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U.S.: Culture Or Commerce? Future Of World Trade Center Remains Uncertain

  • Nikola Krastev

Open hearings last week did not clarify future plans for the World Trade Center complex in lower Manhattan, the site of two of three terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. The sparsely attended two-day discussions appeared to confirm mounting public skepticism over the decision-making process. New Yorkers interviewed over the past week conveyed a range of hopes for the site -- known as Ground Zero -- including wishes that any future project will help revitalize the district both culturally and economically.

New York, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- New Yorkers appear to be uncertain how to balance the realities of a bustling and overcrowded metropolis with the memory of almost 2,800 people who perished in the attacks on the Twin Towers.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a body empowered to oversee rebuilding activities at the World Trade Center site, is scheduled to make a recommendation by the end of the month. But after the latest round of thought-provoking models went on display, the public mood was difficult to gauge.

New Yorkers interviewed by RFE/RL over the past week said they believe the memory of the World Trade Center victims should be preserved with a monument and by turning lower Manhattan into a sort of cultural center.

Joanne Stilton, an editor in a publishing house, sees the rebuilding efforts as an opportunity to bring more people into the area and increase its cultural vitality. "I am very sorry it happened, but I think it gives us a chance for a fresh start and I think the best memorial is a fresh start with an emphasis on culture which will bring people into the area and give the area a purpose. I think just having offices there when we're...what is the statistic now? I think that 50 percent of offices are empty downtown or something like that already. So why build more offices?" she said.

New Yorkers are split over their preferences about the orientation of the future World Trade Center complex. While no one disputes the need for an evocative memorial, people are aware that 6.4 hectares of prime real estate in Manhattan will have to be put to commercial use.

At the same time, no one doubts that the future complex will be an important cultural venue as well. The Guggenheim Foundation, for example, dropped an ambitious plan for a new museum complex in lower Manhattan, noting in a press release that the cultural nucleus of the area will inevitably shift toward the revived World Trade Center.

Wendy Weinhart, who works in the New York City Health Department, envisions the future complex as being oriented predominantly toward business. She said: "If you keep dwelling on what has happened and making a memorial -- everybody is just going to be miserable. It's terrible down here already. Because people are going to work anywhere, regardless of what happened. [If] you need a job, you're going to go to work. You are going to go to the biggest building and hope that the same thing doesn't happen over again."

The sluggish economy and high vacancy rates in downtown Manhattan have put extra pressure on state and city officials to promote the project because of its symbolic value. Construction has already begun for one of the buildings -- a 52-story skyscraper that will rise on the spot occupied earlier by 7 World Trade Center, the 47-story building that was not one of the Twin Towers but which collapsed on 11 September after catching fire. Real estate experts, however, are questioning the viability of a project with no prospective tenants in sight.

Tom Schwartz, an attorney, sees the benefits of reviving the city's economy and creating new jobs. "The benefits are, of course, to help this city's economy. If you open up another World Trade Center and it is going to be used for commercial purposes -- that's a lot of value in the real estate. And I believe that on top of the symbolic reason -- it's a monument and a national landmark -- I think that it can help the city out, offering new jobs and a lot of companies. There are a lot of companies that are still displaced since 11 September and are looking for a place to call home and I think that may give them the opportunity to do that," he said.

Among the nine designs promoted as favorites last month at a multimedia exhibit near the World Trade Center site, three emerged as clear contenders. One of them, by the British Foster and Partners architectural firm, proposes building a "crystalline tower" based on triangular geometry and featuring cross-cultural symbols of harmony, wisdom, purity, unity, and strength. The Daniel Libeskind Studio from Germany envisions a soaring garden tower and a ground-level memorial that uses the wall holding back the Hudson River as a backdrop. The THINK team, a group of U.S. designers, proposes perhaps the most visually striking project -- two open metal towers joined in the middle by a multilevel memorial complex. All three favorites would make sure the world's tallest building is in New York City.

Joanne Stilton said that whatever the architectural style of the future complex, it should reflect New York's diversity. "I think downtown [can be made] an area where people want to live by making it a 24-7 [full-time] area, which it is not now. And that does mean bringing culture. Also [there should be] low-income housing so we have some diversity down here and it isn't like some white-bread [middle-class] suburban community. The people [who] live down here [now are] basically white, middle-class people. People live in New York in order to have everybody around them -- I certainly do, which is why I ride the subway. And we need to do that down here."

A long-forgotten project by the famed Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudi has been resurrected by his followers, who are now actively seeking to have his design considered for the site. The 1908 Gaudi drawings show a 100-meter-high rocket-like structure that was to serve as a hotel.