Pile" was cleared in eight-and-a-half months. Only then did they go home, different men. Who will tell their story?

The answer depends on whether we believe we have a stake in a future we will not live to see. Today, a handful of people are considering how the history of 9/11 will be preserved for future generations. Will it be scattered all over the globe, eroded by small museums, cannibalized by private collectors, or simply lost forever?

From the giant steel facades that broke but did not fall to the thousands of "Missing" flyers that speak of humanity as no granite monument can; from the harrowing digital footage to the oral histories that provide a mosaic of facts as detailed and compelling as a thousand handmade quilts; these are the pieces that make up our generation's "Day of Infamy." Preserving that history is both the mission and the moral imperative of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum--if we build it.

The decision lies in one man's hands: New York Gov. George E. Pataki. It is that simple. Advisory councils, stakeholder meetings and a public comment period not withstanding, if Gov. Pataki agrees with 87% of the respondents in last year's Zogby poll, stating that 9/11 was "the most historic event of their lifetime" that "changed the way Americans live and view the world," then he will step up and mark that history--or answer to those same people. And he will have one tough time doing it.

The American people, watching the horrific scenes in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, voiced nary a peep of dissent when the federal government handed over $21 billion in disaster relief--$18 billion in rebuilding bonds and tax credits, and $2.8 billion in immediate cash grants--to the state and city of New York. The desire to raise buildings and bring back neighborhoods and businesses far from their own communities is powerful proof of the generosity of a people whose hearts were broken but whose resolve was not.

The public has heard plenty about the "empty pit of Ground Zero," but most do not know that the$2.8 billion allocated to Lower Manhattan in cash grants has virtually all been spent. It is difficult to trace where all the money went while being routed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and six different city and state entities. Now, after four-and-a-half years of press conferences, ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings (the Freedom Tower has had two), at which the lost 343 firefighters were invoked and the memorial and museum was touted as the "centerpiece"around which hundreds of millions of dollars in spending projects would turn, Gov. Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have teamed up to tell the public that it's time to "rethink" the project where the history of those valiant firefighters will be secured. Not only does this undermine Daniel Libeskind's master plan, which always included a museum of "memory and hope," it also manifests a standard of fiscal responsibility that the governor and the mayor have refrained from imposing anywhere else at Ground Zero.

The Port Authority's massive new transportation hub, designed by superstar architect Santiago Calatrava, will cost an estimated $2.2 billion. Some $2 billion of that is federal money, which means that the entire country is supporting the "awe-inspiring" makeover of a terminal that willserve a mere 40,000 commuters (a number so embarrassing the Port Authority upped it to 80,000 byincluding round trips). The chief executive of a construction firm involved in the building illustrates the absurdity of what insiders call a "vanity project" by pointing out that $2.2 billion is enough to build a metropolitan airport.

The governor has also handed out hundreds of millions in relief money to corporate powerhouses, ostensibly to get them to relocate to Lower Manhattan or to prevent them from leaving. He signed off on $25 million worth of recovery funds for American Express, which expressly announced it hadn't intended to leave Lower Manhattan and posted doubled profits less than a year after 9/11.Goldman Sachs, which made $4.55 billion dollars in net profits in 2004, received a $2 billion"assistance" package consisting of triple-tax-free Liberty Bonds, tax credits and cash the following year.

Mr. Bloomberg talks about a "sensible" approach to Ground Zero rebuilding, but has declined to fully explain his allocation of $650 million dollars worth of Liberty Bonds to construct the Bank of America tower in midtown, an allocation that competes with downtown redevelopment; or why he awarded $114 million in Liberty Bonds to the Ratner office tower--in Brooklyn.

The mayor has suggested locating the World Trade Center Museum in the controversial Freedom Tower, declaring it "a good use of that lobby." To put the story of that day in another commercial office tower is an insult to the memory of the 3,000 who died and to the thousands who barely escaped. Would the Holocaust Museum be treated as an afterthought and crammed into such a space? Moreover,why would any commercial tenant be attracted to a building that will be the destination of as many as 20,000 to 30,000 tourists per day?

The mayor's proposal was promptly embraced by New York's cultural elite--the same folks who were despondent over the loss, last fall, of the International Freedom Center and its slavery exhibits. The New York Times editorial page went so far as to suggest that the 9/11 museum is not really necessary since "most of us remember that day very clearly." The same paper, in contrast, published six hyperventilating editorials last year, telling us that the Freedom Center must be built on sacred ground to provide the memorial with "historical context," albeit one that didn't include a word about terrorism.

Interestingly, the no-museum proponents have uniformly invoked the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington as an example of a simple and appropriate remembrance. While it eventually became accepted as a locus of healing, "The Wall" was controversial when it opened in 1982 in no small part because of its failure to tell the story of the war. Jan Scruggs, founder of the VietnamVeterans Memorial Foundation, recognizes that when the contemporaries of that war are gone, the 58,000 names carved in granite will not resonate with future generations. To remedy this, he sought and won congressional approval to build a museum that will tell the story of the war and those who fought it.

Ironically, the designer of the Vietnam memorial, Maya Lin, was a member of the World Trade Center Memorial jury and the most vocal advocate of the design that was eventually chosen, Michael Arad's"Reflecting Absence." Like Ms. Lin's Wall, Mr. Arad's design, consisting of reflecting pools and waterfalls with a random listing of 3,000 victims' names, says nothing about how they died or the historic event it is memorializing. Without the museum there will be nothing on the plaza, not even the iconic artifacts, to tell future visitors what actually happened on 9/11.

But let us not get too carried away with comparisons to other memorials. The Vietnam War did not take place on that grassy mall in Washington. Ground Zero is a historic battleground; and of the 2,755 who died there, 1,157 were vaporized without a trace.

The American people intuitively understand what the New York intelligentsia does not. They already stream to Ground Zero in the tens of thousands, signing up for tours to stand and look at the iron fence of St. Paul's Church across the street, now stripped of the faded flags, the personal tokens of remembrance and the hand-lettered messages of sympathy that poured in from all over the world. They shell out countless thousands of dollars for picture books and postcards bearing the images ofthe twin towers from the ragtag vendors who line the site's perimeter.

It is this humble assortment of Ground Zero entrepreneurs who have shown City Hall's economic development experts that it is possible to blend commerce and commemoration. And the Memorial Museum will help restore a standard of dignity, which will be more about providing a lasting remembrance than making a quick buck.

Yes, the $500 million price tag for the memorial and museum is steep, but the reality is that it was the terrorists who chose the most expensive building site in all the world for the location of their attack. That is where our people died and that is where we must build it--especially as the cost of not doing so is even higher. This is an investment in the future that will allow visitors from all over the world the opportunity to see the contrast between those who died to take the lives of strangers, and those who gave their lives to save them. The millions who will make a pilgrimage to Ground Zero will surely enjoy the fine boulevards and piers that their own generosity provided, but the experience they most anticipate is not a frozen latte in Hudson River Park. They want to confront the reality of the day that changed their lives, and the world they once knew.

The World Trade Center Memorial and Museum will commemorate, educate and inspire. It will convey to future generations that we as a people are more than sleek neighborhoods and buildings. That is something our enemies did not understand and should be reflected in everything we do on that much-hallowed ground.

Governor, we're ready.

1 comment:

Suldog said...

Very good stuff, indeed.