Lynne Sagalyn


On her book Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan

Cover Interview of September 24, 2017

In a nutshell

Power at Ground Zero tells the epic story of how the site of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan was rebuilt after the terrorist attack of 9/11. The destruction of this complex set in motion a chain of events that fundamentally transformed both the U.S. and the wider world. The attack’s historic trauma endowed these sixteen acres with deep symbolic and emotional meaning that shaped the process and politics of rebuilding. While modern city-building is often dismissed as cold-hearted and detached from meaning, the opposite was true at Ground Zero.

September 11 transformed the human meaning of the Trade Center site. What had been secular was now sacred, a graveyard for nearly three thousand souls. That meant redevelopment replacing 10 million square feet of commercial space would have to “co-exist harmoniously with the memorial itself.” Simply replicating past approaches to city building would constitute a pallid response to human loss and physical destruction of such magnitude. The rebuilding response demanded a big, inspiring, physical presence that embodied the symbolic aspirations of American values and accommodated the twin mandates—to remember and rebuild.

If those twin mandates were clear in the minds of public officials, how to achieve them was not. The lack of a playbook for this unprecedented planning situation created repeated controversies and conflicts. The process was terribly messy and, at times, terribly chaotic. Yet, contrary to the narrative of delay that prevailed throughout the many years of controversy—and that delay was destructive to the revitalization of Lower Manhattan—rebuilding most of the site in fifteen years was relatively fast paced by New York benchmarks for large-scale complex projects.

The money question—who would pay what to rebuild Ground Zero—eluded public consciousness for years. Even elected officials skimmed over this critical driver. By the time it became the obvious driving force after five years of high-profile architectural battles, an exhausted and frustrated public had turned its attention to more immediate stories. The political narrative was dead declared the Times’ Frank Rich in a deeply penetrating op-ed, “Ground Zero Is So Over.” In truth, it was just beginning. The backroom negotiations and the financial deals that would deliver a new World Trade Center were just heating up. This is the story of big money and powerful politicians I tell in Power at Ground Zero. The characters are colorful. The Manhattan real estate is historic. The battles were bellicose. And multiple legacies were lying in wait to be written.