Try to Remember

Maya Lin’s Vietnam-veterans memorial in Washington is the most visited monument in America, and it is widely recognized as far and away the most poignant. I still marvel, whenever I’m there, at its blunt elegance. There it sits, dug into the ground and completely invisible to the approaching observer; but in terms of its emotional impact on the visitor, it towers over each of the granite behemoths in its vicinity. It’s brought millions of visitors, this one included, to tears as they descend its ramp and gaze on the wall’s 58,175 names. It’s even changed the way the nation thinks about that war.

It sits on two acres.

Mayor Bloomberg continues to take heat from the 9/11 families and the tabloids for daring to suggest that maybe an appropriate memorial in lower Manhattan can occupy something less than the full sixteen acres the Trade Towers once claimed. He has been roundly criticized for this, and under the circumstances the criticism carries the implication that he’s insensitive to the suffering of the living and insulting to the memory of the dead. It is as if there existed a numerical formula for appropriate grief expression, and if a person doesn’t say that at least twelve acres should be given over to a memorial, he or she is virtually in league with Al Qaeda.

Bloomberg appears to be a decent human being, and a good New Yorker; he was surely as horrified by the attack as anyone and his sympathy undoubtedly goes out to all who suffered a personal loss in it. I make the same assertions in my own behalf. But Bloomberg is right on this one, and I urge him to stand his ground. Size doesn’t matter.

Actually, size often does matter, but in exactly the opposite way from what many people are now thinking. An assumption has taken root over the past ten months that this memorial, whatever it ends up being, has to be big: A big catastrophe demands a big monument. This isn’t so. A big catastrophe has to have a great monument. Greatness is not largeness.

If anything, largeness usually gets in the way of greatness. History suggests to us that size can work up to a certain point, after which the bigger something is, the less likely it is to serve an ennobling and appropriately demotic purpose. There was, ironically, no better proof of the theorem than the Twin Towers themselves. We mourn their demise, of course, but as we consider the future we’d do well to keep in mind not only the awful way they went down but the unsavory political shakedowns that were behind the way they went up. Nobody in New York except three men, two of whom happened to be named Rockefeller (the third was Port Authority chief Austin Tobin), wanted buildings that big.

Skyscraper builders such as those are merely greedy, but when it comes to monuments, it has to be said that the monument builders most interested in size, historically speaking, have chiefly been nasty folks – pharaohs, fascists, and communists. There is, of course, a reason for this: They were all concerned with commemorating their own greatness, and therefore grace and eloquence were not much sought after. The pharaohs did marvelously architecturally, provided you permit yourself to forget who died building those marvels. But think of Speer’s Reichstag, or, my longtime personal favorite, Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. This angled tower encased in spirals of exposed steel was supposed to represent all that was great and modern and world-devouring about communism. And, like communism, it was a mirage of what it was supposed to be. The engineering to create this kinetic structure – certain parts of it were supposed to rotate once a year, other parts once a month, and so on – did not exist then and does not exist today. Besides which, as Robert Hughes once pointed out, there probably was not, in 1919, enough steel in all of Russia to build the thing. So a wooden model was hauled around the streets of Petrograd – right around the time Lenin was giving the kulaks a taste of the real world-devouring nature of communism – and that’s about as far as it got. It was a brilliant, completely mad creation, and a useful example of why size deserves a bad name.

But I digress. The showdown here is only partly aesthetic. It’s also political, and the politics comes down to a quiet battle of wills between Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani over the future look of lower Manhattan (to the extent that either will in the end have much to do with it, which is another question). And, really, over who’s the boss in this town. Bloomberg may be the mayor, but it’s Giuliani who is still the emotional mayor of the families, of the official mourning process. Bloomberg senses that the portion of the city that continues to revolve around 9/11 is a portion that is not, in any full sense, his. It – the funerals, the families’ narratives, that fund he controls – is Giuliani’s.

I suspect this is the real reason Bloomberg didn’t attend a large number of funerals at first. It’s some combination of deference and resentment, and it has once or twice forced odd locutions from his normally cautious mouth. So over the course of the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen both tabloids write stories in which the families criticize Bloomberg for his remark that residents of lower Manhattan “don’t want to live in a memorial.” This was indelicately put, perhaps, but let’s face it: He raises a serious question about the use of densely packed urban space and the relationship of residents to their environment. Then, reliably, Giuliani swoops in, affirming that the memorial has to be “grand” and “soaring.” Rook to King three, check. Bloomberg backs off.

At least that’s the way it plays in the tabs, which by their nature are inclined to be in Rudy’s and the families’ corner and regard Bloomberg’s position as apostasy (although, after their full week celebrating the life of John Gotti, I’m disinclined to accept moral instruction from the likes of them). In the actual world, it looks like the Bloomberg position may end up winning the day. Most of the players involved in lower-Manhattan redevelopment are agreed that the memorial can’t take up the whole site. Giuliani is just about the only major public figure still insisting on that. So it will be interesting to see, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation releases its proposal and it devotes say, five acres to a memorial, how Rudy reacts, and whether he tries to foment public agitation. And then it will be interesting to see if he still has the juice.

In the meantime, the rest of us ought to be able to have a reasonable dialogue about all this. Bloomberg, and all of us, want greatness; at the same time, we all fear that New York is just too much a stew pot of furiously competing interests to produce anything better than mediocrity. This, as we all secretly know, is guaranteed to happen if the quality of the public discussion doesn’t improve, and it doesn’t help the conversation to have people’s patriotism measured in hectares.


Try to Remember