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by Martha Hostetter
Culture and the World Trade Center Site
It may be too soon to declare a consensus about rebuilding the World Trade Center site, but even at this early stage, it seems clear that culture will play a prominent role.
Both the private developer Larry Silverstein and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation are said to be interested in an arts center as an anchor tenant, and they will have many would-be partners, including the City Opera. More downtown museums, art galleries, and performance spaces--as well as the shops, restaurants, and bars that tend to spring up alongside them--would transform the area into the kind of vibrant, 24/7 neighborhood that is the holy grail of urban planners. During a recent Imagine New York workshop to discuss rebuilding, Julian Jackson, an art gallery director, suggested creating something along the lines of the Barbican Centre, which since it opened in 1982, has transformed London's financial district into what planners call "a destination area."
Over the past decade, according to Brooklyn College sociology professor Sharon Zukin, culture has become a favored tool for shaping urban neighborhoods and public spaces. In her 1995 book, The Cultures of Cities, Zukin describes how , with competing visions of what cities should be, city leaders have increasingly turned to cultural institutions to "arrange these visions artfully, to orchestrate and choreograph images of diversity to speak for a larger whole." Just as important, culture has come to be recognized as a major engine of economic growth. In addition to luring visitors and generating revenue, cultural institutions "establish a competitive advantage over other cities for attracting new businesses and corporate elites," Zukin writes. "Culture suggests the coherence and consistency of a brand name product."
But is the cultural umbrella broad enough to accommodate the diverse pressures and desires that are now being projected onto the World Trade Center site? Will cultural institutions be able to provide the initial shot of financial strength the area so desperately needs?
Incorporating culture into Lower Manhattan's bureaucratic and commercial district is not a new idea; more downtown museums and performance venues have opened in recent years, and free performances were offered in the World Trade Center plaza and Battery Park. "The path of Lower Manhattan has been a cultural path for the past 15 years," Sharon Zukin said in a recent interview. "Ever since the Downtown Alliance became the Business Improvement District for that area, a subtle version of the Times Square strategy for putting that area on the map has emerged."
When the real estate market sagged in the early 1990s, plans to replace Times Square's peep shows with office towers were put on hold. In the interim, public redevelopment authorities partnered with nonprofits to give the neighborhood a facelift--creating site-specific art installations, a children's theater and revamped legitimate theaters, a visitors' center, and walking tours. By the end of the decade, gleaming new buildings had begun to go up, making the area a center for entertainment and media production. This development played out familiar patterns of gentrification: a few nonprofit arts groups have been priced out of the area, and some have bemoaned the loss of Broadway's traditional blend of glamour and grime.
The overwhelmingly positive responses to the "Tribute in Light" memorial provide a glimpse of how the arts might shape the World Trade Center site. Even though the towers of light were visible for miles around the city, crowds gathered each night at their 54-searchlight source, just behind Ground Zero. A cultural center with parks, theaters, and galleries would create similar, quasi-public spaces for community gatherings for years to come. There were more than 80 stores and restaurants at the trade center, and culture might also pave the way for renewed commercial activity on what many now regard as sacred ground. "If you put a 'not-for-profit' or 'cultural' site on this ground, then you diffuse the rank commercialism that real estate development usually brings with it," Zukin argues. "Who would object to an institution with a noble cultural purpose or educational mission? Parks and art museums are the secular churches of our time."
Of course, there will be debates about what kind of art is appropriate for these "secular churches," and programmers will feel pressured to meet a broad range of expectations. It is also not clear how the area's small arts groups ‹ as well as its many small businesses -- might exist alongside a large cultural institution. In the Cultures of Cities, Zukin cautions: "Public officials and developers are more at ease discussing the image of the city as a culture capital than attending to demands for support by artists, musicians, theater owners, and museum workers. The consensus surrounding the value of the arts often breaks down over specific issues of land, labor, and capital."
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