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Ground Zero: Both Secular And Sacred

When President Obama lays a wreath at ground zero in New York City to honor the nearly 2,800 victims of Sept. 11, he will walk on ground that shelters the remains of most of them.

It is a place sad and sacred to many Americans, and especially New Yorkers.

It is also a place that has been mired in conflict, controversy and inevitable big-city bureaucracy in the decade since Islamic terrorists flew two passenger jets into the twin towers and took them down.

Obama's visit, coming just days after the U.S. military located and killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, has refocused the nation's attention on that tragedy and on what has happened to the 16 city acres where it occurred.

"There were two immense forces at work at ground zero," says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of Searching for God at Ground Zero.

"There was the overwhelming sense of tragedy that demanded a memorial," Martin says. "And the unstoppable force of capitalism that demanded redevelopment."

There are many deeply held and emotional views on whether the intersection of those forces will result in something that appropriately honors the dead — something that reflects what Dennis Smith, author of Report from Ground Zero, called "the strength and spirit of the American personality."

Will the planned memorial and a museum, embedded in a complex of five new skyscrapers with 10.5 million square feet of office space, evoke the same quietude and contemplation of other great American places of remembrance, from Pearl Harbor to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?

Families of the victims will be the first to judge.

The memorial, called Reflecting Absence, is expected to open to the families on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. The design includes two pools, with waterfalls, in the footprint of the trade center towers. They will be lined with brass panels engraved with the names of those who died on Sept. 11, as well as six others killed in a 1993 bombing at the towers.

A museum and visitors center is scheduled to open next year.

Difficult Path

In the years following the attacks, plans were made and scrapped, architects came and went, and work proceeded in fits and starts.

The gaping hole remained in Lower Manhattan where the towers and nearby buildings stood. The site became a place for annual commemorations, but not one for progress.

Last year, the CBS news program 60 Minutes in a piece titled "A National Disgrace" documented the difficulties — from soaring costs and construction slowed by design changes to battles between the property's leaseholder and government agencies and, finally, to the recession.

Last year, a clamorous national debate was fueled by a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque several blocks from ground zero.

Through it all, first responders and victims' families waited. Some of their advocates complained that memorial and museum officials would be paid more than the city's police and fire chiefs, that Mayor Michael Bloomberg put commerce before respect for the dead, and that there seemed to be no end in sight to the project.

Martin, the Jesuit priest whose book chronicled his days at ground zero in the wake of Sept. 11, says he is among those who believe that capitalism has won out over commemoration at the site.

"When I went down there to minister to people, they were working around a mass grave," he says. "That's how I still see it."

For him, the site is a place of suffering, a "kind of Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified," he says.

He would have preferred that the entire area be allowed to become a field of grass with markers for the dead — a cemetery, and not something he characterizes as akin to building a mall on Gettysburg, the Civil War battlefield.

"Americans tend to want to move on so quickly, to plow things under," Martin says. "I think a visible sign of suffering in the middle of the city would not have been such a bad thing."

A Critical Balance

But Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for The New Yorkermagazine, says he finds ground zero a good balance between the commercial and the commemorative.

"I think it was always essential to balance off the ongoing life of the city and its memorial obligations," Goldberger says. "I've never believed that the entire site should be left unbuildable.

"What the terrorists were trying to do is destroy the vibrant commercial life of the city, and to resume that was as important a part of the response as to memorialize the lives of those who died."

He, like Watson, has quibbles with the architecture of the office buildings. Banal and workaday were two of the more generous descriptions. And he has found progress at the site slow, frustrating and "nothing to be proud of."

Goldberger, however, finds the memorial — with its down-flowing pools, trees and engraved names of the victims — the best element in the overall site design, and one that will move visitors from all over.

"I think they will feel two things that are very important: that people whose lives are lost and the tragic event that occurred have been memorialized and respected," he said. "And they will also feel that the life of the city has been healed around it."

He predicts that, in the end, when the long-delayed buildings are built and the memorial is open, the problems will be forgotten and the power of remembrance will be what echoes.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.