Back from zero – a new way to rebuild New York

If the tedious array of six concepts for redeveloping the World Trade Center site offered up by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation suggests anything, it is that we have to think about remembering 9/11 in a radically new way. To start, let's forget about ground zero for a while.

The best way to prepare for Sept. 11, 2002, is to hop on the New York City subway and head to Jackson Heights in Queens, and celebrate what the new New York looks like. For there, out beyond the miraculous silhouette of the Manhattan skyline – the physical revolution of the 20th century – lies something truly beautiful, that era's social revolution.

In the past three decades, Queens has proved itself the most diverse district in America, if not the world, with more than 100 languages spoken in the public schools and more than a third of its population foreign born.

New York's rebirth since its bankruptcy in the 1970s is due largely to the rapid influx of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. So as we rebuild, we should do so with both eyes fixed on advancing what has been New York's bedrock: its human capital. A year after 9/11, we all need inspiration. We very well might find it on the vibrant streets of Queens.

We certainly won't find it at ground zero. Whatever visionary ideas were proposed initially have been stifled, as the narrative of opportunity has been overcome by the narrative of loss.

What we have been offered a year later is warmed-over planning approaches that will largely replicate the economy and skyline of the 1990s. If all the rebuilding comes to is a "memorial garden" with some reconnected streets, a thicket of office towers, and a million-plus square feet for a hotel and shopping mall, then we will have vacated our dreams.

Since even Gov. George Pataki now agrees the proposed amount of office and retail space on the site is financially and symbolically misguided, let's consider a new concept. Rather than spend the billions of federal dollars allocated for rebuilding New York to subsidizing the creation of a new downtown office park, let's invest in the city's underfunded public schools and create the next generation of immigrant geniuses and entrepreneurs who have long fueled New York's economy.

Let's build a series of "World Trade Center Houses" throughout the city – models of beautifully designed, environmentally advanced low- and middle-income housing to answer one of the city's pressing needs.

New York should launch a building exhibition (much as West Berlin did to rebuild vacant areas left from the destruction of World War II), which would bring the world's finest architects to New York's neighborhoods to build new homes and places of commerce and culture.

In other words, make each New Yorker a living memorial. We have done this before. After World War II, the country didn't build a triumphant physical memorial to the soldiers (only now are we doing so). Instead, Congress passed the GI Bill and invested billions of dollars in giving veterans access to higher education and loan guarantees to buy a home or start a business. The GI Bill helped launch the greatest expansion of the middle class America has ever seen. Their living success is perhaps the finest memorial the dead could have asked for.

We could do the same in New York: Start far from ground zero, with investments that will pay dividends, and then return to ground zero to restore the ripped fabric of the city. There is too much empty office space and too little insight about the ultimate meaning of 9/11 to make us rush into rebuilding those 16 acres.

The revenue needs of the Port Authority, and the legal right of developer Larry Silverstein to rebuild on the site, are not insurmountable obstacles to remembering and rebuilding in the best way. We should leave the site largely empty for another year, building only a temporary structure in which New Yorkers can gather to view and discuss plans for rebuilding the city.

E.B. White wrote just after World War II that New York is "the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions." Now we have a radical opportunity: Invest in the city in a way that would truly honor the victims of Sept. 11.

• Max Page is assistant professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts.

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