Tragedy at Ground Zero

Nearly a decade after 9/11, the site of the worst terrorist attack in American history has not been rebuilt.

NEW YORK – Nine years on from the largest mass murder on American soil, New York’s cityscape remains painfully incomplete. For all the grand plans and lavishly designed (and redesigned) memorials, for all the talk about the urgency of paying tribute to the nearly 3,000 victims of Islamic terrorism, Ground Zero is a graveyard of promises unmet and due honor delayed.

What was supposed to become a monument to American resilience – the country’s unique capacity to transcend tragedy and rebuild bigger and stronger – has instead become a symbol of stasis. Plagued by a combination of bureaucratic bungling and political mismanagement, the rebuilding process has stalled time and again, breeding cynicism where it was intended to foster hope. New Yorkers today reflect the anxieties of a watching nation as they wonder when – and if – the site of the former World Trade Center will cease to be a festering wound in the city and become once again its bustling commercial heart.

The Ground Zero debacle has many architects, including two prominent names. Some blame the initially impractical and ultimately unrealizable master plans for the site put forward by German architect Daniel Libeskind. The architect has the dubious distinction of submitting the winning design for a 1,776 foot, symbolically tall Freedom Tower, only to see it ultimately scrapped and revised by architect David Childs. Childs’s improvement, an all-glass tower, did not prove much of one. It was rejected out of security concerns and replaced by yet another design. That the eventual building will be the tallest in the country is intended to mollify some of the criticism of the Freedom Tower’s stumbling conception, but given that the tower is not expected to be complete before 2013 – already four years behind schedule – skeptics can be forgiven for wondering if it will ever truly happen.

Local politicians, likewise, have not covered themselves in glory. Former New York Governor George Pataki in particular is identified with the glacial pace of the rebuilding process. Although Pataki created the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to oversee the reconstruction, his early lack of leadership when the Ground Zero site become a canvass for a host of disparate plans, up to and including the city opera house, is one of the reasons why it became bogged down. The recent outcry over the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero has become a national story, but as John Podhoretz points out, it never would have become a headline issue had the site been rebuilt according to schedule.

Today, it is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has adopted Pataki’s former role as official excuse maker. He recently insisted that it is “not unreasonable for something as complex politically” as the rebuilding of Ground Zero to have dragged on for nearly a decade. If that logic has failed to calm popular passions, it is probably because the fact that politics have been allowed to obstruct something as crucial as the restoration of that hallowed ground is a large part of the scandal.

Where politicians have failed, private enterprise has shown the way. One of the few successes at Ground Zero is World Trade Center 7, the 52-story, $700 million skyscraper built and owed by real-estate developer Larry Silverstein. As Manhattan Institute scholar Steven Malanga notes, because Silverstein’s building lies outside the government-controlled section of the Ground Zero site, he was able to put up the building back in 2006. He has also turned it into an entrepreneurial success. While the official site has struggled to attract tenants, a legacy of the dysfunctional rebuilding process, World Trade Center 7 is now 85 percent leased.

It’s true that progress – however halting and inadequate – is being made. The Freedom Tower is now 36 stories high, still short of the planned 105 but, with a new story slated to be added each week, on a proper trajectory at last. A memorial waterfall is also reportedly nearing completion. Most recently, a financial peace treaty between Silverstein and the New York New Jersey Port Authority, which runs the Ground Zero site, may pave the way for the construction of two new office towers. Something, clearly, is being done.

And yet, by the measure of what the city and the country suffered nine years ago, the reality of some recent progress comes as small consolation. In the years since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has succeeded at keeping terrorists at bay, staving off a repeat of the devastating attack that many believed was inevitable. But on this September 11th, the emptiness at Ground Zero is a reminder that while America has prevented another tragedy, it has yet to attain closure for the one that shattered a country nine years ago – and that forever claimed a part of its most storied city.