Ground Zero Tolerance: With No Politician Willing to Take Charge, the 9/11 Recovery has Dragged on Far Too Long


This piece originally appeared in the Village Voice.

A decade into its unhappy and unexpectedly long life, Ground Zero has undergone its annual if short-lived transformation from New York politicos' red-headed stepchild to belle of the ball, at least until September 12.

Governors Cuomo and Christie, among other politicians, have been reportedly jockeying with the mayor for pride of place at the Bloomberg-run anniversary ceremony to score valuable camera time at a charged event that's valuable to politicians precisely because of its aura of being outside of politics—much as the 40-plus TV specials, complete with "investigations" of twins lost in the twin towers and endless ads featuring terror porn of the planes striking the towers are somehow supposed to be in the "public interest." The "sacred" site has doubled nicely as a profitable one, as detailed by Graham Rayman in last week's Voice.

In a sense, the politicians who will pay tribute this week are benefiting from their own neglect: Except for one week a year, New York's elected leaders try to have as little as possible to do with Ground Zero. And that's the main reason why 10 years later and despite a booming real estate market for most of it, there's still a Ground Zero for them to make pilgrimage to and offer on-air genuflections. The question remains: Once the annual ritual has passed, is there a politician willing to take ownership of Ground Zero?

In part, the problem has been Giuliani's big shadow. "American's Mayor," who has profited immensely from the unlikely title in the years since, emerged as such a potent symbol in his final days in office that the area's political leaders turned their attention elsewhere—and let a series of unelected, unresponsive, and unproductive special authorities (read: bureaucrats) take control of the site. Mayor Bloomberg turned his attention to his Far West Side Olympics dream, while a succession of weak governors in New York and New Jersey never managed to leave a mark despite their control of the Port Authority, which owns the site. Bloomberg, whose star has of late been dimmed by two strong new governors, has emerged as the closest thing to a de facto spokesman for the site, while still maintaining some distance from it.

Absent an elected leader willing to stake his office to the site, a dangerous gamble no one has taken so far—Ground Zero has "progressed" through a series of ill-conceived "master plans"—the Freedom Tower, the Libeskind Master Plan, the insanely pricey Calatrava PATH station, the ever-more-pricey memorial that will finally open on September 11, 2011—that kept the private market from rebuilding even as demand boomed in the low-interest bubble the Fed inflated after the attack in part to dampen its economic impact. It's no coincidence that the only completed structure at the 16-acre site is private developer Larry Silverstein's 7 World Trade Center and that the other towers have managed to draw future tenants only through highly subsidized leases for "needy" tenants such as Goldman Sachs. The most glaring example of the absence of leadership, though, was the August 2007 Deutsche Bank fire, which killed two firefighters and seriously injured dozens more after city Housing and Fire inspectors missed glaring violations in the structure, which, at that point, had been awaiting teardown for nearly six years. (It finally took more than nine to take it down.) Neither Bloomberg nor any other politician took much heat for a needless tragedy that cost the lives of additional first responders.

Years of public frustration with the impossibly slow pace of rebuilding finally manifested in last year's ugly fight over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque." Although liberal New Yorkers tried to pretend Republicans had hijacked a local issue to score cheap points nationally, polls showed New Yorkers overwhelmingly opposed the Muslim community center, which, in fact, would be located several blocks from the site. Margaret and Peter Steinfels, co-directors of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, recalled hearing a Catholic priest speculate that the surprising outburst of anti-Muslim sentiment, which was largely absent from the city after the attack itself, wouldn't have happened if the site had been rebuilt. "The priest," the Steinfelses said, "felt that this void left a lot free-floating emotion that had been displaced to opposition to the Islamic center."

The absence of local accountability extends to the events of 9/11, as well as the site. The brave uniformed officials who ran into the cloud as others fled now find themselves reduced to actuarial table figures. The Victims Compensation Fund Special Master Sheila L. Birnbaum, another politically insulated appointee, isn't covering cancer-related medical costs, arguing a causal link hasn't yet been proved.

Chris Ward, the Port Authority executive director appointed by Governor Paterson in 2008, who has had success in pushing construction forward ahead of the anniversary, when national attention will briefly refocus on the site, albeit at a steep price tag, delivered a powerful speech last week that seemed to be a parting shot amid reports that Governor Cuomo wants to bring in his own man after the anniversary to finish the job.

Calling the September 11, 2011, opening a moment to "begin the important process of weaving this memorial at the heart of the site into the fabric of New York City," Ward said the PA had "stepped back from a difficult conversation about what the World Trade Center should be, and stripped the site of what I call monumentalism, and focused on construction, of what it could be."

If Cuomo manages, with Ward or a replacement, to finally heal the open wound that's bedeviled the city for a decade, New Yorkers will remember. If he fiddles around as his predecessors have, we'll remember that, too. Any change at the Port Authority needs to come with a credible plan and time frame on which to judge the results and the governor.

It's late, but it might not be too late.

Contact Harry Siegel at

Photo courtesy of bbcworldservice

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