90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Anthropologist Documents ‘The Battle For Ground Zero’

Four World Trade Center, center, stands next to One World Trade Center, left, in lower Manhattan, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Four World Trade Center, center, stands next to One World Trade Center, left, in lower Manhattan, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

On this, the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a new building stands on the once empty site. It’s called 1 World Trade Center.

It stands a symbolic 1776 feet high. On the journey from the devastation of 2001 to the new building and memorial there today, there has been a political and emotional struggle over what the site of the attacks should represent.

In a new book, “Battle For Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center,” urban anthropologist Elizabeth Greenspan documents America’s most fought over public space (excerpt below).

Greenspan says that as the memorial was being designed, there was tension between commerce and remembrance.

“This is one of the most valuable pieces of land in the world — it held the largest office complex in the country,” she said. “But then you had all these other people who said this is a now historic piece of land where so many thousands of people were killed.”

Ultimately, the memorial includes One World Trade Center, which will be used as commercial space, and a memorial area with reflecting pools and the names of those who died.

While some families are pleased with the design of the memorial plaza, other families hoped that there would be artifacts from that day incorporated into the memorial.

“For many families, they felt like there needed to be more that remembered the day itself and the attacks, and not just the twin towers,” Greenspan said.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Battle For Ground Zero’

By Elizabeth Greenspan

"Battle for Ground Zero" book cover

Preface: America the Re-build-iful

In the first months after 9/11, thousands of people descended upon the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan to see the destruction and, while they were there, many wrote comments on nearby walls, emergency railings, and streets signs. The graffiti was usually written in ink or marker, not spray paint, and included everything from simple signatures to original poems to increasingly political exchanges between passersby. (“Blame Bush!” “Who did the damage? Not Bush. Thank God for Bush!”) One refrain, in particular, caught my eye: “America the Re-build-iful.”

It was scrawled on a boarded-up bank entrance across from the wreckage (though after that first sighting, I spotted the refrain all over the site’s temporary architecture). It was catchier and more playful than “United We Stand” or “God Bless America,” and it seemed to capture the idealistic, unifying spirit of the times. It also expressed the idea that prompted me to pick up and head to Ground Zero in the first place: the idea that the identity of the country was inextricably tied to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site. It was the idea that whatever we decided to build here would reveal nothing less than what makes us American. The catchy little refrain, in other words, expressed the very big stakes of the rebuilding—and presaged the bat-tles to come.

Elizabeth Greenspan is author of "Battle for Ground Zero."

Elizabeth Greenspan is author of “Battle for Ground Zero.”

I was a 24-year-old graduate student then, in anthropology and urban studies. I was interested in the rebuilding partly because 9/11 felt so monumental, but also because I had always been intrigued by how cities worked, in particular, how people shaped and fought over space, and, after 9/11, the space everyone was talking about was Ground Zero. Once I arrived in New York, I learned that there was more than one process to examine. I went to civic group meetings and public hearings, where I met area residents, city architects, victims’ families, and rescue workers. I also went to the WTC site regularly to follow progress and conflicts on the ground, and photographed the spontane-ous memorials and graffiti, and then the construction work, the pro-tests, and the annual anniversary ceremonies. I collected reports, press releases, newspaper articles, and talked to more people. By the end of my research, I had interviewed more than 300 people at the World Trade Center site, more than 150 downtown residents, victims’ family members, rescue workers, and architects, and nearly 50 city and state officials involved in rebuilding, including the politicians, architects, and developers making key decisions.

The battles over what and how to rebuild were heated from the beginning, so much so that at times they reminded me of some of the most entrenched struggles over territory, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, people didn’t resort to violence to determine who owned the WTC site, a sixteen-acre parcel that is considerably smaller than, say, Jerusalem. But sixteen acres in the heart of New York City is not unlike vast, rolling tracts of property elsewhere; it certainly costs as much. And people felt very strongly about Ground Zero. Most of all, the questions that defined the battles downtown were the same ones that have triggered land conflicts everywhere. Who does it belong to? And, as importantly, how will we decide?

At the WTC site, the question of ownership appeared relatively simple: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owned the land, and developer Larry Silverstein owned the lease to the office space. But these were merely the legal answers, and for many people legality wasn’t the only or even the most appropriate framework to employ. Nearly three thousand people were killed at the World Trade Center, in the deadliest foreign attack on American soil in the country’s history. Was the land really owned by one individual and one institu-tion? A lot of people didn’t think so, at least not in the aftermath of the attacks. Victims’ families and neighborhood residents believed they had legitimate claims to the WTC site, as did many New Yorkers, as did many of the thousands and then millions of people coming to see the destruction. The question of ownership proved so big and open-ended it often felt rhetorical. Everyone owned Ground Zero—or, at the very least, they believed they owned a piece of it. So, they fought for their piece. For years. Some are still fighting for it.

This book tells the story of these battles. It begins in the fall of 2001, when the debates about what and how to rebuild commenced, and it ends in the fall of 2011, when the memorial opened to the pub-lic and many, though not quite all, of the major decisions had been made. It doesn’t document every conflict or participant; instead, it tells the story of the multiple forces that remade the World Trade Center site. This means that it is partly a story about owners and politicians sitting around tables in conference rooms, but it also means it is a story about people in streets, public hearings, and living rooms voicing desires, demands, concerns, and beliefs—and occasionally garnering the attention of the influential men. It is a story about capitalism and democracy. It’s a story about those who built the walls and those who wrote on them.

From BATTLE FOR GROUND ZERO by Elizabeth Greenspan. Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Greenspan. Reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It was a beautiful, sunny morning in the Northeast this morning, just like it was 12 years ago on September 11, 2001. President Obama spoke today at the Pentagon, where more than 180 people died when terrorists flew a plane into the building.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is an honor to be with you here again to remember the tragedy of 12 Septembers ago, to honor the greatness of all who responded and to stand with those who still grieve.

HOBSON: In Shanksville, Pennsylvania, bells were rung for the 40 people who died when United 93 crashed into a farm field. And in New York City, the names of nearly 3,000 people who died when two planes hit the World Trade Center were read.

UNIDENTIFED GIRL: Kenneth William Basnicki.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Steven Joseph Bates.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: And my grandfather that we miss and love, Eustace R. Bacchus.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And my sister...

HOBSON: The Twin Towers collapsed after the planes hit them, but today a new skyscraper stands near where they did. It rises 1,776 feet into the sky. Getting it built was not easy, and the 12-year battle for what to do with Ground Zero is the subject of a new book. It's a story of tension between commemoration and commerce, and it's called "Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center."

Author Elizabeth Greenspan joins us from NPR in New York to talk about it. Elizabeth, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

ELIZABETH GREENSPAN: Thanks so much for having me.

HOBSON: Well, first for people who have not been to the site recently, we should say there are a few new buildings up, the biggest being of course One World Trade Center, which is almost finished. We've got some photos at hereandnow.org. Tell us what the site looks like today.

GREENSPAN: Half of the site is a memorial plaza. There are reflecting pools that occupy, that stand over the original footprints of the Twin Towers. There are waterfalls that descend into these pools. And then surrounding the waterfalls are the victims' names, the nearly 3,000 victims. That's half the site, yeah.

HOBSON: And the buildings that are up, tell us about those.

GREENSPAN: Yeah, surrounding the memorial plaza on nearly all sides are the towers that they're constructing, four of them, and they're in different stages of construction. So there'll probably be construction for another four or five years, at least.

HOBSON: Now, from the beginning there was a real debate about what Ground Zero should be after the attacks. And one of the key players was a guy named Larry Silverstein, a businessman who had acquired the lease to the World Trade Center just a month and a half before the attack. Tell us about him.

GREENSPAN: Larry Silverstein is a New York City developer. He had built World Trade Center Seven in the 1980s, and ever since then he had wanted to own or lease the Twin Towers. And finally, six weeks before 9/11, he managed to secure that deal and sign the lease, and then all of this office space, 10 million square feet of it, was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

And he's been working ever since then to rebuild all of it.

HOBSON: And he had some say. Another entity with some say in what happened was the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land. But as you write, based on what happened there, everybody, of course, every American and certainly every victim and victim's family, felt that they owned a piece of it. How would you describe the fight over the last 12 years?

GREENSPAN: I really see the battle as one for ownership. It's this question of who does this land belong to and also how will we make those decisions. How will we decide who gets to claim this piece of land? And so for 10 years now people have been battling over what it means, what it should become and who gets to determine that.

HOBSON: It was also, of course, a question of consumerism versus reflection. This is of course right at the center of the financial capital of the world.

GREENSPAN: Yes, this is one of the most valuable pieces of land in the world. It held the largest office complex in the country. So of course there was an imperative, many people thought, to rebuild all of this office space to make sure that the status of Lower Manhattan as a financial hub remained after the attacks.

Then you had all these other people who felt, you know, that this was a now historic piece of land where so many thousands of people were killed. So it brought these questions of commerce and remembering into sharp conflict.

HOBSON: Who do you think won?

GREENSPAN: Well, they've divided the land in half. Half of it is a memorial plaza, and half of it is for commercial space. So I think they found a solution that, you know, they tried to find a solution that gave even, you know, even amount of space to both of these sides. But it took a long time to come to that solution.

And I think for a lot of people, they see a tilt toward the commercial, and we'll have to see what happens over the next, you know, five to 10 years.

HOBSON: I want to get into some of the players after the break, we'll bring you back after the break, of course, and talk more about this, and some of the ideas that were put out there. At the beginning there was a plan to build four 50-story towers, right, to replace the Twin Towers?

GREENSPAN: Yes, that was the very first proposal put forward.

HOBSON: And that obviously did not happen.

GREENSPAN: Right, I mean there have been so many plans that have come and gone, and that's one of the fascinating aspects of this project.

HOBSON: Well, we'll get into that after the break. Elizabeth Greenspan's new book is "Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center." Elizabeth, stand by, we'll have more after a break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and on this 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks we're talking with Elizabeth Greenspan. Her new book is called "Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center." And Elizabeth, let's talk about that political struggle.

There are a lot of players involved here, of course Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York at the time of the attacks; Governor George Pataki; and of course the current mayor, Michael Bloomberg. How did they weigh in on this?

GREENSPAN: Giuliani had a few months left before he left office, and so he gave a speech in December, and what he said was really interesting because he called for the importance of a memorial at the site and was one of the few to caution against large-scale economic development downtown, and this really went against the talking points at the time, which was the importance of rebuilding all of the commercial space that was destroyed.

Governor Pataki felt strongly about rebuilding all of this space, but he also wanted to build a symbol on the skyline, and this was - he named the building Freedom Tower soon after it was conceived by Daniel Libeskind. So he saw the need for both a symbol and office space.

And Mayor Bloomberg also believed in the importance of rebuilding all of the commercial space lost. So that was ultimately - the push to rebuild came from those two.

HOBSON: Why isn't the building called the Freedom Tower?

GREENSPAN: For a long time it was, and it struggled for a long time as well to find tenants to fill the building. And then in 2008, not long after the economic crash, a new director came into the Port Authority named Chris Ward. And he decided that the building needed some help and that it was too weighed down with symbolism. He thought that there was this monumentalist push downtown and that it - that was really getting in the way of finding tenants and moving forward on construction.

And so he issued a document that said they were changing the name from Freedom Tower to its address, One World Trade Center, and from then on it's been officially known as One World Trade Center, primarily what the Port Authority says was to better market the building.

HOBSON: And of course there have been big questions about who in the world would want to work in this tower, which of course could be the target of terrorists in the future. You write that the New York Police Department even raised these concerns, saying due to the history of al-Qaida strikes at this location and the symbolic nature of the Freedom Tower itself, it seems clear that this building will become the prime terrorist target in New York City as soon as it is occupied.

How did those fears get dispersed?

GREENSPAN: Well, they've had to redesign the building, actually, in 2005 because of these fears. The initial designs had security features, of course, but not quite enough. And the NYPD called for a redesign to further fortify the building. So now when you look at the building, the first 20 stories are actually made out of concrete and then covered with this reflective material to hide that concrete.

And they have the most up-to-date security measures, you know, that they possibly can. I think the side of the building that faces the street has blast-resistant plastic rather than glass to protect against a car bomb. There are all kinds of measures in the stairwells and the elevators. So they've really outfitted this like no other office building in the country.

And you know, the businesses moving in, that was enough for them to feel safe and to move their employees down into the building when it opens.

HOBSON: Will there be tenants?

GREENSPAN: Yes. Right now a number of the buildings are securing tenants, but in One World Trade Center, the most notable tenant is Conde Nast, which will be moving its offices from Times Square down into the building. And Conde Nast is a publisher of magazines like the New Yorker and Vogue.

And so when the Port Authority secured Conde, this was a huge coup, and it really shifted the tone downtown and the sense of optimism for the success of this site.

HOBSON: You spoke to a lot of family members of people who died on 9/11 when the Twin Towers collapsed. How have they reacted to what exists there today?

GREENSPAN: The feelings are mixed. I've spoken to some families who are very happy with the memorial. They're pleased that so much land, eight acres, was devoted to a memorial plaza. And they like the fact that the names surround the pools at ground level so that everyone can see them.

But there are other families who always wanted artifacts from the site or pieces of wreckage to stand on the plaza as well. Right now those artifacts will be in the museum, which will be underground, but there's nothing at plaza level. And for many families they felt like there needed to be more that remembered the day itself and the attacks, not just the Twin Towers.

And so they're still upset, and they're calling for certain artifacts like the globe sphere to be returned to the plaza.

HOBSON: There was of course a big uproar over the Islamic center that is planned. They called it the Ground Zero Mosque, even though it is, as it has been pointed out, not a mosque nor on the site of Ground Zero. But what's happened with that center?

GREENSPAN: So the Islamic center has gone forward. It's open. There is a prayer space today. It's still under construction though. The plans were very ambitious, to create a kind of community center and a prayer space two blocks from Ground Zero. And so that aspect is still under construction, but part of the building remains open and is very widely used.

HOBSON: Elizabeth, I lived in New York for years and - after the attacks - and even for a time commuted through Ground Zero on a daily basis because, as you know, the PATH Train that comes in from New Jersey takes you right into the hole in the ground, what was a hole in the ground, and it felt like there was a hole in Lower Manhattan, that there was something about that area that was very eerie, for years afterwards.

Do you think that that problem has been fixed, that that hole in Lower Manhattan is not there anymore?

GREENSPAN: I do. I think the rebuilding of the site is really important. We are still in the process of executing the decisions that have been made, but it will be done. There's a memorial people can visit. There is a tower that you can see from almost any vantage point in Lower Manhattan. And I think that's really important to people, to have a space that's filled, and that even if you can't easily get access - you know, there's a lot of construction going on around it, and there's security to get to the memorial - it's there and you can visit the plaza, and you can stand on it, and that's meaningful.

HOBSON: You were there this morning.

GREENSPAN: Yes, I was downtown. The ceremony was unfolding on the plaza, and it was closed to everyone but victims' families. But I walked around the streets, and a lot of people were congregating in the squares and parks right around the site and listening to the names being read and taking pictures.

And so, you know, people turned out. There was a nice feeling downtown.

HOBSON: Now, you live in Boston, and your book ends with the marathon bombings that happened in Boston in April. There is talk of a permanent memorial here. Could Boston learn anything from what happened in New York with the site at Ground Zero?

GREENSPAN: Yes, absolutely. I think everyone should be prepared for it to take longer than they expect. This will not be a fast process. And people should also be prepared to really have everyone participate and to allow everyone to raise their concerns, voice their demands and to have it be a little bit messy and contested.

I think a desire to make things move forward quickly and swiftly and neatly to some degree can only prolong the process. So if we can have a thorough public debate, we'll get ideas on the table, and then we can move forward. But it's going to take some time, and I think if people can be ready for that and embrace that, then we can have a fulfilling process.

HOBSON: Elizabeth Greenspan's new book is "Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center." Elizabeth, thanks so much for joining us.

GREENSPAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

July 30 Comment

As War And Conflicts Proliferate, Children Become Unwary Victims And Targets

Kids have always suffered during war and crisis, but there's a sense the burden of instability is being increasingly borne by children.

July 30 3 Comments

California Drought: A Central Valley Farmer’s Experience

Last month was the hottest June on Earth since records began in 1880, making the West Coast drought even harder for farmers.

July 29 13 Comments

U.S. ‘Border Crisis’ In A Global Context

Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch says what the U.S. is seeing is dwarfed by the massive flow of refugees into other countries, such as Italy.

July 29 4 Comments

Iraq War Vet Returns To A Broken Country

Roy Scranton says what he found in Baghdad "shows the evidence of the truth of what we'd actually done."