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Plans for Permanent WTC Tribute Mired by Mixed Emotions, Politics

Divisions erupt among family members, survivors, architects and officials over what form a memorial to Sept. 11 victims should take.

November 24, 2002|Josh Getlin and Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — It seemed like a dignified proposal to honor the World Trade Center victims: The twin towers of light, which had been a temporary memorial at ground zero earlier this year, would be relighted on Staten Island for the holidays, near a landfill where human remains had been taken.

But the plan was scuttled when critics assailed the idea of a memorial near a garbage dump and others complained it might undercut a Manhattan tribute. Even a temporary proposal can stir up controversy these days, as New Yorkers begin to ponder the more difficult question of designing and building a permanent memorial at the site of last year's terrorist attacks.

With a decision expected next year, deep fault lines have erupted among family members, survivors, community leaders, architects, historians and politicians. All insist that the city must create a fitting memorial, yet this consensus is only skin deep. The larger issues of what the tribute should look like and who it is meant for are caught up in the same debates over memory and human loss that have haunted the development of many other U.S. monuments.

"The process of building a memorial in America may unify people, but it can also tear them apart," said Edward Linenthal, author of "The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City and American Memory."

"Rival groups can form, with different agendas, and what started out to be a simple tribute in public space can quickly turn into a heated political battleground," he said.

In recent years the commemoration of episodes such as the Vietnam War, the Battle of Little Bighorn, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the John F. Kennedy assassination have provoked debates as fierce as those now swirling around the World Trade Center site.

Even memorials that seem noncontroversial today once sparked vitriolic arguments on the history they sought to tell.

America's vision of Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, for example, has evolved since the Civil War's deadliest battle 139 years ago. At first, most of the memorials honored the Union soldiers who died. In the 1890s, as the country's regional wounds began to heal, there was a less regional approach, honoring the dead on both sides. By 1938, an Eternal Peace Light Memorial further emphasized national unity.

But it took some 75 years to reach that point, and the acrimonious debate about a memorial in New York City is heightened by the fact that the traumatic event it seeks to commemorate happened less than 15 months ago. The horror of Sept. 11, 2001, is still fresh for many people, and there has been little time to ponder a larger meaning. Was the attack a story that can be fully told now -- or will it turn out to be a chapter, a mere footnote, in a lengthy U.S. war against international terrorism?

History resists the process of commemoration because it is always in flux, forever being analyzed and reinterpreted, said Mike Wallace, who directs the Gotham Center for New York History. And even though many family members are pushing to build a memorial as soon as possible, he noted, it might be wise for the city to let some time pass, so more perspective can emerge.

New Yorkers may not have that luxury, however, because the drive to build a memorial is now part of an accelerated building plan for the 16-acre site in Lower Manhattan. Before the end of the year, the city will unveil three design proposals for the area, including the location where a memorial could be built. Early next year there will be an international design competition, and a final plan will be selected in late 2003.

Traditionally, the design of U.S. memorials has taken much longer. In Oklahoma City, five years elapsed between the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and the final memorial dedication. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, which sparked intense controversy at first, took seven years to design and build.

In New York, Wallace says, it might take nearly as long to comprehend the larger meanings and lessons of Sept. 11. Even if everyone magically agreed on a design now, he suggests, it might be too soon to proceed.

Still, hundreds of ideas for a permanent memorial have been flooding the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., a government agency formed to guide the site reconstruction. They range from quiet, Zen-like park settings to huge, candlelit piers jutting into the East River that would duplicate the length of each doomed tower. For some, it is way too much, way too soon, to even contemplate.

"We are barely beyond the one-year inundation, the anniversary," said Charles Wolf, who lost a son in the attacks. "And our understanding of this will begin to change in five, 10 or 15 years. Right now we're all still caught up in retribution, in war and other issues, and I wonder if we're being forced to do this too early, with a limited understanding."

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