Democracy fails at Ground Zero.

Democracy fails at Ground Zero.

Democracy fails at Ground Zero.

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Jan. 15 2003 12:14 PM

Bring It On

In search of democracy at Ground Zero.

In a formulation that can charitably be described as disingenuous, Lou Thomson, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., announced that the seven new proposals for the World Trade Center site presented in late December "were forged in a democratic process." If only it were so: Deliberations over the future of Ground Zero have become progressively less democratic as layer after layer of bureaucracy has been inserted between the citizens of New York and the final decision about the site—and as the decision-making process itself becomes more and more opaque.


From the start, the most powerful players have been no friends of democracy: the Port Authority (an agency of Olympian detachment from public control); its largest lessor, Larry Silverstein (holder of a 99-year lease, whose priority is maxing out new office and commercial space); and the politically appointed and epicene LMDC, whose main strategy seems to be to swan for public consumption while the real deal is lined up behind closed doors. This noodling has inspired the new projects: After six misbegotten and conceptually identical office schemes commissioned by the LMDC were presented in July and universally derided, the embarrassed LMDC announced that it would conduct what has widely been misrepresented as a "competition" to elicit "visionary" architectural proposals. The LMDC duly appointed an outside "jury" to choose six new teams that, as it turned out, just happened to include the architects already working for Larry Silverstein; a group of architects heavily promoted by the New York Times; and the architects that had been introduced via the back door by the LMDC for the first go-round.

A greater number of alternatives is crucial to a democratic decision about the future of Ground Zero. But the powers in charge are using the illusion of additional choice to cover up a fundamental narrowing of options. The problem isn't simply that there will be neither formal adjudication among—nor the slightest responsibility to—any idea broached by the "competitors." It's that virtually every scheme submitted serves to legitimize an even more primary lack of choice: Like their predecessors, the new plans are strategies for locating vast amounts of office and retail space on or near the site. Excluded from each (in much the same way survivor representatives were excluded from the board of the LMDC) is the idea that commercial activity is not the invariable default; that designs might come from people other than those carefully filtered by the LMDC (or produced in secrecy by the Port Authority or the lessor); and that any plan must be driven by a memorial.

The LMDC offers but one wan and bogus argument for the democracy of its MO: that they have "listened" to the people. But their tin ears are cocked in the manner of advertising focus groups or those Saudi princes who once a month receive lines of mendicants seeking arbitrary boons. The LMDC listens without obligation—a style of decision-making that asks people to place their faith in its own finesse. Indeed, this authoritarian system has been set up precisely to thwart the deliberative process that informs virtually all other planning decisions in the city. The actor with no role to play downtown—the New York City Planning Commission—is the only one with an existing process for public participation and review.

American democracy is not direct but representative. Such representation is least responsive when it is most attenuated. Downtown, decisions are being made on behalf of the commonwealth by the appointees of the appointees of the appointees of elected officials. Perhaps it is time for a simpler strategy: Let the people decide themselves. To be sure, planning, architecture, and democracy are difficult bedfellows—no amount of public participation can substitute for either artistic genius or genuine expertise—but rebuilding Ground Zero is too important to the collective life and identity of New York to be relegated to the bottom-line, let's-make-a-deal mentality now driving it. While direct democracy is, in general, a terrible way to plan, mainly yielding the lowest common denominator, this is a special case. It is crucial to recognize that Sept. 11 was an event; it happened to all of us, not to buildings or businesses or an area downtown. The extraordinariness of this fact must be acknowledged by what gets done at Ground Zero. The process of deciding becomes, in this instance, far more important than the efficiency, profitability, or even the aesthetics of whatever is finally built.

The first step will be to ask the public about its desires for Ground Zero—in a way that begins with all options on the table. The duty of a democratic politics includes the education of its citizenship, the necessary information for informed debate. A good beginning would be a completely open process for soliciting proposals, one in which anyone with an idea for the site would be given an opportunity and a place to be seen and heard. The crowds that now gather in the Winter Garden, where the new schemes are on display, testify both to the strength of feeling and the depth of interest in the future of the site—and to the public's ability to assimilate architectural and planning ideas. But why just these choices? Why must the LMDC be interposed as gatekeeper, narrowing possibilities instead of helping us to look at every idea that might (or might not) work on the site? Why can't we have an open invitation to anyone with a cogently drawn plan or intelligibly written text to post it at the Javits Center or the Winter Garden for a month or two in order to draw out the conversation fully?

This profusion of ideas (and there are thousands out there) would allow the public to join around a program, to make known its wants, in much the way that such an evanescent coalescence propelled the Towers of Light memorial into being last year. An open process would also allow the public to make fiscal decisions properly its own: to decide how to pay for the memorial, how to compensate stakeholders, if necessary, and what improvements to transit infrastructure to include. Then, and only then, can there be a genuine competition for the entire site. And would it be completely unreasonable for the public to choose the winner? Indeed, the only collectivity that has shown any wisdom during this corrupt and depressing process has been the public, in its decisive rejection of the mediocre work of our mediocre public servants and private entrepreneurs and in its current unwillingness to be distracted by the dazzle of new schemes which simply re-clad the same old program.

The real riposte to terror is an excess of democracy, a flamboyant participation. Although it's more than improbable—and happily so—that the public will agree unanimously on a solution, the conversation is guaranteed to yield a more forceful and inventive solution than anything we have seen thus far. The process of arriving at the decision would be its own memorial.

Michael Sorkin, an architect and writer, is the director of the graduate program in urban design at the City College of New York.