How to Save Ground Zero: An Immodest Proposal


It is time to begin worrying about what will happen to the site of the World Trade Center towers.

If the destruction of the towers was not the worst event in American history, it was unique in its horror and in the perfection of its evil. None of us will forget where we were when we heard about the crashes, or the crushing burden of grief that lasted for weeks afterward, or the torrents of tears and pride drawn forth in equal measure by the nobility of the firefighters, or the way in which an era of frivolity seemed to end in an instant. The country and all of its citizens changed on September 11—probably forever, certainly for a very long time.

Whatever sort of memorial is placed on the site will also stand forever, or in any case for a very long time. Commercial buildings there may come and go, but the memorial will be a shrine. People will come from everywhere to see, to learn, to mourn, to remember. The memorial that New York chooses today will shape the way the event is understood five and ten generations from now.

The decision in New York thus frames a teaching moment that will last for centuries. A mediocre memorial would be a wasted opportunity. A narcissistic, pompous, or voguish memorial would be a disgrace. Even a country with a lot of other things on its mind needs to find time to think about those 16 vacant acres in Lower Manhattan—and soon, because the Ground Zero cleanup is proceeding quickly. Larry A. Silverstein, a developer who holds the lease to the site, is talking about beginning construction on the site of 7 World Trade Center as early as June.

The Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans memorials are masterpieces, and the Jefferson is better than passable, even if Tom's bronze clodhoppers are too big. (Michelangelo, realizing that spectators would be looking up at his David, tactfully adjusted the proportions of his masterpiece so the feet wouldn't look enormous from up close. Rudulph Evans, who sculpted Jefferson, should have visited Florence first.) John C. Whitehead, the chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.—a new state authority heading up the Ground Zero rebuilding effort—has said he expects to build something to equal any of the Mall's great monuments.

Can he do it? Memorials have a way of coming right in the end. The Washington Monument found the timeless simplicity it needed because a surrounding colonnade never got built. The Vietnam memorial looked on the drawing board like a morose black scar; only later, when its meaning sank in, did its visionary power emerge. Still, the early portents in New York are not encouraging.

"This is probably the most difficult, complicated problem I've faced in my lifetime," Whitehead told The New York Times in January. This from a man who stormed the beach at Normandy. Many of the victims' families believe the whole site should be set aside as a sacred place. It is, after all, a burial ground. Developers want to develop and builders want to build; isn't the whole point that life goes on? Whitehead has said that just the footprints of the towers—less than half the site's acreage—might be enough for a memorial.

What sort of memorial? Much of what has been proposed is too grandiose, too clever, too self-regarding. In January, a gallery in New York opened an exhibition of what The New York Observer called "speculations—proposals would be too strong a word—from architects on how best to rebuild the Twin Towers." Although many of the ideas were intentionally fanciful, they did not inspire confidence in the subtlety and taste of highbrow architects. "One proposes two towering multi-colored structures, each bearing changing electronic bumper-sticker nostrums such as 'Save Kyoto' and 'Remember Seattle,'" reported The Economist. "One plan includes a trench dug 911 feet and one inch deep, representing the 11th day of the ninth month of 2001." Another proposal called for a tree-of-life memorial focusing on "human diversity rather than homogenized commerce"; another for a ramped tower to mimic a "folded street"; another (reported The Observer) for "a new tower that will weep a mist of tears" every September 11.

It says something about architects that an aging hippie who calls himself Adam Purple, and who writes on letterhead from "Headquarters, Intergalactic Psychic Police of Uranus," had an idea whose simplicity and good taste easily beat those of the professionals. According to The Kansas City Star, Purple suggests "a Garden of Eden built by the three major theistic religions on earth: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam." At least that isn't embarrassing.

In addition to being tasteful, the memorial must, more difficult still, be timeless. How to stop its design from being captured by the evanescent political pieties of the moment? Political correctness has already sunk one lesser memorial. The idea was to build—in front of New York's fire department headquarters in Brooklyn—a statue enshrining the famous image of three firemen raising the flag at Ground Zero. Angry firefighters shot down the plan when they learned that the statue would depict the men—all white in real life—as white, black, and Hispanic. Imagine the ideological battles over Ground Zero if a memorial tries to say too much. The end result could be a monument that says nothing.

"We want to be absolutely sure that all people in every constituency are represented by somebody," Whitehead has said. Uh-oh. His agency is already a burgeoning bureaucracy to rival the United Nations, boasting five advisory councils (representing victims' families, downtown residents, retailers, tourism and arts interests, and VIPs of politics and business and labor), with more to come. To which, add the mayor, the governor, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which owns the land), Silverstein, various interest groups, and more.

This could be fun. Not.

Oklahoma City's memorial at the site of the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was overseen by a committee. I haven't seen the result, but pictures and published descriptions suggest that the memorial, while tasteful, is too busy with fussy symbolism nodding in too many directions. Its elements include 168 chairlike objects symbolizing the dead (smaller chairs for children), a reflecting pool, two gateways symbolizing the moments before and after the bombing, a plaque listing survivors of the bombing, and a children's garden. Maybe it works in Oklahoma City. Ground Zero's monument must, however, be simpler and also more powerful; and, unlike most great monuments, it must be designed not with the benefit of decades of hindsight, but with 9/11 still fresh in our collective memory.

Now is no time for modesty. I have the answer. I propose a memorial that would speak for itself starkly, dramatically, and in a language understood all over the world; a memorial to the dead that would also provide a place for the living to gather and reflect and cry; a memorial whose simple dignity would be unassailable, whose symbolism would be overpowering, and whose meaning and message would never change. I propose a cemetery.

In December, when I visited the site of the attacks in New York, I feared the worst. The crowds were immense. Vendors were selling water and candied nuts. Tourists rode by aboard double-decker buses whose upper decks were ideal for peering into Hell. Tour buses! Peanuts! Why not just sell popcorn and tickets and glossy souvenir programs? So I thought, but only for a few minutes, until I took in the demeanor of the crowd. There was nothing touristy about it. People were calm and serious. A man who carried a little boy on his shoulders pointed to the site. "They killed a lot of people there," I heard him say to the child.

I knew I had seen this kind of demeanor before but couldn't, just then, put my finger on where. Only afterward did I realize where I had seen people gather in public with this same air of subdued seriousness, people looking for hints of the dead, trying to comprehend and remember.

Graveyards are not gloomy; they are comforting. They come between grief and forgetfulness. The windswept crosses of the American cemetery at Normandy and the stoic headstones of Arlington National Cemetery are profoundly moving because they recognize that there are times and places where the dead speak more eloquently than the living: where, indeed, grandiose architecture or grandiloquent statements merely diminish the sanctity of hallowed ground.

The World Trade Center site needs not a memorial but memorials, commemorating not the crime but its victims. It needs a silent sea of headstones for the thousands who were, after all, interred there. Part of the site should be returned to the living, but part should remain forever what it became after September 11: a place of burial and mourning, where wind and rain and time mingle with ash and stone and memory.