Volume 18 • Issue 31 | December 16 - 22, 2005

Arts community reflects on cultural loss at the W.T.C.

By Ronda Kaysen

On a cold Monday night less than two weeks before Christmas and more than four years after the World Trade Center disaster, nearly 200 New Yorkers filled a lecture hall at the New School to hear a panel discuss culture at ground zero. Cultural programs might have been radically reduced in the redevelopment plans in recent months, but if Monday night’s turnout is any indication of the mood Downtown, the discussion about culture is far from over.

“Maybe this is the time that we ought to be thinking about what we really want down there,” said panelist Robert Yaro, president of Regional Plan Association, a metropolitan research and advocacy group that has taken an active role in post-9/11 rebuilding plans.

Culture at the W.T.C. site has been in flux since Governor George Pataki summarily removed the International Freedom Center, a museum planned for the site, from the redevelopment after a group of 9/11 families objected to a museum near the memorial. Pataki’s decision came on the heels of a similar dispute between family members and the Drawing Center, another museum planned near the memorial. The Drawing Center bowed out of the redevelopment last summer in face of mounting pressure.

The remaining cultural building, a performing arts center to be designed by Frank Gehry, is also in doubt, with no fundraising effort in place. The WTC Memorial Foundation, the non-profit in charge of raising money for the memorial and the cultural buildings, does not intend to begin raising funds for the performing arts center until after the memorial is fully funded. The arts center’s cost is also unknown.

With cultural programs effectively sidelined, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, a non-profit advocacy group, hosted “Zero Culture: What’s Happening to the Arts at Ground Zero?” on Monday night at the New School.

“It all sounded very good and then it all began to unravel,” said the panel’s moderator, Paul Goldberger dean of Parsons School of Design. “The political crisis leads us in a straight line to where we are tonight.”

Immediately after Pataki removed the I.F.C. from the site, the museum founders announced that they would dissolve their museum, which was created specifically for its location. At the panel, I.F.C. co-founder and chairperson Tom Bernstein insisted he had no plans to resurrect his creation elsewhere. The I.F.C. “was married to the spiritual memorial,” said Bernstein, who is also the co-founder of Chelsea Piers and a council member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “To us that was a fairly easy decision to make.”

Panelists said a small group of 9/11 families was able to wrestle control of the six acres dedicated to the memorial and culture not because they represented public opinion, but because the public has had little opportunity to develop and voice an opinion one way or the other.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency responsible for the rebuilding, “made it impossible for the cultural institutions to describe what they were planning,” said Yaro. “We never had that conversation and it meant that we had a vacuum and that vacuum was filled by one point of view.”

Local residents have long voiced their frustration with the lack of a public dialog. At a recent Community Board 1 meeting, board members criticized Memorial Foundation president Gretchen Dykstra for the foundation’s lack of commitment to culture at the site.

“We are very distressed about what appears to be a lack of commitment to the arts,” said C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin at a Dec. 7 public meeting, adding, “We’d like to see that the residential community is heard.”

In a presentation to board members, Dykstra played a short film beginning with the attacks on the W.T.C. and ending with interviews of visitors to the site from around the world. Visitors from Ohio, Florida, Japan and Germany commented on the disaster and the need for a memorial. None of the visitors interviewed lived or worked in the surrounding area and none spoke about the densely populated neighborhood that co-exists around the 16 acres.

Unlike other memorials in the United States, which are often outside population centers, the W.T.C memorial, Reflecting Absence, will be built in the heart of the nation’s fourth largest business district and a large residential neighborhood. Residents worry they will be cut off from the new W.T.C., which used to be their shopping center, and that the visitors lining up to see the memorial will overwhelm the site.

“This is a place where people are going to go to work, this is a place where people are going to go to school, it’s not only a memorial,” said Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden at the Dec. 12 panel.

Currently, the foundation is focused on raising $500 million to build the Michael Arad-designed memorial, which the L.M.D.C. board estimates will cost $330 million. The memorial museum is expected to cost another $160 million. Only after the memorial is securely funded will the foundation consider raising money for the performing arts center, the last remaining cultural center on the site.

The foundation sees the memorial as the centerpiece of the rebuilding effort, which has been criticized for its slow pace. “I don’t think anything is going to get built if we don’t build the memorial,” said Dykstra. Once the memorial is built, “everything else will fall into place.”

But the memorial is a source of intense conflict, and Reflecting Absence, with its list of names and cascading waterfalls, has not been met with much enthusiasm from critics, family members and the public at large.

Likening the redevelopment to Downtown Hartford, Conn., Yaro said, “Shopping malls and office parks don’t co-exist really well with sacred places. Cultural institutions create a buffer between the sacred and the profane.”

The Snohetta-designed cultural building was intended to serve as that buffer – separating the shopping mall from the memorial. But now, visitors ascending up from subterranean level of the memorial will be met immediately by a shopping center, a concern some family members are now beginning to voice.

Although the governor aligned himself with the families in the battle over the memorial, the mayor has taken a different stance. During his election campaign, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he intended to play a more active role in the redevelopment. As other politicians distanced themselves from the I.F.C., Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff voiced support for the embattled museum.

“The mayor has differing views, which he has been increasingly willing to articulate,” said Goldberger. “I have a certain amount of confidence in his increasing willingness to take an assertive role.”

In an interview with Downtown Express at City Hall on Monday, Bloomberg did assert some support for culture at the W.T.C., albeit haltingly. “There’s nobody willing to stand up for the arts more than I am, but I will say there is something different about this piece of property,” he said, adding, “Different standards may very well apply on that site.”

During the question-and-answer period, Diane Horning, whose 26-year-old son Matthew died in the Trade Center, insisted that many family members supported the decision to remove the I.F.C. With the cultural institutions gone from the site, more space is now available for the story of 9/11, she said. “There are cultural objects and entities that are reflective and there will be more,” she said, mentioning poetry, collages, quilts and handmade tiles that do not currently have a place at the memorial. “Please do not think that we hate culture, that we hate art.”

But there is no reason to think that more exhibition space exists to commemorate 9/11 now that the I.F.C. and Drawing Center are gone. Snohetta, the Norwegian architecture firm that designed the cultural building, has been sent back to the drawing board to design a smaller version of the low-rise structure.

Dykstra indicated she sees little future for the building in its current incarnation. “Everybody thinks that there can be a richness to the memorial quadrant, but I don’t think it’s going to be the Snohetta building,” she said at the C.B. 1 meeting, adding, “It’s just too expensive and the foundation is not going to fund that.”

Instead, Dykstra would like to see whatever is built on that location be used for a visitors center with a ticket booth and bathrooms for memorial-bound visitors. The idea of building another cultural building “is not a good idea.”

At this point, the memorial is the only sure culture at the site. Although it includes a museum, the content will be dedicated to Sept. 11, which makes critics wary. “If we have narrow institutions that are only dealing with Sept. 11, I don’t that that will stand the test of time,” said Bernstein. “It’s not engaging.”


Ronda@DowntownExpress.com


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