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.
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.
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.
The IFC seemed to be on its way to reality until early this year, when the political terrain at ground zero began to shift. Larry Silverstein’s Freedom Tower was in disarray, plagued by security concerns and the sense that there was simply no market for companies to move to ground zero at the prices he planned to charge. The governor was suddenly calling for a complete redesign. At about the same time, Kevin Rampe, the LMDC president who had been the families’ point man in the redevelopment process, left for a job in the private sector. Any stakeholder could clearly see that the entire situation was again in play. Then, on May 16, three days before the governor unveiled the design for the glass building that would house the IFC, the LMDC held an emergency meeting of its Family Advisory Board to discuss its plans for what many family members had at that point known only as the “cultural building.”
The IFC’s leaders insist their museum’s plans had been public for a year, but the family members who came to this meeting, including Ielpi, Kuo, and Iken, claim to have been dismayed. For starters, the IFC seemed much further along in the planning process than was the memorial. Not only that, but the IFC was to be in the glorious aboveground cultural building, designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, while the Arad memorial was planned for belowground—around the footprints and out of sight. Many of the family members had campaigned to preserve those footprints; now they worried no one would get past the IFC to visit them. The families already knew Larry Silverstein was getting 10 million square feet for businesses and the Port Authority was getting 600,000 square feet for shopping; now they learned that the cultural building was getting 250,000 square feet, while the memorial was getting just 100,000.
“When you see how that Snøhetta building looks on a big screen next to the memorial, it really takes away from the memorial,” Monica Iken says. “That’s when we were like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not what we wanted. I mean, first of all, you’re encroaching on our memorial. Our memorial needs to stand alone. And then you’re banking on our visitors to substantiate your institution going forward,’ because they’re gonna charge money to get in there. And that’s when the chaos began.”
The families had found a cause. What they needed next was a plan of action. Within weeks, a powerful tool was handed to them on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Depending on whom you talk to, Debra Burlingame is a bereaved Westchester housewife who single-handedly exposed plans to turn ground zero into a left-wing propaganda mill or a right-wing interloper who mutated ground zero into a conservative battleground. In either case, the 51-year-old flight attendant turned attorney and Court TV producer, whose brother Charles “Chic” Burlingame III was the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, is known now as a cable-TV talking head and Journal opinion writer. Burlingame describes herself as a lifelong Democrat, but after 9/11 she found herself in direct opposition to the “Jersey Girls” who inspired the 9/11 Commission. She blasted the commissioners for being too critical of the Bush administration and not critical enough of Al Qaeda, and she was a featured speaker at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. But she hadn’t been involved in ground zero until the end of last year, when she was tapped along with Ielpi and Iken for the board of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, the nonprofit that will raise money for and plan the Arad memorial and museum.
The families tapped into culture politics. This was no longer just a local development fight. Now it was a struggle between blue-collar American values and liberal elites.
A few family activists with long track records at ground zero were wary of Burlingame; she was new to the arena and had political baggage. But they were charmed by her in person; she was cordial and appeared to listen closely to everyone she met. On June 2, Burlingame, who declined to be interviewed for this story, paid a visit to Bernstein, Kunhardt, and the IFC’s president, Dick Tofel, at Bernstein’s offices in Chelsea Piers. Ielpi was there, too. At that meeting, she told no one that she had already handed in a draft of her op-ed about the IFC to the Journal. “It was clear she was unhappy with what we were doing,” Tofel remembers. “But it was very collegial. At the end, she handed out pictures of her brother as a boy, holding a model plane. We left knowing we had these two people on the board who had issues, but we were going to talk.”
Even Burlingame’s fellow family activists weren’t expecting the line of argument she introduced in her June 8 Journal op-ed, “The Ground Zero Heist.” The column opened with a scene of three wounded Marines visiting ground zero on Memorial Day weekend; then Burlingame declared that by the time a real 9/11 memorial is finished, it won’t be the tribute that these Marines would want but instead “a slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world.” Although the IFC was supposedly about freedom, she wrote, “do not be fooled into thinking that their idea of freedom is the same as those of the Marines.” She noted the irony of the LMDC’s giving millions of dollars to “the very same people who consider the post-9/11 provisions of the Patriot Act more dangerous than the terrorists.” She made much of the presence on the IFC board of Columbia historian Eric Foner, whom she described as “radical-left”; she lambasted Tom Bernstein for being on the board of Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), which had filed suit to stop the U.S. torture of prisoners; and she suggested that the museum would dwell more on the genocide of Native Americans than it would on 9/11 (a claim the IFC emphatically denied). “Ground zero has been stolen, right from under our noses,” she concluded. “How do we get it back?”
Bernstein didn’t know what to think when he read the piece, except that it was clear that Burlingame had a far more ambitious agenda than he had realized. The irony, of course, was that until that editorial, the IFC was thought of as too friendly to George W. Bush, and not really about anything. “It had nothing to do with the substance of what we do, and she knew it,” Bernstein says. “She’d met with us. We really had engaged people on both sides of the aisle.” He had told her, he says, about how he’d enlisted John Bridgeland, who ran the USA Freedom Corps for George Bush after September 11, to form a bi-partisan group to develop a public-service component to the museum. “I was savaged for my connections to Human Rights First,” he continues. “But the first cases both Bridgeland and I handled in our legal careers were political-asylum cases. That’s all this museum was supposed to be about—fleeing oppression and coming to America with nothing but your ideals. Burlingame knew that, but she had no interest in the truth.”
Where the families had once simply laid claim to the moral high ground, Burlingame was showing them a new way: She’d tapped into culture politics, artfully associating the IFC with liberal intellectuals, the antiwar movement, and the p.c. police. This was no longer just a local development fight. Now it was a struggle between down-home blue-collar American values and the self-loathing predilections of the liberal cultural elites—a red-state-blue-state battle. “She articulated the strategy,” says Charlie Wolf, “and we all participated in it, to let the public know about it so it would become a political issue.”
Overnight, the families became a conservative cause célèbre, and Take Back the Memorial was formally established. From the start, the group had right-wing connections. Its Website, takebackthememorial.org, was created by Robert D. Shurbet, a Californian who also runs a conservative blog called Lime Shurbet; this past September, Lime Shurbet chided Tom DeLay for not being enough of a fiscal conservative. Early takebackthememorial.org postings lambasted IFC advisory board member Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and supporter George Soros. Next came family-member appearances on The O’Reilly Factor, Fox & Friends, and Inside Edition, designed to float speculation about the IFC’s supposed secret agenda. The group met in person at times but mostly by conference call, taking hours to strategize. What was once a plea to remember September 11 became a crusade to save the memorial from interlopers; anyone who was for the IFC was, by extension, against the families, and anyone against the families was against America.
The IFC’s responses were mostly hapless. When Bernstein and Dick Tofel appointed an advisory board of supportive family members, including Paula Grant Berry, Take Back the Memorial simply suggested these family members had sold out. When Tofel wrote a rebuttal to Burlingame in the Journal, he refused to refute her point by point, which only opened the door for the IFC’s foes to brand him a dissembler. Again, part of the problem was that the IFC’s mission still seemed so nebulous. When Tofel appeared on the Fox News Channel, Neil Cavuto surprised him by asking if the museum would contain stories about atrocities. Tofel’s answer—“Atrocities is such a loaded word”—did little to satisfy Burlingame and her colleagues.
In the end, there may have been no defense. Bernstein and Tofel knew the IFC wasn’t left wing, but how can you prove a negative? “My sense of that blame-America thing was that it’s McCarthyistic,” Tofel says. “It does no more good to say you haven’t blamed America than it would to say you haven’t beaten your wife.”
It didn’t take long for anything associated with the IFC to become radioactive. On June 24, the Daily News ran a piece suggesting that the Drawing Center, which was to be housed in the same building as the IFC, would run exhibits by artists who were in the blame-America crowd; the Drawing Center’s leaders publicly denied it and privately started searching elsewhere for space. Within weeks, Take Back the Memorial called on all corporate funders to withhold donations from the World Trade Center Memorial until the IFC was ejected, and the papers picked up the story. Although Mike Bloomberg and LMDC chairman John Whitehead had voiced their support for the IFC on June 20, the governor remained silent.
It was always hard to know what Pataki was thinking. As the person who called the shots at ground zero, the official who essentially controlled the LMDC, he was the man who mattered most. Yet throughout the redevelopment, the governor has had a tendency to sit on the sidelines and wait for events to unfold, form a position only when the politically expedient option becomes clear, and then change position unannounced as necessary. When the public sought a plan for ground zero, he appointed the LMDC, let it plan and deliberate, then undermined the group whenever it suited him. He selected Libeskind as master planner when the LMDC was leaning toward a more bold and less commercially minded design, then forced him to collaborate with Childs when Larry Silverstein asserted his rights as leaseholder and demanded a more rentable design. He forced the Port Authority (which owns the sixteen acres, and which he also controls) to preserve the footprints when activists like Ielpi made a fuss. Then he rushed the Freedom Tower into a groundbreaking on July 4, 2004, in time for the Republican convention.
At one point not long ago, Pataki obviously had seen the cultural institutions as a major part of his legacy—a feather in his cap that might prove useful in a future run for national office. Last November, in a speech to the Association for a Better New York about the future of lower Manhattan, he even borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union playbook by singling out a special guest in the audience—Amchok Thubten, a Tibetan monk who fled to America after peaceful political protest subjected him to years of brutal imprisonment—as a way of basking in the monk’s glow and illustrating the glories of the IFC. “Thank you for making the International Freedom Center, and your dream of freedom, a reality,” the governor said, and the audience of business leaders applauded.
“The Take Back the Memorial families,” says one 9/11 widow who supported the Freedom Center, “don’t differentiatebetween being heard and being obeyed.”
But that was November. Now, in June, Take Back the Memorial was demonstrating at ground zero, and Michael Burke, whose brother Billy was a firefighter, was saying, “Nobody is coming to this place to learn about Ukraine democracy or to be inspired by the courage of Tibetan monks. They’re coming for September 11.” On June 24—the same day of the Daily News Drawing Center exposé—Pataki broke his silence by compelling the IFC to take an oath of patriotism. “We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York, or freedom—or denigrates the sacrifice and courage that the heroes showed on 9/11,” Pataki said. He went on to demand “total respect for the sanctity of that site.”
The request was clearly the first step in a long, slow public hanging. “It was instantly clear to all of us that we would never be able to give the governor the full range of assurances that he sought,” Tofel remembers. On the other hand, Pataki hadn’t officially killed the IFC, so Tofel and Bernstein felt compelled to try to save it. On July 6, the IFC sent Pataki a letter with the assurances he had sought. There was no response. Next, Pataki’s people asked the IFC to file a longer report on the museum in 45 days. But once they did, the IFC was told privately that the governor’s chief of staff, John Cahill, hadn’t even read it. One IFC source says he was told, off the record, that the governor was biding his time.
Burlingame and Bernstein still had one thing in common: They were both on the board of the WTC Memorial Foundation. At a board meeting in mid-July, they saw one another for the first time since Burlingame had written her editorial. Seizing the moment, Bernstein tried to explain to Burlingame that he wanted what the families wanted—for the memories of their loved ones to live on forever—and that one way to achieve that goal was with a museum that tied their memory to the ideals of the society in which they lived. She was unmoved: Two months later, she was quoted in the Post speculating wildly again about the IFC. “Will we see pictures of people in the West Bank celebrating the attack?” she said.
As the summer went on, the IFC started running out of friends. “Nobody wanted to get crosswise with these people,” one source close to the rebuilding effort says, “because they were starting to get scared.” Labor unions, including the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, sided against the IFC. A Web petition garnered thousands of anti-IFC signatures. The Post ran 26 different editorials against it—one roughly every three days for months. Three New York congressmen called for a House probe of $2.7 billion in federal funding for ground zero in order to ensure nothing went to the IFC. Privately, the IFC was pressured to consider moving—first to the old Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street, across from the New York Stock Exchange; then, almost halfheartedly, to the Freedom Tower, though Larry Silverstein hadn’t even been consulted.
By September 22, when the IFC submitted its final report to the LMDC, Take Back the Memorial had become a movement. The IFC report was never considered. Two days later, Hillary Clinton stepped into the fray, announcing, in a Post exclusive, that family members had persuaded her to pull her support. Rudy Giuliani chimed in against the IFC soon after. Pataki’s position was now a foregone conclusion. On September 28, days before the LMDC was expected to discuss the IFC, the governor announced the IFC would be not be in the cultural center, and the IFC declared itself out of business.
As angry as the Take Back the Memorial families had been at the IFC, the center’s supporters were now equally furious with the Take Back the Memorial families. Facing a possible mutiny by angry board members, the chairman of the LMDC, John Whitehead, who also chairs the WTC Memorial Foundation, had to be judicious in his reaction, yet his rage was palpable. “Regrettable and dangerous rhetoric was thrown about irresponsibly,” he said at the time. “The names of people of good character and goodwill were unacceptably dragged through the mud.” LMDC board member Roland Betts, Bernstein’s partner in Chelsea Piers and another friend of the president’s, resigned from the board within days. “What was attacked here was our country, our ideals, our system,” Betts said in an open meeting. “And it was attacked at that location. What better place to be able to talk about these things?” What bothered him just as much was the way the families did a number on the LMDC. “It is hard for us to negotiate and settle the many issues that will come before us in the months ahead,” he said, “unless we are seen by others to have the necessary ability to make the decisions.”
The families had alienated others, too. In August, Barbara Walters left the WTC Memorial Foundation board, blaming her departure on the controversy. But the most painful departure was Agnes Gund, the philanthropist and former Museum of Modern Art president who, after David Rockefeller, can lend more legitimacy to a charitable cause than anyone in New York. “I fear,” Gund wrote in her September 29 resignation letter to Whitehead, “that certain vocal family members, who as near as I can tell do not represent a majority of anything, have taken over the process and are uninterested entirely in the needs of the people who actually live and work in lower Manhattan.”
Soon, the media began talking about the death of culture at ground zero. Some who hadn’t been following the controversy became after-the-fact supporters of the IFC. The public perception of the families began to shift from victims to obstructionists.
Burlingame, who was by some accounts overwhelmed by the attention, reveled in her new position as gadfly. “Everything I’ve done in my life has prepared me for this,” she told the Times. “My acting made me comfortable with public speaking. Seven years as a flight attendant helped me understand what went on inside those planes. My legal background has been helpful all along, and it’s going to be helpful when they try to kick me off the board!” What she loved most about the battle, she told the Journal, was the sense of purpose it gave her. “Someone asked me, ‘Have we become complacent? Do you miss 9/11, when people had unity?’ And I say, ‘No, no, no. What I miss is the anger. And the clarity. That’s what I miss.’ ”
If other Take Back the Memorial members had similarly personal motivations, they felt no need to apologize for them. “Everything has been done to us,” says Diane Horning, “starting with the death of loved ones.”
“Every piece of that memorial, we had to fight for—every little thing!” says Monica Iken. “And until people really understand what that means and how that feels, they have no concept.”
“Were we asking for something radical?” Ielpi says. “Were we asking for something ugly? All we were asking for is something to mark the darkest day in our history.”The untold story of Take Back the Memorial may be that a silent majority of family members disagreed with the decision to oppose the IFC, yet were shouted down by Burlingame and the other members of her group. “I thought what happened with the Freedom Center last summer reeked of McCarthyism,” says Chris Burke, founder of Tuesday’s Children, which provides social services to 1,100 9/11 families; his brother worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. “Look, we all know how these things work. When you throw a couple 9/11 families on a soapbox talking about justifying terrorism and blaming America, the New York Post is going to print that. These are 9/11 family members who are actively doing a disservice to 9/11 families. There is this fatigue about 9/11 now, thanks to these families who continually complain, We were promised this, we were promised that. You know what? Nine-eleven is not just about the families.”
“I believe our moral authority should not allow us to create something that the people of New York will forever hate—something that’s totally taking the life out of their neighborhood,” says Tom Rogér, whose daughter Jean was an attendant on Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower, and who joined the IFC’s family-advisory board over the summer. “My daughter didn’t live there. She died there. Nine-eleven for me doesn’t define my daughter’s life. She had 24 wonderful years before that. I don’t need to make the memorial all about her death.”
“The problem with the Take Back the Memorial families,” says Nikki Stern, a former director of a victims’ group called Families of September 11 who lost her husband, James Potorti, an analyst at Marsh & McLennan, “is they don’t differentiate between being heard and being obeyed.”
George Pataki and Hillary Clinton are both most likely running for president in 2008, of course, which is probably all you need to know about why they supported Take Back the Memorial. The way Burlingame played the game, she made it impossible for a politician seeking national office to support the IFC. What future presidential nominee wants to explain why he or she abandoned the victims of 9/11 in their hour of need—in deference to a blue-state museum?
Mike Bloomberg—without clear presidential ambitions—saw a political opportunity in coming out against Take Back the Memorial. After the IFC’s defeat, and after four years of virtual silence about ground zero, the mayor spoke freely about the danger of the families’ veto power and suggested that two of Larry Silverstein’s commercial towers be built earlier and used for other purposes, like housing or a hotel. Not that he needed to pad his twenty-point lead in his bid for reelection, but the moves sent the signal that he cared about what was right for New York, not what was politically expedient. (Privately, some members of his administration saw the move as political anyway. “Think about what was defeated here,” says one official. “It was a museum to freedom! What could you possibly find in their proposal that was objectionable?”)
Unless he cuts a personal check, even our billionaire mayor can’t resolve the epic problems the site now faces. The Freedom Tower remains tenantless, and Silverstein’s nearly complete 7 World Trade Center has just two lessees. The LMDC is politically compromised after Pataki’s latest override (last week, in dueling bids to gain greater control over the future of ground zero, Blooomberg named four top members of his administration to the LMDC board, and Pataki responded by appointing two top members of his administration). The Gehry performing-arts center, despite a $50 million start-up grant, has no fund-raising in place. Who or what will occupy the cultural building is unclear, and its design is being reconsidered.
Fund-raising for the Arad memorial and museum, meanwhile, is months behind schedule. “Many of our major funders were corporations,” says Gretchen Dykstra, the memorial-foundation head, “and they didn’t want to be involved in controversy.” But without another tent-pole institution like the IFC, there is less of a potential draw for large-scale corporate gifts: It’s impossible to think of anything in the memorial blazing the name of a corporate sponsor (the American Express Gallery of Heroes?). Making matters worse, estimated construction costs for the memorial and museum have since increased from $500 million to $800 million, and that isn’t even counting the approximately $500 million the complex would need for an operating endowment.
Then there’s the matter of how to handle the families. If they could stop one part of the plan so effectively, what’s to say they can’t stop another? In fact, that’s just what they plan to do. Lawsuits are already in motion over the remains at Fresh Kills, courtesy of Diane and Kurt Horning, and the PATH tracks that infringe on part of the footprints, via plaintiff Anthony Gardner. “They want every square inch of this for the PATH and their office space,” says Gardner, who lost his brother Harvey. Burlingame has made noise in the press about watching the shape of retail development. As for the cultural center, the group will be pressing the LMDC to hand over the Snøhetta building site so that the WTC Memorial and Museum can handle some 25 million visitors a year—five times that of the Statue of Liberty—though professionals know that interest dies down for even blockbuster memorials after a few years. And Edie Lutnick, Anthony Gardner, and Bill Doyle have applied with two others as a bloc to be board members of the WTC Memorial Foundation, even though there are seven family members on the board already. They believe the current design needs major alterations, from increasing the number of entrance ramps to providing access to bedrock. Gretchen Dykstra says they’re welcome to apply, but delicately adds she is looking for geographic and international diversity on the board, not to mention the ability to fund-raise.
Will the families ever be satisfied? “I could write about 1,000 books about stories that should be told,” says Bill Doyle. “These stories could probably take up the entire sixteen-acre site. And to condense it all into a tiny room in a small underground museum? I don’t think there’s a 9/11 person out there who wouldn’t want all sixteen acres.”
To the extent that the state has developed a strategy for coping with the families, it appears to be one of containment. Pataki signaled the new tactic in September when he emphasized the sanctity of what he called the “memorial quadrant,” a six-acre portion of the site that encompasses the Arad memorial and museum and the cultural building. His goal seems to be to placate the families by giving them influence over just those six acres—though no one in power will say as much. “I would say we have more definition now than we did prior to this controversy regarding the memorial quadrant,” says Stefan Pryor, Kevin Rampe’s successor as LMDC president.
It’s difficult to believe that fifteen people could one day control the entire site, assuring that nothing but a memorial gets built. Then again, only a fool would underestimate those who have already lost so much and are willing to give up even more. The families, in a sense, have nothing left to lose.
“You’re dealing with a whole lot of people whose loved ones have been vaporized,” Take Back the Memorial member Charlie Wolf says over lunch in midtown.
Middle-aged with dark, soulful eyes, Wolf is proud of what he’s accomplished since September 11. He’s campaigned successfully to fix the victims’ fund, joined a lawsuit to force the Port Authority to adhere to the city’s building codes, demonstrated in Washington to persuade the White House to follow the 9/11 Commission recommendations, and, of course, campaigned against the IFC. “For me, the work has been healing,” he says.
But when he comes to the subject of his own loss, he slows down and seems suddenly heavier. Katherine worked for an insurance broker on the 97th floor of Tower One. They had been married for twelve years.
“I absolutely hate talking about it,” he says. “It is emotionally draining. Even if you chose not to be an activist, you’d still turn on the TV and see those fucking planes going into the towers. Every time you get caught in airport security, it tears on you.”
Soon enough, he’s in tears.
“I do not have anything back,” he says. “I do not have a grave for my wife. The thing that’s kept me involved is, yeah, I miss my wife. I still miss my wife.”
See also: Last Chance for 9/11 Memorials to Claim a Piece of the World Trade Center