The Commerce of Commemoration | The Nation


The Commerce of Commemoration

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Commemoration and commerce could not be easily reconciled. Over the course of 2002 and 2003, these conflicting imperatives clashed in public hearings and private meetings, in conference rooms, art galleries and magazine pages. To mediate the dispute, New York's leaders, again returning to first principles, created a bureaucratic archipelago of agencies and advisory boards. Thus began what everyone came to call "the process."

Andrew Rice covered commercial real estate development for the New York Observer from 2000 until 2002.

About the Author

Andrew Rice
Andrew Rice is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda (...

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In his book, the most spirited of the three, Nobel speaks of "the process" as if it were a sentient being, invisibly pursuing its own agenda. In fact, as Nobel himself recognizes, it was a creature of its principal players--the truculent developer, the calculating governor, the blockheaded bureaucrats, the preening architects--who mouthed platitudes about sanctity and art, but mostly had more earthbound goals: making money, winning elections, protecting turf, achieving fame. The process disguised their pursuit of self-interest as an exercise in democracy.

The process demanded that something be rebuilt, quickly, to demonstrate America's resolve (and to promote Pataki's 2002 re-election bid). And since skyscrapers were destroyed, skyscrapers would rise, to send a message to the terrorists (and to shore up Silverstein). Whether new skyscrapers were necessary, whether new skyscrapers were a proper way to pay tribute to the dead, whether new skyscrapers made any economic sense--the process required that these valid questions be shunted aside in the interest of speed. "A deliberative pace," Nobel writes, "was precluded by the associated politics of revenge."

Fittingly, a similar irrationality was responsible for the original World Trade Center, a complex that loomed, unloved, 110 stories above lower Manhattan from 1973 to 2001. (In a typically withering aside, Nobel writes that Mohamed Atta, trained as an urban planner in Syria, "merely acted out the will of the towers' many critics.") The brainchild of David Rockefeller, the president of Chase Manhattan Bank, and Austin Tobin, the autocratic chieftain of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the complex was meant to revive the financial district and to stand as a monument to the mighty Port bureaucracy. Instead, it nearly killed the neighborhood. The maligned towers didn't become a fashionable address for high-end tenants like investment banks. At the same time, their 10 million square feet of publicly subsidized office space held down rents in other downtown buildings, dampening the demand for new construction.

It wasn't until the millennial boom that the World Trade Center became profitable enough to interest private developers. In August 2001, Silverstein agreed to pay the Port Authority $3.2 billion for a long-term lease. Many thought he overspent, but the septuagenarian Silverstein, until then regarded within the industry as a second-rank developer, viewed the Trade Center acquisition as the capstone to a building career. Then, just weeks after the deal closed, his trophy building was gone.

In martyrdom, the towers finally won the love of their city. All along, Nobel points out, the two most popular plans for the site called for rebuilding them just as they were, or for building nothing at all as a commemoration of loss. These ideas were quickly dismissed. Turning the site into a park or a "soaring, beautiful memorial," as former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani suggested, would have deprived Silverstein and the Port Authority of their rental income. Rebuilding the towers as they were would go against current urban planning dogma, which values streets and storefronts over open plazas.

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