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Ground Zero Now a Center of Disunity

The sense of civility that surrounded Sept. 11 in New York is fading. For activists and relatives of the dead, the site is losing its sanctity.

September 07, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As she stood in a pelting rain, holding a picture of her dead son, Rosemary Cain was ready to block traffic and be arrested at ground zero. She and other activists who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 were protesting plans to build shops and a train station where the twin towers stood.

This was sacred ground, they insisted at last week's demonstration, and New York Gov. George E. Pataki had broken his pledge to protect it from development. "Enough is enough," said Cain, whose firefighter son, George, died in the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower. "Desperate people have to do desperate things, and we've reached that point now in New York."

As the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches, the sense of solemnity and civility that once colored New York's approach to Sept. 11 issues is disappearing.

It has been replaced by partisan bickering and grass-roots discord over issues that would have been unthinkable a year ago, when emotions over the terrorist attacks were still raw and the grieving city's wounds were healing.

Beyond conflicts over ground zero, there are debates over whether President Bush has kept his pledge to provide $21 billion in aid to New York, and over the Environmental Protection Agency's recent admissions that officials misled the public about air quality in Lower Manhattan after the collapse of the towers.

There is also wrangling over the Republican Party's decision to hold its presidential convention in New York next summer. GOP officials insist they will not politicize Sept. 11 during the festivities, which are scheduled just before the third anniversary, but activists who oppose the president contend that the party will exploit the backdrop of ground zero to boost Bush's reelection campaign.

"The intensity of these New York debates has increased in recent months, and it's largely a spinoff of the national debate over Iraq, which has also gotten more partisan," said Fred Siegel, a history professor at Cooper Union College in New York. "This trend is going to continue because when it comes to 9/11, the floodgates have opened."

None of the disputes are new, but they had been greatly muted amid citywide efforts to rally New Yorkers, and by what seemed to be an unspoken agreement among officials to tone down rhetoric on Sept. 11 issues as the city mourned.

Today, New Yorkers remain fearful of terrorism, with 86% saying another attack is possible or likely, according to a New York Daily News poll by Blum and Weprin Associates. But the mood in the city seems more relaxed, either because people are accustomed to the threat or resigned that they can do little about it, pollsters say. And as fears subside, along with the sense of a city under siege, divisiveness has returned.

The attempt by Cain's group to shut down ground zero with an act of civil disobedience, for example, marked a departure for many family activists, whose activities have been largely confined to closed-door meetings with politicians and redevelopment officials. Although police frustrated the protest by closing the gates to the work site before demonstrators arrived, leaders promised to return to the 16-acre construction area this week with new demonstrations.

Pataki, reacting to the activists' criticism, told reporters: "My heart goes out to the families. We're doing everything we can to be as respectful and supportive and understanding of the families' desires while we continue to move forward."

At the center of the dispute is the definition of "footprint," the term used to describe the two unmarked rectangles where the twin towers stood. Pataki has pledged not to allow development on the footprints, but current plans call for reconstruction of a New Jersey PATH train and other infrastructure six to seven stories below ground -- down to the so-called bedrock level.

Family members have said both footprints, reaching down to the bedrock, should be protected because many bodies were found in rubble deep beneath the surface of the World Trade Center. Plans to build below ground in that area were disclosed only recently.

Ground zero is a busy construction site. A new train terminal is rising in the pit, and final adjustments are being made to a blueprint -- approved earlier this year -- calling for massive new office buildings and the world's largest tower. Later this year, officials with the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. will announce the winner of a design competition for a memorial.

Many of the plans have sparked controversy, including debates over whether emergency and rescue workers should have their own memorial. There are also concerns about whether developer Larry Silverstein, who leased the property from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, will have enough funds on hand to complete the commercial development.

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