Life Goes On, Even At Ground Zero

Review: Lynne B. Sagalyn, ‘Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan’

Ground zero
The site where the World Trade Center's twin towers fell in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in Manhattan, New York / AP
September 25, 2016

There have now been 15 September 11ths since the one we call simply 9/11, that day when the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center were hit by airplanes being used as missiles and crashed to the ground, killing almost 3,000 people. We call the site "ground zero," which started as the military designation for the place where a nuclear bomb detonates, its effects spreading out for hundreds of miles. Now the phrase is so associated with this epoch-changing event and place, people may assume that’s just what it means. And while there was no literal blast spreading far beyond the towers, certainly there were far-reaching effects: 9/11 initiated a new era in American military intervention and the frustratingly dangerous and out-of-kilter world we live in.

But that’s not the subject of Lynne B. Sagalyn’s door-stopper of a book (900 large, small-print pages) about why this piece of real estate looks the way it does 15 years after "the" 9/11. Refreshingly, it’s about what it says it’s about: Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan. Sagalyn is a professor emerita of real estate at Columbia Business School, and the book is the back story to what you see when you walk around this multi-purpose site now. Buildings, empty space, memorials, lines of people, a museum, a sky-scraper, a transportation hub, and soon to be a performing arts center: how did it all get to be the way it is? Which of the major players eager to put his mark on so important a site won which battles?

It’s a juicy story, Batman vs. Superman vs. Ironman, a real clash of titans, New York-sized egos. The biggest rivalry was political, a fight for power between New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Gov. George Pataki. Bloomberg won repeated victories. Another victor was developer Larry Silverstein, battling the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the site, with a constant can-do attitude and a refusal to be beaten out of control of this central piece of land. Artistic spats provided the intellectual conflict. What, if anything, remains of Daniel Libeskind’s initial design? Who got the contract for the central transportation center and how does it look? Why are the fountains the way they are?

All the arts have their practical side, and architecture is the most practical of all the arts. It is also part of the larger fabric of urban design, where the art meets the sidewalk, a combination of ideology, engineering, and aesthetics. And it all seems the ultimate expression of power: a creation of a whole world, rather than just something we put on a shelf or hang on the wall. At least since Ayn Rand’s Frank Lloyd Wrightesque architect hero Roark in The Fountainhead, the idea of being able to actually change the things people live in has seemed to express the greatest power over mankind. If I write a book, you don’t have to read it. But if, like Santiago Calatrava, you got the contract to design the place where my PATH train from Newark, N.J., pulls in, I have no choice but to be in your building.

As I learned on a recent trip, the sensation of arriving via the PATH from Harrison, N.J., and ascending into the "Oculus" is like finding yourself, like Jonah or Pinocchio, in the belly of a whale. You’re in Calatrava’s "transit center" that I read is supposed to look from the outside like (oy vey, as New Yorkers say) hands releasing a dove. Only it doesn’t look like hands releasing a dove; it looks like what’s left of the Thanksgiving turkey carcass after a particularly hearty repast. But be warned: it’s not just a train station. You’re not meant just to use it; you’re supposed to "get" it. The good news is that no points are taken off if you just shrug and move on to see what else there is to see.

The idea of having a building look like an object has a long tradition of tacky American adherents: all those donut shacks shaped like giant donuts off the Interstate in the Midwest that began to disappear as McDonalds and the arches appeared, and cities filled up with towering steel and glass right angles. But everything old becomes new, which is why I’m glad I never threw away the skinny knit ties from the 60s I almost discarded decades ago. With Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, a building without square corners—and annoying as an art museum since you’re always inching up or down the ramp—we entered the period of our current high art appropriation of "shape" buildings. The most famous proponent nowadays of buildings as cool objects is of course Frank Gehry, who believes in waves where everybody else expects things to be flat. These blobby anything-but-right-angled buildings always look best on a selfie, seen from without and far away.

I admit that when I visited the whale, it didn’t yet have its mall, which will be the reason many people go into this building. So much for hallowed ground, or the clash of great egos: a mall is a mall, whether at Ground Zero or in Annapolis, my home, where the same company (Westfield—actually an Australian company) runs an essentially identical one. Sagalyn’s book points out that Westfield had contracted to build a mall in the old World Trade Center before it was destroyed, and exercised its option to return.

When I went outside, the building got literal and read "World Trade Center," and of course I took pictures. I wanted to get free tickets at the Museum, but it turned out these were only available for an hour, and the line was endless. So I went to look at the memorial voids instead, before getting an ice cream.

Yes, those fountains. Pretty scary, and very deep. (Is that part of the experience, our faint feeling of threat?) Since Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Wall in Washington, the trend in memorials has been negativity: what’s not there. The idea was perhaps created by Edwin Lutyens, perhaps best known for the Indian government center of New Delhi, but also for the Cenotaph in Whitehall: it’s the absence of a tomb that’s striking. Of course, not everybody likes these intellectual anti-memorials, like people who prefer generals on horses. Protest by Vietnam veterans led to the construction of what sophisticates see as tacky realistic sculptures of soldiers nearby the Wall.

At Ground Zero, there are no realistic sculptures. Just Michael Arad’s holes in the ground, vast black square drain holes for water that falls rather than shooting up, located where the twin towers were located. If you didn’t know why they look the way they do, and why they are so big, and why they are here, you wouldn’t know. It’s conceptual. And the so-called "Freedom Tower" is similarly symbolic, purposely made to be 1776 feet high, though in fact a rather forlorn single skyscraper looking a little out of place.

As an ensemble, it makes no sense, and we have to have it explained to us—as Sagalyn does. In this it’s like much contemporary art, which is about the concept, not the object. Knowing about the political wrangles for power that produced this jumble of competing ideas makes it cohere, sort of. Oh, so that’s why it’s this way! And the whole thing certainly has re-made lower Manhattan, to go back to Sagalyn’s title. Now tourists come, and the Wall Street area is alive after hours, and many drift south to pleasant Battery Park, alive with families and vendors and ferries to the Statue of Liberty.

It may turn out that a mall just north of Battery Park and the Wall Street Bull is just what Manhattan needed. Now people come to gawk, and pay homage, to rest their feet or to shop. Or to buy an ice cream. It’s a famous site, whatever structures are erected or not, whether fountains shoot water up or let it fall down, whether or not the train station looks like a turkey carcass or hands. Now the titans are silent, their battles over. Sagalyn brings them briefly to life, but then we close the book. Where do we get the PATH train back to Harrison?

Life goes on. This is what 9/11 teaches us. And this book as well.

Published under: Book reviews