Volume 18 • Issue 20 | October 07 - 13, 2005


Cultural loss at the W.T.C.

It was not long ago that there was a broad consensus as to what to build at the World Trade Center site: A large memorial to honor those killed there, offices to be a part of Downtown’s economic recovery and a cultural center so that beauty and art could become part of the response to evil. Gov. George Pataki, who endorsed all three ideas repeatedly, has now retreated and has effectively put the idea of a new Downtown cultural center in jeopardy.

Over the years, as plans for the site were changed and adjusted, cultural buildings remained adjacent to or over the memorial site — and the relatives of those killed who participated in every step of the public planning process never made it an issue. The firestorm erupted only a few months ago after one family member, Debra Burlingame, wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that the International Freedom Center – a proposed museum founded by a business friend of President Bush – would somehow have a leftist bias and dishonor those killed at the site.

Pataki, in a cowardly act, kicked the Freedom Center out of its designated spot and has cut the cultural center at least in half. Two buildings have been cut to one and that one’s future is in doubt. The W.T.C. Memorial Foundation has put fundraising for the performance center on the backburner and, assuming officials someday get around to planning to build the Frank Gehry-designed theaters for the Joyce and Signature at the W.T.C., those two institutions are likely to face the same content questions that ultimately drove the Drawing Center and I.F.C. away from the site. Any respectable arts organization would and should consult with family groups about program planning but none would ever agree to any sort of “absolute guarantee” not to offend any person in one of 2,749 families.

The governor acted unilaterally, and mistakenly took a shortcut around the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s public process. He is not alone in his fear of being embarrassed by family members. The others who aided and abetted this terrible decision either with their support or silence include Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, most members of the L.M.D.C. and Memorial Foundation board, and shockingly, almost all of New York’s artistic community. It is only in comparison to them that Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s hint of opposition a few weeks before an election looks like a profile in courage.

As Downtowners who took a direct hit on our homes, businesses, and neighborhoods from 9/11, we remain steadfast in our belief that a large memorial is essential to the site. We just don’t think it had to grow to six acres.

A center where culture can thrive cannot be eliminated. Many of the hundreds of thousands of Downtown residents and workers have said they want the promised arts center.

If the Memorial Foundation can’t or won’t raise money for the center while it focuses on the memorial, then a separate entity should be set up to raise money now. Most, if not all of the cultural space cut out of the plan, must be restored in at least one of the office sites. The first office tower built after the Freedom Tower should include performance or exhibition space for the arts.

The W.T.C. must not only be a place to mourn our losses, but also a place to find hope and renewal.


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