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Pause, Reflect, Respect

by Nancy Biberman, Feb 22, 2004
 

On the same day that the mayor and the governor announced the creation of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, the chief of the Uniformed Firefighters Association was arrested while en route to the funeral of a firefighter killed on September 11. The crime? He participated in a demonstration of hundreds of firefighters protesting the move to reduce their involvement in the remaining recovery operation. The anger and emotion of the firefighters has touched raw nerves from firehouses to neighborhoods throughout the city and suburbs and should give pause to premature plans to rebuild.

Is the city truly ready to rev up the engines for redevelopment just yet? Are any of us prepared to let the bulldozers have their way with missing limbs, shards of bone, and personal effects? Less than three months after a murderous attack of unprecedented ferocity that forever changed the way we live, should the solemnity of this operation cease?

The literature of these recent weeks suggests not. The poignant "Portraits of Grief" in the New York Times themselves comprise an unfinished documentary: memories of lives snuffed out in their prime; of shock and numbness yet to mature into grief; of incredulity at the permanence of the loss. The families speak of the dead in the present tense: their passions for music, for e-mail joking, cooking, coaching and loving.

History provides further cause for reflection. Just a few years ago, a lawsuit temporarily halted the construction of a new federal building in lower Manhattan when excavation uncovered an African-American burial ground. For months the public debated how to best respect the century old gravesite and give it its due place in history, until ultimately a memorial was erected.

In 1995, after the bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, the community and the victims' families agreed to the now-famous rows of empty chairs, yet the process through which consensus emerged evolved over time, from an initial we'll-show'em urge to rebuild bigger and better.

Over a half century ago, the Polish government decided that the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau would be left intact as a reminder to the world of the consequences of unchecked human evil. There would be no demolition, no removal of debris, no rebuilding. Since then, millions have traveled to see these ruins. My husband and two of our children made this pilgrimage two years ago. We walked through more than 500 acres of ruins, at every turn acknowledging that no book or movie had ever captured the sickening reality of the barracks, crematoria and endless pools of human ashes. How grateful we were for this preservation, for the refusal to demolish and rebuild, for the recognition that this monstrous cemetery of the damned was hallowed ground.

The value of 16 acres of prime Manhattan real estate sixty years later may not compare to the countryside outside of Krakow. Yet how a civilized people should treat the soil upon which such a deliberate and grievous taking of life occurred remains a serious consideration. Fifty years from now, how will we want the world to remember what happened to New York City on September 11, 2001?

Most importantly, whatever is built should be the result of an open and inclusive decision-making process. The terrorists' attack on the Trade Center was hardly directed at its bricks and mortar; those planes were intended to tear apart our way of life: our pluralism, our diversity and our democracy.

To start, the redevelopment corporation would be wise to pay attention to an emerging coalition of more than a dozen civic and community groups who are presently articulating critical questions, the answers to which will set a pattern for development in this city for generations:

What overarching vision will govern the development process? How will it respect the health and diversity of neighborhoods and assure environmentally- conscious construction? What can be done expeditiously to salvage and restore existing buildings, homes and businesses and to immediately protect local residents from toxic air pollutants? With an economy in recession and unemployment at new highs, how will the rebuilding best serve to create jobs beyond the relatively short-term construction work? What economic forecasting will determine future growth sectors: for what businesses are we to build anew in lower Manhattan? What about finding space for sorely needed affordable housing? What transportation, telecommunications and waste management infrastructure will be required to support the new community?

The redevelopment corporation must operate cautiously, inclusively and sensitively, lest this city's already wounded human tapestry be further frayed. The phoenix that rises up from our ashes should be symbols of our democracy, both in beauty and relevance, and in the thoughtful consensus planning that guides its development. This hallowed ground demands no less.

Nancy Biberman is president of the Women's Housing & Economic Development Corporation, which has won awards for the historic restoration of the abandoned Morrisania Hospital in the Bronx.


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