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The Grief Police


Ground zero, from above, photographed on November 14, 2005.  

Now Ielpi, clearly emboldened, makes it plain that the IFC’s defeat was just the beginning. With him on the twentieth floor this morning is Michael Kuo, whose father, Frederick Kuo Jr., perished in the south tower and who is using his master’s degree in urban planning to help Ielpi with his latest project—the establishment of the Tribute Center, a tiny family-initiated visitor center opening soon, next door to the shrouded Deutsche Bank building. Staring out at a stirring, unobstructed view of the pit, the two men present their long-term wish list for all sixteen acres. First, they and the other members of Take Back the Memorial want a memorial that, unlike the current underground Arad design, would dominate the revived site, an unmissable reminder to all Americans of Ielpi’s and the other families’ darkest day. To that end, Take Back the Memorial would like to commandeer the proposed cultural building, or at least its parcel. If the group is successful, that would inflate the exhibition space for the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum to about four times that of the Holocaust Museum.

That’s not all. Next, Ielpi points out the outline of the Twin Towers’ foundations, which the families are fighting in court to have completely preserved, like a Roman ruin; to win that one, they would have to stop construction on the new Santiago Calatrava–designed PATH Terminal, which broke ground this month. To the northeast is the Gehry performing-arts-center site; some family members are uncomfortable with the idea of, as some have put it, dancing on the graves of victims. Then there’s the surrounding scheme for 600,000 square feet of retail space, which some families would like to screen for taste (no Victoria’s Secret, thank you)—and Larry Silverstein’s five planned commercial skyscrapers, including the Freedom Tower, the tenants of which the families may also have something to say about (Middle Eastern businesses, on ground zero?).

If all goes according to plan, the Take Back the Memorial version of ground zero will be less of a neighborhood and more of a monument—some opponents say a graveyard. Is there any spot where Take Back the Memorial members might be comfortable welcoming another institution—something to complement the Arad memorial, to give rise to new life downtown?

Kuo thinks for a moment, then points to the southeast corner of the site.

“I’d boot one of the commercial towers,” he says. “There’s one planned here that’s so cramped.”

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon left us with a total of 2,933 people recorded dead. Liberally speaking, that could mean that as many as 10,000 or 15,000 parents and children and siblings might be inclined to stay involved in the rebuilding of ground zero—this, not including the thousands of survivors of the attacks, the dozens of first responders who made it out alive, and all their families.

In reality, it’s more like 30. Not 30,000, but 30. It’s only 30 people like Ielpi who have kept their hands in the game by regularly attending planning meetings, helming Websites, filing lawsuits, and fighting political battles—over the security of new skyscrapers, the burial of unidentified remains, the separate placement of the names of firefighters among the lists of the dead, the size of a memorial. When rallies are held—like the one last month to preserve the human remains from the site that are still stored at Fresh Kills—these 30 people draw at most a few hundred.

Of the 30 hard-core activists, just half are part of Take Back the Memorial. It’s these fifteen people who have come to stand, in the eyes of the public, for the views of all 9/11 families—even though many 9/11 family members supported the IFC and other ground-zero development as well. “I personally do not represent the families,” says Paula Grant Berry, who lost her husband, David, on 9/11, and is the only family member to have served on the panel that chose Arad’s memorial design. “No family member can. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Just because you’re a family member doesn’t mean you can’t be manipulative. And just because you’re a family member doesn’t mean you can’t be manipulated by other family members.”

No one, not even the Take Back the Memorial members’ most bitter opponents, denies the families their grief and the substance of at least some of their arguments. But however heartbreaking their stories—and however relevant the concern that future generations remember what happened that September morning—the Take Back the Memorial members are far from the only interested parties at ground zero. Thousands of people who live and work downtown are still waiting for shops and services. Thousands of workers—many of them survivors, too, who saw bodies fall and ran for their lives as the towers collapsed—are pained by the still-gaping pit and are waiting for a new center for international commerce to curb the loss of Wall Street jobs. The entire city, it could be said—the country, even—is still waiting to heal this wound with a bustling neighborhood that builds a future while honoring the past.

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