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The Grief Police

No one says the 9/11 families aren’t entitled to their pain. But should a small handful of them have the power to reshape ground zero?


Some of the family members of 9/11 victims who banded together to oppose the International Freedom Center: from left, Monica Iken, Charles Wolf, Sally Regenhard, Lee Ielpi, and Michael Kuo.  

Even now, four years later, Lee Ielpi has the melancholic demeanor of a man sifting through rubble. Ielpi, a retired firefighter whose son Jonathan, a firefighter too, vanished in the south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, is sitting in his office on the twentieth floor of the Century 21 building at the eastern edge of ground zero. Three months to the day into the recovery effort, Ielpi carried his son’s remains from the pit and returned right away to keep looking for others. Now Ielpi has turned honoring the memory of 9/11 victims into a full-time job.

Working out of his Cortlandt Street office, which is partly paid for by a charitable group, he sits on the boards of two redevelopment organizations and regularly leads prominent visitors on tours of the site, recounting the awful events of that day and ticking off statistics he long ago committed to memory: 20,000 body parts recovered after the attacks; only 292 intact bodies found, including Jonathan’s. His natural gravitas has made him one of the media’s go-to experts among victims’ family members; whenever a dose of moral clarity is needed on virtually any issue relating to the tragedy, it seems, he gets a call. Ielpi has railed against the tastelessness of Paul McCartney’s shilling his single inspired by the tragedies of that day, decried the vulgarity of eBay’s peddling sculptures made of steel from the towers, taken umbrage at the Saudi royal family’s offer to donate a racehorse to the victims’ families, scolded the president for not appearing at the site for the annual reading of names, and fumed openly at those who wanted to protest the Iraq war on the streets of Manhattan. Along the way, he’s helped place the name of his son on several different memorials on Long Island. Yet all the while, Ielpi was keeping his eyes on the prize: ground zero.

Ielpi is a member of Take Back the Memorial, an alliance of family members that recently succeeded, after a loud and heated public battle, in derailing the International Freedom Center. Inspired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the IFC was meant to be a companion piece to the proposed World Trade Center Memorial and Museum—the Michael Arad–designed complex with the immense twin reflecting pools intended to honor those killed on 9/11. The IFC would have been housed in a shimmering glass cultural center along the eastern edge of ground zero, sharing 250,000 square feet of space with the Drawing Center, a visual-arts museum that, like the IFC, was eventually pressured off the site. Just to the north will be a Frank Gehry–designed performing-arts center and the David Childs and Daniel Libeskind Freedom Tower.

Where the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum is meant to honor 9/11 victims, the IFC’s purpose was supposed to be broader. The IFC was the brainchild of Tom Bernstein, a friend of George W. Bush’s and a partner in the Chelsea Piers complex who has made much of his fortune investing in movies. Bernstein, who is also on the board of the Holocaust Museum, came up with the idea in late 2001. He and the rest of the IFC’s planners didn’t initially articulate exactly what the museum would be, but their plans included a gallery devoted to the world’s sympathetic response to the attacks, an exhibition on freedom-related political documents like the Declaration of Independence, and a salute to freedom fighters around the world. All of this was supposed to counter the terrorists’ notion of America as an immoral, nihilistic society: Freedom would be put forward as the goal that all civilizations should aspire to, and the museum, built at this most symbolic of spots, would stand as a shining symbol of that ideal.

What Bernstein and his IFC colleagues hadn’t counted on was the families. Ielpi and other family activists had long ago come to believe that the memorial for the September 11 victims should be much larger and more prominent than ground-zero developers had envisioned. They saw the IFC as competition—not just for land but for the public’s attention and, not least, charitable donations. In private meetings, they argued that the IFC would take the emphasis away from what happened to their loved ones—and would even use some of the artifacts from the disaster, like Fritz Koenig’s Sphere sculpture from the Twin Towers’ plaza, that they wanted for their memorial. The IFC was meant to be aboveground, the memorial below; the families complained that visitors to ground zero would be distracted by the IFC and its street-level cultural center before they descended to the memorial.

When their lobbying didn’t succeed, they took the battle to another level. In June, a Wall Street Journal op-ed by a 9/11 family member named Debra Burlingame all but accused the IFC of being a left-wing Trojan horse, suggesting that intellectual elites were trying to sneak a blame-America museum onto sacred ground. Under the Take Back the Memorial banner, the family members made the rounds on cable talk shows, appeared before Congress, and were cheered on by right-wing blogs. The PR battle was fought until September, when Governor George Pataki, who had once called for an array of cultural institutions to rise from the ashes, yanked the IFC from the plan for downtown that he largely controls. Burlingame and Take Back the Memorial were victorious.

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