Future of Ground Zero stirs emotional debate

Sept. 11: Business concerns support commercial rebuilding on the attack site, but many relatives of victims say it should become a memorial.

Six Months After

March 10, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Twin towers of light will pierce the night sky over Lower Manhattan tomorrow, symbolically filling the hole that terrorists punched through the city's skyline and its very soul when they attacked the World Trade Center six months ago.

The ghostly afterimage of the lost towers, which for the next month will beam about a mile into the sky from two banks of spotlights set up near Ground Zero, has largely been welcomed as an evocative, temporary memorial to the more than 2,800 killed at the trade center Sept. 11.

But when it comes to more permanent plans for the devastated site, the city finds itself caught between two conflicting impulses: looking back in remembrance or rebuilding for the future.

On one side are groups representing family members of the trade center dead, calling for a memorial to their loved ones on the ground where they perished. Some are appalled by the rush to level and pave and build over what they consider hallowed ground, and vow to block its re-commercialization.

On the other side are those whose livelihoods depend on the site's returning to at least a reasonable facsimile of its former self - a bustling, worker-dense financial center in the midst of what before Sept. 11 was also Manhattan's fastest-growing residential area. For them, a memorial should be a part but not the entirety of the 16-acre site.

"It's very contentious now," says Julie Menin, who lives and owns a restaurant in the Financial District, "and highly political."

Although polls show that few favor turning the entire trade center site into a memorial, the family groups wield considerable influence in a city whose nerve endings are still raw from the number of lives lost.

Political officials in particular are wary of appearing anything less than totally solicitous of their feelings: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, for example, was persuaded by family groups to publicly urge the developer who holds the lease to the trade center to slow down his fast-track plans to begin replacing the office buildings.

Any slowdown, though, is probably merely delaying the inevitable. Most observers say it's unlikely such a prime piece of Manhattan real estate will be turned over to a strictly noncommercial use - especially because its destruction and the continuing cleanup have had such a ripple effect on surrounding businesses, many of whose customers have left the area in the aftermath of the attack.

Estimates are that there are 100,000 fewer workers and 5,000 fewer residents in Lower Manhattan than before Sept. 11.

"It's hard to go into the stores and see them empty. Many of the businesses have already closed, and many are just hanging on. A lot of them aren't going to make it," says Menin, who in October created a nonprofit group, Wall Street Rising, to boost the struggling area. "This is a community in jeopardy."

And it really is a community, she says, one filled not just with huge corporations and their 9-to-5 workers, but also with mom-and-pop shops and a thriving community of residents drawn to the narrow, crooked streets and the after-hours quiet.

Menin and others have been advocating for government incentives to lure big businesses back to the area, even as many have dispersed, perhaps permanently, either to Midtown Manhattan or beyond into suburban New York and New Jersey.

She also applauds the breaks that downtown residents are now eligible to receive on rent or mortgage payments, as much as $12,000 in some cases if they commit to remaining in the area for at least two years.

Workers and residents still have to pick their way around the barriers protecting many of the buildings, the cluster of streets that remain closed and, of course, the gaping hole that is Ground Zero.

Menin, who owns Vine restaurant across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, says she understands both sides of the debate and considers herself somewhere in the middle.

"We've got to balance both of their needs," she says. "But I don't agree it's too early to even begin discussions about what we're going to do with the site."

For Monica Iken, even raising the issue of rebuilding on Ground Zero is insulting.

"How can they talk like that?" says Iken, who lost her husband in the attack. "For most of the families, it's too soon to even think about the World Trade Center as anything but a cemetery.

"This is a burial site for us. We're still grieving," says Iken, who lives in Riverdale in the Bronx. "The process of rebuilding the site needs to slow down, and the families need time to breathe."

Iken started September's Mission, one of a number of groups representing families of the victims, as a way of honoring her late husband, Michael, a bond trader.

He had called her that morning after the first tower was hit, reassuring her that it wasn't his tower that was struck and that he was fine. He even phoned a second time, asking her to call his family in case they had seen the news and were worried about him.

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