July 20, 2002: "Listening to the City"

Today I was privileged to take part in “Listening to the City: Remember and Rebuild”, a public hearing in which those responsible for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site presented the six proposals released earlier in the week to over 4000 people, mostly area residents, who had been invited or had registered to attend, and who were asked to respond to a number of questions related to the proposals and to the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan. It was held at the Jacob Javits Center, in a huge room in which I have attended numerous computer trade shows. We were split into groups of up to 10, spread among 500 tables. Something like 9% of the participants had lost family members in the attack, 21% had lost jobs, a third had been at or near Ground Zero on September 11, 20% defined themselves as “survivors”, 41% worked in Lower Manhattan, 24% lived there, and 6% were rescue workers. There was a touching little memorial area, with the sort of artifacts so familiar to New Yorkers now, also memos to and about colleagues from a woman from AON who had been late for work that day, and a list poem by her describing all the things she could no longer do with her various co-workers/friends who had died.

Our table had just six people. Our facilitator, associated with the Gestalt Institute, came here from Ohio just for the forum. Among the other people were an architect, a social worker, a fellow from New Jersey who felt badly because he had never visited the World Trade Center, and an older woman who consistently butted heads with the social worker. I think three of them were from Manhattan, lived and/or worked around Houston Street or Soho, and had also witnessed the tragedy. The social worker had worked with a lot of people traumatized by September 11, some of them family of the victims. A leader, located in the center of the room, asked us to evaluate aspects of the plans or other related issues. One person at the table would key the most important responses into a computer and transmit them to a “theme team”, who sorted the responses into themes and displayed the recurring ones. We would then vote on which were most important to us, and the results were displayed—an exercise in participatory democracy, a town hall for the electronic age.

There was a general consensus that the official plans were too timid and uninspired (and chained to The Lease), and that whatever is created must be something inspiring and extraordinary, maybe not in the tallest-building-in-the-world sense of bold, but something that will embody the resilience of spirit of this city, this nation, and do honor to the people were lost as well as all the people from all around the world who reached out in our time of need. It must be something that will truly be a wonder for those who will flock to Lower Manhattan, to reflect and remember and to see for themselves what has sprung from the ashes: a stunning architecture (including a fitting memorial integral to the design) with skyline elements, a beacon of our highest striving and a model for urban renewal (the eyes of the world will be on what create here, as evidenced by the millions of hits from around the world on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s website when the six plans were posted) where the WTC site is truly integrated into a revitalized downtown with new residential development, arts and cultural attractions, shopping and commercial development (in a wider range of industries), a transit hub made better than ever (finally connecting all the downtown lines), and more open and/or green space including a tree-lined promenade along a sunken West Street. (None of the memorial plans fared particularly well in the votes; the one that did least badly was the Memorial Promenade. It would have done even better if the footprints of the Towers hadn’t been partly built over in it—I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to retain the memorial while preserving the footprints.)

The above is just a small synopsis of many of the main points that were echoed by many of the small groups. Although most people seemed pleased with the process, almost everyone seemed at least somewhat skeptical that the LMDC would take the suggestions to heart (and, eventually, to action) and not just pay lip service to "listening" and do whatever the hell they wanted to (or felt compelled to by various obligations). I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude; it's an imperfect process (the top-down approach of handing off the responsibility for the designs to their architect cronies instead of opening it up with a competition got a lot of flak from me and others), but I do think that most of the people involved in the decision-making are sincere in their commitment to giving serious consideration to the suggestions they have received. We should have a clearer idea before the end of the year, when the 3 revised plans are released, how responsive they truly are willing to be. They have pushed back the schedule by a couple of months, which is probably a good thing as they have much to mull over.

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