In October 2001, I stood with my colleague peering out the windows of our office building, 195 Broadway, into Ground Zero below. It was our first day back at work, and we watched the steelworkers make bright-white arcs as they deconstructed what was left of the World Trade Center. “Do you think they’ll reopen the Borders [bookstore]?” she asked me.
The next step in normalcy, after clearing the pit of human remains and debris, would be setting aside space for a memorial, and rebuilding. We were lucky: We would see it happen. How long could it take?
Four years later, I left that job, and looked down from the windows for the last time. The WTC site was tidy. But it was still Ground Zero. No buildings, no memorial. Most days, nothing happened there.
The only building close to completion was off the site, developer Larry Silverstein’s Seven World Trade Center. Seeing Seven rise cheered us all up.
Over those years, I had learned a lot about how New York state and local government work — or don’t.
There was the rewriting of history by the elites, not a great sign. A few weeks after 9/11, The New York Times Magazine ran a special issue on “reimagining” downtown. The old World Trade Center, we were told, was a failure. That may have been true in the 1970s and ’80s. But it wasn’t by the turn of the century.
Downtown workers liked the mall, with normal-priced clothes and food, not for people with $15,000 to blow on a wallet on their way to the subway. They liked the plaza, with its farmers market and concerts, and the walk across to the World Financial Center for lunch.
Downtown already was becoming a 24-hour community, with older office buildings converted into housing. But the people in charge — who, from what they wrote, hadn’t been downtown in years — wanted to erase what had been working well.
Then, why so many government agencies? It made sense that the state and city would work together. But why did the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey control so much of this process? How had they even gotten in the business of building big skyscrapers? Why should New Jersey get any say in what happened in Manhattan?
That wasn’t enough. Then-Gov. George Pataki created something called the “Lower Manhattan Development Corp.,” which was itself a subdivision of yet another bureaucracy, the Empire State Development Corp. — itself a remnant of the ’60s-era Urban Development Corp.
All these bureaucracies, and nothing they did made sense. In 2002, the LMDC released six “design concepts” for the new WTC. Everyone hated them — everybody.
The LMDC launched another design contest. In 2003, it picked architect Daniel Libeskind.
Libeskind was hoodwinking us. A spirally “Freedom Tower” of 1,776 feet, meant to evoke the Declaration of Independence? “Memory Foundations”? What kind of nonsense was this?
The LMDC was unwilling to admit defeat again. But over the next few years, thankfully, Silverstein reasserted control. The “Freedom Tower” became One World Trade Center, begun in 2006, and other normal-looking skyscrapers went up.
The Port Authority, which also wrested some control from the LMDC, finally picked a memorial after many painful iterations.
Then, too, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver wanted a say. He insisted on building the Fulton Street Transit Center, two blocks from Ground Zero. This involved tearing down perfectly good buildings and kicking out small biz.
All those extra years didn’t yield a superior result.
Downtown, today, is fine. It isn’t spectacular. This is apparently the best we could do, and it works well enough.
But New York never did achieve the major goals set out in all that “reimagining” 20 years ago. The street grid isn’t knit together into one neighborhood. The World Trade Center is an office park unto itself, just like Hudson Yards.
Developers have continued their conversion of office buildings into residences. But the real focus for family living is still Battery Park City, which pre-existed 9/11.
Does all the wasted time matter — when the result is passable enough? From the perspective of now, maybe not. But from the perspective of 20 years ago, it would have seemed absurd.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.