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Ever since the World Trade Center was destroyed, the question of what to do with the site has been at the forefront of New Yorkers’ minds. The Twin Towers once stood proudly over the city; their remains—sixteen acres of ruins, a hole six stories deep looms just as large. For the past twelve months, that hole in the ground has raised again the questions to which the towers themselves, with their bold skyward thrust and their bustle of citizens and commerce, had given powerful (and, we thought, lastin)—symbolic answers. What is New York? What here do we lift up? How do we understand ourselves, and how do we communicate that understanding to the world?

In the weeks after September 11, few New Yorkers had to think twice about the answers to those questions. We are who we always were, they said: build the towers back, bigger than before. This was the city that, within minutes, chose to fly the red, white, and blue rather than the yellow ribbon, the city whose small downtown businesses, just days after the attack, put signs in their windows saying “We’re still here.” But that gritty confidence is no more.

In the Autumn 2001 issue of City Journal , Steven Malanga warned of the dangers facing New York as it planned its physical and economic comeback. He worried then that the city’s antidevelopment lobby and its traditional love affair with big-government solutions would cripple the rebuilding effort both at Ground Zero and in the city as a whole. (Ironically, such trouble was written into the World Trade Center itself: in addition to reflecting the soaring spirit of American commerce, the Twin Towers also represented what Malanga calls “the quint¨ssential New York-style centrally planned government-authority project—ill-suited for the marketplace and unsuccessful for years despite its heavy state subsidies.”)

But the problem that has emerged since last fall is a more complex one—a problem not just of government but of culture. In a scathing City Journal essay titled “Heroic Gotham Surrenders to Defeatism,” Malanga recently revisited his original concerns. Since those first weeks after the attack, he wrote, “another city has begun to emerge, displaying some of the worst tendencies of American culture, and of New York itself. This city seems uncertain about what made it great in the past, irresolute about its future, and awash in its own sense of victimization. Nowhere is that other city more evident than in the debate on how to rebuild the World Trade Center site.”

It had the makings of an old-fashioned Tocquevillean event: a town hall meeting of several thousand New Yorkers, many of whom had survived or lost loved ones in the attack, gathered to discuss what they thought should be done with the land that, in both its past and present forms, is so much at the heart of their city. The very idea was enough to make one proud. What an American thing it is, after all, to talk together about who we are, to discuss our visions of how to express our identity—how we want that day to be remembered—in what will be one of the most important public projects in the nation’s history.

Whatever expectations of civic uplift (or even of the rudiments of a plan) we might have had before the August town hall meeting, held at the Jacob Javits Center on the west side of Manhattan, they were quickly deflated as soon as the proceedings began.For one thing, the six designs the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation presented for consideration at the meeting could not have been more timid. Atop the footprints of the towers, one featured a grassy triangle, another a grassy rhombus; a modest cower poked up from one, from another a smattering of office buildings. Nobody liked any of them.

But what was proposed to take their place? Malanga describes the participants’ suggestions: “On the one hand, [they] told the planners not to build on the footprints of the old towers even though they encompass about half the site, but on the other haný, build something grand and magnificent. Participants also advised the planners to reduce the amount of commercial space on the site, but also not to destroy downtown Manhattan as a center of finance.” In other words, it should be everything to everyone, upsetting neither the economic vitality of the place nor the families of the victims. This was decision-by-interest-group at its worst, a mush of cautious thoughts shrouded in sorrowful indecision. Grief counselors were on hand to support those in attendance; “one more indication,” Malanga acidly writes, “of the event’s lachrymose and self-pitying keynote.” With vague promises to devote less space to commerce and more to a memorial, the committee threw out the plans, announced an international design competition for the memorial, hired five new firms to deal with land-use issues, and arranged six more public hearings.

Of course it is necessary that the public be consulted and that time be taken to evaluate their suggestions. And the process cannot but involve conflicting points of view. What’s strange about this story is how much New Yorkers’ views have changed. Why can’t a citizenry that was so charged with determination just after September 11 that improvised stunning rites and images to encourage the rescue workers and memorialize the missing—come up with a coherent image for that day? Why can it no longer enunciate the realities—the grief, the gratitude, the unity, the resolve—that it once knew in such an uncomplicated way?

Malanga’s theory is that the New York the world saw immediately after the attack is not the only New York there is. Another New York—the antidevelopment, antibusiness, antipatriotism, diversity-infatuated New York of community activists and cultural elites—“has never been very far from the surface.” And now that it is in the ascendancy (in other words, now that the heroes of that day are no longer at the center of our attention), it threatens to transform lower Manhattan into “a memorial landscape of death,” a government-managed “industry of bereavement tourism.” What it wants, Malanga writes, is “a rebuilding process that is in reality non-building.”

He’s right about that other New York. A year later”perhaps somewhat embarrassed about how it joined in cheering for the cops, or about what led it to hang those American flags in its windows for a month or two—it has recovered its accustomed sensibilities and attempted to quiet any outburst of the city’s original post-9/11 boldness about how to rebuild.

But at the heart of the hesitancy in these discussions lies something more than the timidity of Blue America, with its rejection of the “insensitive” response; something more even than the understandable (if, in the view of some, misguided) demand by many of the victims’ families that the ground on which their loved ones died be preserved untouched by commerce, no matter what it means for the rest of the site. We are a nation that solves problems, not a nation that lives with loss. In the moment of attack, our instincts got us through; we rallied and we triumphed; we said, “They haven’t won, and we’re still here.” In its long aftermath, we’ve grown sentimental, our boldness blunted as instinct turns to reflection.

In another context, Theodore Dalrymple has called sentimentality “an evasion of moral responsibility.” Perhaps he goes too far, but there is something to his observation. Our sentimentality, it seems, is born from uneasiness with the powerful truths that carried us through that day. We don’t know how to absorb them all; we are not accustomed to being wounded, much less to making public monuments to our pain and our survival. And in the absence of a shared vocabulary of truth and beauty—especially a vocabulary which does justice to the fact that truths both hideous and glorious exist at Ground Zero, and which helps us see that true beauty can take account of both—it is difficult to memorialize what happened on September 11 without sliding into the conventionalities of elite culture or resorting to our “personal response.” We have become, in our reflection, not eloquent but abashed.

What is the truth about the World Trade Center site? Is it Ground Zero or the Twin Towers? The dead or the living? We should avoid the temptation to dwell on what looks like the only truth remaining—the hole in the ground, the many lives lost—at the expense of the truth we understood as a city and as a nation in the days after the attack. We owe those who died not a monument to what became of them, but a testament to who we—the dead included—are. In doing so, our biggest mistake would be to forget who we were on September 12, 13, and 14.

Image by licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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