From the very start of serious planning, it was clear that the Sept. 11 memorial at Ground Zero would face a host of obvious and extraordinary challenges. Some would arise from the sheer human and physical scale of the tragedy — still almost impossible to fully grasp, two years later. Others would arise from its unprecedented nature as what has been called the first “species-wide” event in history: the first to be simultaneously experienced, as it happened, in all its shock and horror, by hundreds of millions of people, all around the world.
As the design effort has proceeded, however, a less obvious — but in some ways no less daunting — challenge has begun to make itself felt. It arises from the fact that the commemorative ground sits right in the heart of Lower Manhattan, amid the busy streets and soaring towers of the downtown business district. It is the challenge of creating a memorial in a city that, for most of its history, has abhorred the very idea of memorials.
This aversion to memorials — and in a larger sense to monuments of any kind — is an instinct so deep-seated and pervasive that it is built into the city's structure. The instinct can be traced to the origins of the modern city and to a pair of decisions, made two centuries ago, that helped determine the essential shape and character of New York.
The first came toward the end of a long and momentous dinner at Thomas Jefferson's house on Maiden Lane on June 20, 1790. Over a glass of Madeira (at least according to legend), Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton struck a historic political deal. Linking the resolution of the nation's outstanding war debts to the location of its capital, the three men worked out a swap. To Hamilton's satisfaction, they federalized the states' debt, thereby setting America on a course of fiscal stability and vigorous economic growth. And to Jefferson and Madison's joy, they removed the United States government from Manhattan (where it had begun operations a year earlier) and sent it southward, first to Philadelphia and ultimately to a new city to be built on the banks of the Potomac.
At the time, many regarded the government's departure as an immeasurable loss for New York. But later historians came to appreciate it as a liberation of sorts, which freed the city to pursue its true vocation — to become America's commercial, financial and cultural center — without need for the ponderous ceremonial trappings of an official capital. Unlike the new federal city, the bustling metropolis on the Hudson could follow its own destiny without external encumberment, free always to look forward, not back.
The spatial consequences of this historic schism grew clearer two decades later, when a trio of state-appointed surveyors published their sweeping proposal for the development of Manhattan Island. The Commissioners' Plan of 1811
gave enduring expression not only to New York's remarkable ambition — its expansive grid of streets providing room for a million people, 10 times that of the existing city — but even more so to its intense commercial focus. Two thousand rectangular blocks (the most economical and easiest kind to build on, the commissioners noted) would be linked by 12 arrow-straight avenues and 155 parallel streets, speeding the flow of traffic up and down the island and between the rivers. The commissioners deliberately chose not to set aside any special blocks for public buildings or monuments, nor to provide any ceremonial boulevards, grand axes or focal points that might lend themselves to commemorative purposes. In their eyes, nothing should be allowed to interrupt the commercial bustle of the city, the purposeful sweep of vehicles and pedestrians along its streets and sidewalks.
Pierre L'Enfant, plan for Washington, D.C., 1791.
Needless to say, the 1811 plan could not have been more different from the classical grandeur of Europe's capitals, with their imposing array of public edifices. Closer to home — and more to the point — the plan stood in the sharpest possible contrast to Pierre Charles L'Enfant's grandiose Baroque layout for Washington, a scheme that carried the instinct for the monumental to extremes, filling the capital city with scores of radial avenues, ceremonial circles, landscaped malls and countless other sites for monuments and memorials of every sort.
In the years to come, the civic character of Washington would come to be defined, to a great degree, by its collection of marble and granite monuments, fountains and sarcophagi. Their dignified, somber presence — wonderfully successful in creating a revered national shrine — tended (in the opinion of many) to smother or dilute the urban vitality and excitement of the city itself. Its neighbor to the north, by contrast, never paused for reflection. Far from memorializing the past, New Yorkers seemed intent on erasing every trace of it, ruthlessly destroying their most treasured mementos if they happened to get in the way of progress.
In the early 1810's, Federal Hall
— the very building in which George Washington had taken the first presidential oath of office and the federal government had set up shop — turned out to be placed a bit too far into the path of Wall Street's traffic. It was dismantled and sold for scrap. A few decades later, Columbia College decided that its original building on Park Place — which dated to the institution's earliest years before the Revolutionary War and had managed to survive the terrible conflict — sat on land too valuable to be reserved for academic use. The trustees sold off the venerable structure, moved uptown and called in the wreckers. And so it went, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. No touchstone of the past was so precious, so poignant, so meaningful, that it wouldn't be promptly eliminated if it stood in the way of ''the future,'' the city's commercial expansion.
As it came into maturity, to be sure, New York became one of the most monumental cities in the world, especially in terms of its scale. But it was a city whose monumental structures were almost invariably functional in nature: not hollow memorial obelisks like the one in the center of Washington, but towering steel-frame skyscrapers crammed with office workers; not symbolic triumphal arches like that in Paris but soaring suspension bridges carrying floods of traffic and linking the city's boroughs. In New York, as nowhere else, the monumental instinct was put to work and made to pay — and thus seamlessly integrated with the commercial energy and vitality of the rest of the city.
Of monuments and memorials in the traditional sense, though, very little was erected in New York. What little space was available tended to be a result of a single variation in the Commissioners' Plan: a pre-existing path was preserved, as Broadway, and allowed to meander northward, producing a series of triangular ''squares'' where the diagonal street intersected the rectilinear grid. These plots, too small to be developed, were often turned over to commemorative purposes, from the tomb of the Mexican War hero Gen. William J. Worth at 25th Street, to the figure of Father Duffy presiding over Times Square, to the statue of Christopher Columbus perched atop Columbus Circle. Respectable artworks, in some cases, but hardly defining elements of the metropolis.
It was revealing that the only New York environments that did become popular for monuments were, in a sense, not in the city at all: the parks. Their original recreational purpose was soon overlaid (to the deep dismay of park designers like Frederick Law Olmsted) with a secondary function as repositories of civic memory, from Grant's Tomb towering over Riverside Park to the modest tablet in Tompkins Square Park recalling the victims of the General Slocum disaster, from the superb Saint-Gaudens figure of Admiral Farragut in Madison Square to countless lesser statues sprinkled through Central, Bryant and Battery Parks.
The Statue of Liberty embodies New York's aversion to memorials: the city's greatest monument sits in the harbor and was created by the French. [Credit: National Park Service]
In a similar manner, New York's greatest monument
, a towering iron-and-copper structure of entirely symbolic purpose (created, significantly, not by New Yorkers but by the French, whose instinct for the grand allegorical gesture remains unmatched) was placed in the middle of the harbor, where its classical countenance and figure, rising atop a massive, tomblike Egyptian-style base, would always remain isolated from the ordinary flow of city life. Whether intentionally or not, the greenery of the parks and the waters of the harbor both served to buffer these precincts of memory from the intense, day-to-day energies of the city and, along the way, helped preserve the integrity of each.
Indeed, by the start of the 21st century, after 200 years of urban growth, the division in New York between sacred places of memory and the flow of daily life remained as sharp as ever. A number of memorial pavilions and sculptures (for Irish who died in the famine, Jews who died in the Holocaust, policemen who died in the line of duty) had been added to the new blocks of Battery Park City. But the older blocks of the city still offered few, if any, places where a major site of commemoration directly abutted the bustling streets — except perhaps Trinity graveyard on lower Broadway, which existed only because the burial ground predated the financial district that rose around it.
And then came Sept. 11 — a disaster so immense, so searing and so unspeakably tragic that the city's instinctual aversion to the funereal would have to be overcome, and one, furthermore, that would obviously have to be commemorated in situ. Yet as the location and boundaries of the proposed memorial were announced, questions began to be raised — with the deepest possible respect — about how the isolated seven-acre site would affect efforts to restore the urban vitality of the area. In particular, how would it affect the attempt to establish a dense and lively network of streets, to reweave the surrounding communities to each other and to Battery Park City?
Beyond these immediate issues could be heard the echoes of a deep and ancient antipathy. Its resolution — if indeed it is resolved — will represent a significant step in the evolution of the city, as New York, for so long dedicated to life and energy and worldly pursuits, at last accepts and even embraces the mortal, the otherworldly and the eternal.