Madelyn Wils: Looking Out for Downtown Residents

By Erica Pearson

Madelyn Wils was standing in front of her son's school just a few blocks from the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. As she wrote in a column for the Gotham Gazette , Wils watched the neighborhood where she has lived for 16 years become a disaster site.

However, it wasn't just her neighborhood that changed after Sept. 11. Her job as chairwoman of the local community board quickly went from advocating for ball fields and zoning changes to fighting to stabilize the neighborhood and representing downtown's 50,000 residents in the tense debates about what should be built at the World Trade Center site.

Wils has taken a strong public stance in favor of revitalization and rebuilding at the World Trade Center site. She does not want the entire 16-acre site to be a memorial, as some victims' family groups have advocated. "It is difficult to live and work in an area that other people consider a cemetery. . . . This isn't Gettysburg; it isn't Normandy Beach. This is a place that is vital and one that wants to be vital again," Wils told the New York Times in June.

Her comments prompted a Connecticut woman to write a letter to the editor, saying, "what happened at the World Trade Center does compare in magnitude to Gettysburg and Normandy; it was the largest attack on American civilians in this country's history. Families are not asking for tombstones to be erected. They are asking for a memorial to remember and honor our fellow Americans who were killed trying to live the American dream. How soon we forget."

Wils has also spoke out against bringing more office space to lower Manhattan. She recently blasted developer Edward Minskoff's plans for an office tower one block north of the 7 World Trade Center construction site, saying that the building would crowd a largely residential area.

Wils, who grew up in Flushing, Queens, ran her own television production company before becoming chairwoman of Community Board 1, representing the Financial District, Battery Park City, the Civic Center, TriBeCa and the South Street Seaport, in 2000. As chairwoman, she was responsible for securing plans to bring a recreation center and several parks to the area.

In December, Wils was appointed a board member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. She is the only resident of Lower Manhattan to sit on the board. Some critics have suggested that a representative from Community Board 2, which includes Chinatown and other areas affected by the attacks, should have been included as well.

As work downtown after Sept. 11 moved from recovery to rebuilding, Wils stood out as a persistent advocate for the residents of lower Manhattan on issues like health and environmental cleanup. She has also urged officials to hold a competition to design the entire World Trade Center site.

After the attacks, Wils began having frequent asthma attacks for the first time in ten years. She and other local officials commissioned an independent study of dust from residential areas in lower Manhattan, which found asbestos in residents' carpets and curtains.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency finally agreed to clean up and test apartments south of Canal Street.