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August, 2003

The End of Ground Zero

By Jim Scanlon


What was once known as "Ground Zero", the smoldering, smoking pile of spaghetti like tangled steel that was once the World Trade Center, has been replaced by a bright, open, orderly, sunny space. The viewing stands are now gone as are the masses of tourists, the flags, the piles of dead flower bouquets, simple offerings and dedications that lined sidewalks, fences and walls around the site. Now, you can walk right up to the edge of the hole in the ground and see-a huge construction site, just below street level-not a destruction site. The funeral seems to be over.

It is not at all exactly clear what will be built exactly where, but construction has already been started on a smallish building on the northern edge of the site by Larry "Lucky Larry" Silverstein, a New York property magnate who leased the Towers owned by the Port Authority 12 weeks before they were attacked and destroyed by fanatical Muslims, mostly from Saudi Arabia.

Silverstein had control for three weeks. He had leased the Towers for 99 years, for $3,2 billion paying reportedly $616 million down and, perhaps, $14 million from his personal fortune. He was sensible enough to insure his lease on ten million square feet of office space, space he now wants to replace. He seems to represent the practical, business point of view, that the site must be developed quickly, maximizing its potential for commerce. Honoring the thousands who died there is important, but not most important.

Less clearly defined, but exercising great influence, are organizations representing "The

Families" (of victims) and Police and Firefighters who died in the attack, who want little or nothing built on top of the "hallowed ground" over which the Twin Towers once stood. This view has been ridiculed as "the most expensive graveyard in history." For a while, even the residue of the debris left at the Staten Island Dump, from which body parts and personal property were extracted, was referred to as "hallowed ground" but this movement, if it ever was a movement, is now dead.

The vexing problem facing New York is how to combine the two points of view --- and how to come up with the money.

The plan of the Berlin based Daniel Liebskind Studio, the winner of the design competition for reconstructing the site, is at odds with Mr. Silverstein who has, or will have, the insurance money which might be as much as $7.2 billion, certainly not much in Pentagon dollars, but quite a lot in New York dollars, which, if money talks anywhere, it talks, and is understood, on Wall Street, just a few blocks away. The New York Times has been writing very diplomatic editorials on the subject, a sure sign that a quiet but titanic struggle is going on behind the scenes. Very New York!

Rather than an open, memorial pit, or pool, where the Towers stood, a favored plan seems to be to use part of the enormous slurry wall of the so called "bath tub" that was constructed around the original site to keep out the waters of the Hudson River. The wall was damaged, when the Two Towers fell, it "gave," sagged, tilted in one place, but did not fail. Obviously an apt metaphor for 9/11 and New York. Visitors would have access to the exposed wall, to touch it, somewhat like the wall dedicated to Americans killed during the Vietnam War, or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the remains of the Jewish Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago by the ancient Romans.

If this plan is followed it might be said to more accurately resemble Viracocha, the great Temple of the Inca in Cusco Peru, destroyed by Spanish barbarian invaders 500 years ago. The massive smooth stone foundation walls are exposed beneath a huge Gothic cathedral, The Church of The Triumph, and can be seen and touched today by visitors.

Walls are of inestimable psychological importance to human beings for varying reasons: They keep things in and keep things out. The Berlin Wall was bad because it kept immigrants in. The US Immigration Wall south of San Diego is bad because it doesn't keep enough immigrants out. Jews throughout history have been walled to keep them in, in Ghettos, now the Jewish State is building a formidable wall to keep others, Arabs, out.

Whether or not the Liebskind plan which includes a tower 1776 feet (541.32 meters), will be built, or modified, or not, something will be built and what is built will cost money, lots of money. The governors of New York and New Jersey are involved as is New York's Mayor, all of them Republicans. In addition, the Republican party will hold its presidential convention in New York, next year so New York and the Two Towers will be an intense focus of attention, to put it mildly. It is reported that Silverstein may lay the cornerstone of his first building on the site just before, or during, the Convention. If this is

so, he will surely have a lot of help with the cornerstone from Republicans most likely one with middle initial "W."

Unless atomic bombs start going off somewhere or other, nothing seems likely to upstage the video scenes of the Two Towers falling. Presently, it seems unlikely that we will experience another orgy of those terrible images-it almost seems as if we now have a taboo against showing those ghostly towers disappearing into clouds of dust and smoke. It's too painful to watch.

The Skyscraper Safety Campaign, composed of parents of families of firefighters and victims of the World Trade Center catastrophe, are actively organizing and campaigning to insure that whatever is built at the site is built strictly according to the City's new international building codes. The New York/New Jersey Port Authority, which owns the site, wasn't and isn't, strictly speaking, required to abide by the City's building codes. The Port Authority is resisting formal commitment to these rules but has said it will obey them voluntarily.

The reader may remember that the materials and the novel structure of the Two Towers were never subjected to rigorous testing, that they were built without sprinkler systems (or sewage treatment) and their structural steel supports were inadequately fireproofed by a subcontractor with Mafia connections. (The contractor was shot to death during litigation in the early 1990s and his body dumped in the parking lot beneath the Towers.)

The reader may also remember that Rudolph Guiliani the city's heroic Mayor established the city's command center at 7 World Trade Center, the only high rise structural steel building to ever collapse due to fire. The Guiliani administration, in violation of NYC fire codes, stored thousands of gallons of diesel fuel in Silverstein's building which burned for days. It seems likely that some survivors of the collapse might have died from the flames or smoke.

On his own initiative, Silverstein has already committed to strictly following NYC rules and even going beyond them, to insure tenant safety. Workers in any skyscraper built on the site will obviously need some kind of exceptional safety reassurances. One wonders why the Port Authority would resist something as sensible as abiding by the law.

Because of the fate of the Towers, New Yorkers seem worried about being targeted again. After living for 40 years with hundreds of Soviet missiles, each with multiple atomic and hydrogen bombs menacing the city, New Yorkers now seem worried about Indian Point, a nuclear power generating plant 35 miles up the Hudson River. A plaintive commercial message on WNYC, the Classic Music Station, warned over and over that the plant was a potential "Weapon of Mass Destruction." No one paid much attention to evacuation plans when nuclear power plants were build, or during the Cold War! Now, it seems, the images of the ghostly Towers have broken through the New York's wall of denial and a bee sting and an atomic explosion are now equivalent.

Springtime in New York this year was strange and unsettling, cold and rainy. The tomato plants I saw in July were skimpy and about ten inches tall. No Jersey tomatoes. June was the coldest and wettest on record and then it turned hot and humid the last week in June, it was too much, and New Yorkers who had been complaining about the cold began complaining it had gotten too hot too soon: they hadn't had time to get used to it. It seemed un-New York.

They were also complaining about recycling. Mayor Guiliani had attacked the city's recycling program arguing that it was "secular religion" and that free trade in garbage would solve the city's garbage problem and also aid poor communities in nearby states. You know, "Win, win, win". Guiliani transferred $25 million earmarked for recycling and passed the problem on to Mayor Bloomberg who halted recycling of plastic and glass in an unsuccessful attempt to save money. Now, the "free market in garbage" like the "free market in electricity in California," in its free market wisdom, automatically raised prices and the cost of shipping garbage out of state went up dramatically. Recycling of glass and plastic, which will reduce the volume of garbage, will resume (recycling of paper was never halted). The public is confused and what was easily stopped cannot be so easily started. This was more like New York.

I took the A Train from the Wall St. station, next to the former Ground Zero out through the heart of darkness that is Brooklyn, past Howard Beach where one can now transfer to Kennedy Airport, across Jamaica Bay, to Rockaway Beach on the Atlantic Ocean where I was met by a former resident of Fairfax who once attended the College of Marin many years ago.

Driving to his home we passed through a section of Rockaway where six homes were destroyed and six damaged when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed taking off on its way to the Dominican Republic in November 2001. Two-hundred and sixty people on the plane were killed and eight on the ground. Terrorism was ruled out, although many still have doubts.

It was a well kept affluent suburban neighborhood. A few homes had been rebuilt but there were gaps in the orderly rows of homes as if teeth had been knocked out of a beautiful mouth. Someone my friend knew who lived there whose son had been killed in the collapse of the Towers and his son's best friend, a passenger on the plane, had been killed when the jet crashed into his neighborhood.

Wading in the warm, clean Atlantic you could see Black Capped Terns and Least Terns diving in to the water off shore and flying back to nests along the wide beach to nests in the sand dunes. Narrow roped off lanes allowed beachgoers access to the water and protected the nests. The terns flew with little fish in their beaks. Larger birds, black winged skimmers-beautiful flyers with long angular wings and large colorful bills flew in groups. They fly a few inches over the water with their beak skimming just below the surface. Just a little care and concern brought these birds back! I didn't know these birds even existed on the East Coast! It could have been Alaska or Patagonia or the Amazon! But it was Rockaway Peninsula where the tops of the Twin Towers stood just above the western horizon for almost thirty years and now they stand no more. People don't see them anymore but they miss them. Maybe in a few years another tower or towers will appear.

Maybe not.

 

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