NEW YORK — Dust still powders ground zero where the World Trade Center once stood, but it's construction dust that the wind now whips gently around this deep, 16-acre hole.
Called "the bathtub," it reveals the strides and the stumbling, as well as the dogged determination, that have marked the rebuilding effort in the four years since terrorists slammed two planes into the twin symbols of New York's financial prowess.
There has been progress: A grand master plan is in place, complete with a soaring 1,776-foot Freedom Tower and a sunken, sacred memorial where waterfalls cascade in the two footprints of the original towers.
But it has been slow going, due in part to the seeming incompatibility of rebuilding a vital commercial, retail, and financial hub on what many now consider to be a sacred burial ground. What's more, there's a determination to see that ground zero - an international symbol of the West's refusal to bow to terrorism - rises stronger than before. Though it's taking extra time to ensure that happens, planners hope ground zero will come to stand for America's resilience, its ability to overcome hatred, and a celebration of its values.
Chief among those values, particularly in New York, is democracy. But that, too, is adding to the slow pace of development. In this gritty city that pioneered urban planning, everybody has an opinion: Wall Street tycoons and cabbies alike aren't afraid to tell you exactly what they think.
So before a new skyline pierces the void now in lower Manhattan, this major urban project is expected to be the most publicly debated, disputed, reviewed, and revised in world history. As a top developer puts it, the master plan is very much a "living document."
Add to that the challenge of making the new structures as secure as possible to prevent future devastation, and you have an urban rebirth that could take more than a decade, if not a generation, to complete.
"I'd like to tell you we're building a city on a hill, and we may get there, but it's certainly in fits and starts," says Robert Yarrow, president of the Regional Planning Association, which has been involved with the planning process from the start. "While a lot of progress has been made, there's a lot that's still very much in the air."
From the vantage point of the bottom of the bathtub, progress is evident on the eastern wall of the hole, where sunlight glints off the new, exposed steel of the temporary train station that's already moving commuters uptown and across the Hudson River. On the west side, the massive steel bolts that reinforce a retaining wall dot the barren concrete. In the northwest corner hangs a huge American flag, marking where ground was broken this week on a new transportation hub.
The design of the transportation center is meant to evoke the rising wings of a dove. Underground, the hub will connect 11 subways, the PATH train system, and walkways to the Hudson River ferries, as well as future rail links to Kennedy International Airport and Long Island. Gov. George Pataki (R) calls it an "iconic transportation facility - an architectural marvel and a grand terminal." When construction begins Monday, it will be the first time in four years a spade was put in this 16-acre site to begin construction on a permanent structure.
This summer the city secured a commitment for another permanent anchor in the area: Goldman Sachs, the massive investment house that last spring pulled plans to build its $2.9 billion headquarters across from the site because of security and traffic concerns. After state officials moved a planned tunnel and offered an additional $1.6 billion in 9/11 Liberty Bonds, the firm changed its mind again. Construction is slated to begin later this year.
But hovering above all the activity, the damaged and contaminated Deutsche Bank building still stands shrouded in black mesh cloth, awaiting the demolition ball. In the ground, the Freedom Tower cornerstone sits ignored. Both are testaments to the legal, insurance, security, and political obstacles that have stymied the rebuilding. The Freedom Tower is a case in point. The cornerstone was solemnly laid a year ago, only to have the police department demand that construction be halted. The NYPD's security experts said the design - already approved by other parties - would leave the new building too vulnerable to attack from a suicide truck bomber.
Plans for a new tower were finally agreed upon and presented to the public in June, but construction could be a year off. The cornerstone, meanwhile, sits there waiting to be moved.
"Anyone who thinks the agenda is done when the shovels are put in the ground here are sadly mistaken, but at least in the last few months there's been some real progress," Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York said before this week's groundbreaking. "Goldman Sachs and now this station are a one-two punch that say maybe this culture of gridlock and inertia is changing."
The rebuilding lessons at ground zero may prove instructive to the Gulf Coast - inspiring hope that reconstruction can be done, but also providing a reality check. These things take time. Gulf Coast planners, to their credit, are moving quickly. They've already contacted the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC), created to oversee the rebuilding of ground zero.
"We plan to continue assisting in any way that will be useful in terms of the precedents established here, the lessons learned, and ... to offer encouragement that there is a better future ahead," says Stefan Pryor, LMDC president. "We have every confidence that Louisiana and the Gulf states will recover better than ever, just as lower Manhattan is doing."
Part of that confidence comes from the rebuilding process itself, despite the setbacks and slow pace.
"I would have loved it if it had gone faster," says Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But given the magnitude of the project, it is probably not unusual to be taking some time, he adds. "In the end, the only thing that people will remember is whether we do the right thing, not whether it took two years or four years or eight years."