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U.S.: Two Years After 9-11, Hope Springs From Ground Zero

  • Robert McMahon

As the world commemorates the second anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks this week, much attention will center on the former World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, where nearly 2,800 people died. But as the pace of redeveloping the area quickens, there is increasingly less focus about what the site was and more about what it can become -- a memorial to terrorist victims, a symbol of rebirth, and a boost to the revival of the one of the country's largest business districts.

New York, 9 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two years later, it is a vast hole in the ground in which both pain and hope reside.

The seven-hectare area known as ground zero -- the former site of the World Trade Center -- exists in a sort of emotional and physical limbo. As the months pass, it grows slightly more removed from the horrors of 11 September 2001, but has not yet taken on a new shape.

Yet tourists flock to the site, although all they can see through metal fences are a few trucks, construction cranes and bedrock. There is a sense of sharing in history as well as something special that may emerge from the rubble, says Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association.

Yaro's group belongs to a network of civic organizations monitoring the rebuilding efforts in lower Manhattan. He tells RFE/RL that reconstruction plans balancing a range of interests could transform the area. The aura that remains around the site as well as the plans for its future, he says, are feeding great public interest.

"This site has taken on a symbolic meaning for people all over the world and there's a sense that a great and tragic event occurred there," he said. "And we've got millions of visitors coming now just to look past the chain-link fence at this construction site. I think we're anticipating that it will become a permanent part of lower Manhattan, that we'll continue to see millions of tourists coming down to visit ground zero."

Plans call for rebuilding the World Trade Center site but not just as a commercial space. The centerpiece will be a memorial to the victims of the 11 September attacks and the 1993 bombing of the trade center, in which six people died. A complex of cultural institutions is to frame the memorial setting.

Billions of dollars in federal funds have been committed to restoring the transportation infrastructure and creating new transit links.

Kenneth Jackson, a prominent historian of New York, says he's encouraged by the plans. But for now, he says, ground zero represents an unhealed wound. He tells RFE/RL the resurrection of the former trade center site carries deep symbolic value.

"The physical scope of that disaster is just unbelievable, and it's very important that New York City begins to put something else there, because now all we see is a hole in the ground and we remember what's lost," Jackson said. "And I think we need to, once again, make this city represent the vital beating heart of democracy and freedom and capitalism as it has been for centuries."

The various reconstruction projects have aroused international interest. Earlier this year, Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind won the design competition for the site, featuring a 600-meter tower to anchor the lower Manhattan skyline.

The respected Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has been selected to work on the design and construction of a new World Trade Center Transportation Center, envisioned as the grand point of arrival for lower Manhattan.

Later this year, officials will choose from 5,200 submissions worldwide for the design of the memorial. The government body overseeing the reconstruction, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, is also inviting cultural institutions to share ideas on how to use hundreds of thousands of square feet to be allotted for cultural space.

Corporation spokeswoman Joanna Rose cites numerous new developments, and high residential occupancy rates, as signs that life is returning to lower Manhattan.

"We brought back the green market, we have a bridge over Vesey Street that will bring [people] to the [commuter train] so they will have a footbridge to go over West Street," she said. "Thirteen new parks are being worked on and revitalized. You're really starting to see downtown come back and better than ever."

But there is concern among some that the sweep of development is neglecting the memory of the thousands who died in the attack on the towers.

Some families of victims have staged protests this week at ground zero to protest plans to develop on a portion of the twin towers' "footprints." Those footprints are viewed by some families as sacred ground that should be preserved in a memorial.

The remains of more than 1,000 people who died in the trade center attack are to be preserved in a memorial space at ground zero.

Others who lost loved ones are finding solace by imagining the healing power of a memorial and cultural space where part of the former towers stood. One of them is Nikki Stern, whose husband, James Potorti, was killed in the North Tower: "I think back with pain and sadness about my old life and how it isn't there anymore, but it also makes me realize that a lot of people's old lives disappear in acts of violence. They just do, and it's amazing how sudden that is and how odd it is to try to remake a life."

For her own rebuilding process, she has found comfort in helping others who lost loved ones in the attacks -- as well as immersing herself in the effort to rebuild the city, as a Families Advisory Council member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Stern says she wants to see the former trade center site reanimated as a healthy work environment and a place of culture and education.

She says that it is important that a place where so many were killed be a site of contemplation as well as activity: "I can't think of a better legacy for my husband than that. I'd love to go down there 10 years from now and feel I contributed to the process and be proud of it so that something could live with the pain, alongside of the pain -- which is something to be proud of."

Yaro of the Regional Plan Association said he also envisions the reconstruction at the trade center site contributing to a better working and living environment in lower Manhattan. But he says New Yorkers also need a piece of their skyline back.

"It hurt, and it still hurts, to look at the skyline with the twin towers not there to punctuate the lower Manhattan end of the Manhattan skyline," he said. "So I think that one of the things that's so appealing about the Libeskind master plan was this kind of spiral of towers going up to the tallest one in the northwest corner."

Next summer workers will begin construction on the tallest building, to be known as the Freedom Tower. It is scheduled to be topped off in 2006, restoring part of the skyline.

(For more information on lower Manhattan redevelopment plans, see