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The Grief Police

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A rendering of the proposed ground-zero cultural center, the intended home of the IFC.  

But the Take Back the Memorial families long ago decided their need to honor their loved ones at ground zero comes before anything else: “Families,” as Ielpi says, “are number one.”

Now, by scuttling a major part of the redevelopment, they’ve touched off a bitter conflict with other ground-zero stakeholders and sent the already dysfunctional rebuilding process into a tailspin. Large components of the plan are again unsettled. Major donors and fund-raisers have been alienated. And the threat of a family veto—and more charges of anti-Americanism played out on editorial pages—hovers over every component of downtown’s potential rebirth, threatening to scare off any politician who dares cross the families. All of which raises a question: How did a group of 9/11 families go from being seen as the entirely sympathetic victims of perhaps America’s greatest tragedy to being viewed as a self-interested obstructionist force that could hold up ground zero’s progress for years, banishing any sign of cultural life downtown—except, perhaps, for the culture of mourning?

Ironically, says a former top ground-zero official (furious, but like many of the opponents, unwilling to be named), the families may have overplayed their hand. At this point, even the memorial may not get the money it needs to be built. “To be cute about it,” he says, “have the families put the zero in ground zero?”

Take Back the Memorial never really represented all family members. What it did was draw together a number of activists around the anti–International Freedom Center cause. Even before Take Back the Memorial was formed in June, many of its members had already been working for another group called the Coalition of 9/11 Families. That group was formed by Anthony Gardner, a prime mover, along with Ielpi, behind the effort to preserve the Twin Towers’ footprints as landmarks. Many other members of the group had specific causes of their own. Monica Iken had been pushing for a park for the site; Bill Doyle signed on to a class-action lawsuit against nations said to sponsor terror; Howard and Edie Lutnick run the fund for Cantor Fitzgerald’s victim families; Kurt and Diane Horning have pushed to relocate human remains from Fresh Kills; Charles Wolf exposed the vagaries of the Victim Compensation Fund; Rosaleen Tallon has lobbied for a listing of firefighters’ names separate from other victims at the memorial; and Sally Regenhard campaigns for skyscraper safety and famously held a sign reading LIES at the 9/11 Commission hearings.

All along at ground zero, there has been a gapingly wide philosophical divide between those who want to build anew and those who want strictly to memorialize. For every Larry Silverstein, who laid plans for a new fortresslike phalanx of office towers before the fires even went out, there was a Rudy Giuliani, who wants nothing there in perpetuity but a park. The man with the real power downtown, George Pataki, avoided making a choice by setting up a buffer agency, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, that was to select a master planner for the sixteen acres, a designer for the memorial, and institutions for the cultural sites. As the LMDC deliberated, Silverstein aggressively asserted his right to rebuild 10 million square feet of commercial space. Eventually, the governor embraced Daniel Libeskind’s master plan, which found spots on the sixteen acres for the Freedom Tower and four other commercial skyscrapers, a sizable cultural center, a performing-arts venue, and a new PATH terminal. At the center would be a park that would house a 100,000-square-foot memorial to September 11—the site that was eventually designed by Arad with the reflecting pools and underground waterfalls in the outlines of the towers’ footprints. When it came time to find tenants for the cultural building, the LMDC settled on the Drawing Center, which was looking for a larger space, and a new institution born of 9/11 that would celebrate American freedom.

By early 2002, Bernstein had fleshed out his idea for the IFC with Peter Kunhardt, a co-creator of the PBS series Freedom: A History of Us, and then took his case to the governor and Lou Thomson, then the head of the LMDC. Right away, Pataki warmed to the idea, and Bernstein assembled a bi-partisan board of directors including former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, Holocaust Museum director Sara Bloomfield, and Richard Norton Smith, who at different times has headed the Reagan, Ford, Eisenhower, and Hoover presidential libraries.

For a time it seemed that the IFC would be the companion museum to the WTC Memorial designed by Arad. But by the spring of 2004, state officials had promised the memorial a museum of its own, around the Towers’ footprints, and so they ordered the IFC to remove any material about September 11 from its plan. It made things a little awkward, but it still could have held together conceptually: The IFC would follow the quest for freedom in the wake of the tragedy, while the WTC Memorial and Museum would honor those who had been lost and tell the story of what happened that day.


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