Lynne Sagalyn


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

Cover Interview of September 24, 2017

A close-up

Chapter 10 relates a particularly compelling episode of how the idea of integrating culture at Ground Zero exposed the tension inherent in accommodating the dual mandate to remember and rebuild.

Many months of public dialogue on rebuilding and editorial commentary affirmed the cultural objective, and the final master plan allocated five hundred thousand square feet of space across two proposed buildings: a Performing Arts Center and a Memorial Museum and Cultural Complex.

Bringing arts and culture to Ground Zero as part of the rebuilding agenda to help infuse the redevelopment with energy and life appeared to be an idea on which a consensus would readily emerge. But nothing was that clear-cut at Ground Zero. As soon as some of the families of the victims most actively engaged in the memorialization process saw the proposed design of the Cultural Center, the cultural program came under attack and erupted into a fierce political controversy.

Culture threatened to take away “their property.” The arts spaces were competition—for public attention, donations, size and pride of place at Ground Zero. And so these families sought to disrupt the planned selection of cultural groups and successfully petitioned to reduce the scale of the cultural buildings; in turn, the 9/11 Memorial Museum grew in size.

Once the issue of culture became politicized, getting the cultural program back on track became impossible. Orphaned by the episode, culture at Ground Zero still remains a hoped-for element.

The high-profile controversy over culture and the politics of the activist families had a lasting impact on rebuilding. It elevated the political symbolism of the rebuilding effort. As long as decisions were being made about the memorial complex, no politician could take a stand against the emotional claims of the victims’ families.

The families were a political constituency with singular standing whenever they put forth deeply felt desires for specific plans for Ground Zero. However, once most issues relating to remembrance were settled, the focus shifted to commercial arrangements, and the power of the activist families dissipated.

Nevertheless, the reverberations were many. The cultural conflict and its aggressive press coverage infected the public tenor of the entire rebuilding project. It handicapped fundraising for the Memorial, which needed at least $350 million in private contributions. When Governor George E. Pataki stepped into the conflict and banished one of the designated cultural institutions from the Trade Center site, he marginalized his own institutional creation, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, set up to do the planning for rebuilding. And given New York City’s civic reputation, the episode stands as an affront to its tradition of tolerance.