Audacity, democracy, grief: memorializing ground zero

As proposals stream in, nuance and need are delicately weighed.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The footprints of the two towers at the World Trade Center site are probably the most emotionally charged 4-1/2 acres in the Western world right now.

To Edie Lutnick, the space is sacred ground, the final resting place of her brother Gary.

To Marc Ameruso, it's the heart of his neighborhood, his "home," the place he spent 3-1/2 almost sleepless days and nights in September 2001, desperately digging through rubble as he looked for friends and neighbors.

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To Maya Lin, it represents a loss of innocence and the challenge of creating a symbol that can relieve individual grief while also bringing the community and the world together.

This is the space that's been set aside for a memorial for the events of Sept. 11. The process of coming up with a design for it is as unique and international as the tragic event itself.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC) opened the competition to the world. For $25 each, more than 13,000 people from 94 countries and all 50 states have signed up to submit a design. They're due by next Monday. Then a jury of 13 architects, artists, and family and community members will wade through the submissions and hold public hearings to come up with a final design.

The process is as big and audacious as New York itself, while its democratic character is as American as the town meeting. Coming so close to the event, which is unusual in the history of memorial building, the process is also marked by unusually raw emotions.

"This is a memorial that's part of an incredibly deep trauma, and it's happening in the middle of a bustling neighborhood, in a city where commercial forces are straining at the bit to let loose economic activity," says Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and author of "The Global City." "So it is very special and problematic."

The timetable

The LMDC hopes to select a design for the Word Trade Center memorial before this fall, less than two years after the tragedy. And construction could begin on the site soon afterward.

Because of the amazing outpouring of humanity after Sept. 11, many people have been surprised by the rawness of the debate about the memorial. It's been marked by anger, recrimination, and a contentiousness pitting some of the families of the victims and firefighters against neighbors and local merchants.

At the center of the debate is the nature of the memorial, as well as how it will be integrated into the community. Family members like Ms. Lutnick want the site sunken underground, as proposed by the Libeskind design that was chosen for the overall rebuilding. The memorial should be "dignified and respectful" of those that died, she says.

Family members are also adamant that no vehicular traffic cross anywhere on the site, or even under it. An early proposal had envisioned putting a garage under one of the footprints to house the expected 60 to 80 tour buses carrying tourists each day.

"None of you have vehicular traffic across your loved ones' grave sites," says Lutnick, who is the director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund.

Comments like that upset some of the neighbors. One said they feared that the families want turn the area into "a cemetery." Another felt the families are being "disrespectful" of the people who have to live every day with the memories of what happened.

"When I was down there helping with the search-and-rescue efforts, I unfortunately found remains on West Street," says Mr. Ameruso, who is also a member of Community Board No. 1. "Now, no one is saying, 'Close West Street.' So what is this definition of sacred ground?"

The neighbors want to be sure that the area is brought back in a way that improves the overall quality of life for everyone who lives, works, and visits there. To them, that means integrating the original street grid to connect different parts of the community. They also want to ensure there's a bus depot on the site big enough to handle the influx of tourists.

The toll of tourism

The neighborhood is already congested with dozens of tour buses that, in violation of the law, often sit idling and spewing diesel fumes while their passengers visit ground zero, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty. It's estimated between 3 million to 5 million people visit the area now. Once the new site is completed, some experts believe the number of tourists will at least double.

That raises alarms for neighbors who are still recovering from being displaced from their homes and whose lives are still interrupted daily by the construction already under way at the site.

"Before they choose the final design, they should realize there are not only people living here, but lots of kids that go to school here," says George Olsen, president of the Parent Teacher Association of Public School 234, which is just three blocks from ground zero. "We're looking at a lot more pollution downtown, and I think they really have to take the kids' health into consideration."

Members of the jury have already sat quietly through several meetings where such seemingly irreconcilable opinions were voiced, some with barely restrained emotion. It is clear from their own comments that they are taking to heart the concerns of all.

"The levels and the ripples that go out as far as the pain that was felt must be brought together," says Ms. Lin, a jury member who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. "I hope that I can add insight to the process."

It's generally agreed that few if anyone directly involved will be completely satisfied with the process. But many people are putting their faith in it, trusting the power of creative impulse.

"When you hear all of the requests, they sound cacophonous and unrelated, but they all are on a parallel track because they come from someone's heart," says Liz Thompson, executive director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council who escaped the towers by one minute. "It is possible to have a vision that will be remarkable, that can meet everyone's needs on some level in a way that right now is not obvious."

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