Seminar-in-a-Book Ponders 9/11
Professor Marshall Berman, one of CUNYs more
venerable hands at local history, describes how the collapse
of the Twin Towers sank in on him that sunny September morning:
I live and work at the other end of town. The radio
told me to turn on TV fast; I was just in time to see the
second plane crash, and then the implosions. My first thought
was, Oh my God, its just like my book! I
meant All That Is Solid Melts into Air, a book I wrote in
the eighties about what it means to be modern.
first Berman was taken aback by the seeming egotism of his
response, but then, after watching more TV and listening reactions
in the streets, he reflected, I heard people talk, and
I saw they were doing just what Id done: making enormous
mythical constructions that would make the whole horrific
event revolve around them. We were like needy sculptors rushing
to produce instant replacements for the giant stabiles that
had stood on World Trade Plaza.
Thus begins Bermans lead-off essay, When Bad Buildings
Happen to Good People, in a just-published collection
from Routledge, After the World Trade Center: Rethinking
New York City. The epigraph Berman chose for his essay,
from the exhausted last speech in King Lear, is perfectly
apt: The weight of this sad time we must obey;/Speak
what we feel, not what we ought to say.
As the March issue of CUNYMatters demonstrated,
the City University boasts countless faculty involved in envisioning
a new and improved Lower Manhattan. So it comes as small surprise
that the two co-editors of After the WTC and nine of its contributors
come from within the CUNY fold.
The volume was conceived by local architect Michael Sorkin,
who directs the Graduate Urban Design Program at City College,
and Sharon Zukin, Broeklundian Professor of Sociology
at Brooklyn College and at the Graduate Center. Sorkins
previous books include Variations on a Theme Park, Local
Code, and Some Assembly Required, while Zukin has authored
Loft Living, Landscapes of Power, and The Cultures of Cities.
As the editors make clear in their introduction, one impetus
for their project was dismay at some early warning signs of
planners getting off on the wrong foot. There has been
a rapid and unseemly return to business as usual by many,
Sorkin and Zukin observe. Encouraged by the media, architects
and planners trotted after the ambulance, ready to try to
get the biggest job of their careers, joined by politicians
and developers eager to thump their chests and proclaim the
importance of rebuilding immediately. Everywhere the bromide
is retailed that to rebuild something bigger, taller, and
better than ever is the only way to respond to terrorists.
Few seem to suggest that our victory can lie only
in a consequence that is positive for all of us, not in reflexive
While acknowledging that we cannot reclaim the WTC site
without respectfully addressing its many ghosts, the
editors conclude with this expression of intention: We
do not want our critical faculties to be subverted by our
sorrow; we do not want the rebuilding of what was to take
the place of building what should be.
Many of the views expressed are bold and feisty, as is aptly
suggested by Bermans pugilistic title for his essay
and by this remark in it: The Twin Towers were purposely
isolated from the downtown street system, and designed to
fit Le Courbusiers dictum We must kill the street.
Similarly coruscating is The Janus Face of Architectural
Terrorism, by Hunter College grad and former teacher
Eric Darton, whose biography of the Twin Towers was
featured in the March issue of CM. Darton begins by noting
some biographical similarities between attacks apparent
mastermind, Mohammed Atta, and the WTCs architect, Minoru
Yamasaki, then goes so far as to call the building of
the WTC itself as a destructive actspecifically, an
attack planned by the citys oligarchs and carried out
with the general consent of its populace.
In her essay on Our World Trade Center, Zukin
calls the WTC a giant construction scheme masquerading
as an urban renewal project, and then observes with
a little acid, We do not just mourn the victims of terror;
we mourn an older city, a bustling and gritty urban center
that didnt have chain stores or welfare reform or companies
that do business just as easily from New Jersey, Trinidad,
or Hyderabad as they do from Lower Manhattan.
Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center,
David Harvey, ends his contribution, Cracks in
the Edifice of the Empire State, with the sobering suggestion
that 9/11 may have signaled the end of the American
century and of New York Citys hegemony at geographical
center of capitalism. New York, he says, has been at
the center of the last 30 years in which finance capital has
come to dominate all the activities of the business world.
In years to come we may learn to see September 11 as the first
shot in bringing that particular world to an end.
Harvey then makes the connection with former such centers:
If so, then New Yorklike Venice, Genoa, Amsterdam,
and London in previous centurieswill undoubtedly survive,
but will have to adjust to a very different status of subservience
rather than mastery.
Another Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate
Center, Neil Smith, casts a highly skeptical eye on
the aftermath behavior of the media and the federal government
in Scales of Terror: The Manufacturing of Nationalism
and the War for U.S. Globalization. Fabricated
ignorance of the world is most powerfully expressed,
Smith observes caustically, in the plaintive American
refrain, Why do they hate us so much?a question
whose framing guarantees a fallacious answer.
Smith also points to press censorship, self-imposed
or otherwise, especially since the beginning of the
Afghanistan war in early October as contributing to a dialectic
of ignorance and national victimization. He notes, for example,
that while the estimate of victims at the WTC has dipped
below 3,000, estimates of innocent casualties in the Afghan
war are now close to 4,000 and rising, although one would
search in vain for this figure in the U.S. media.
Mustafa Bayoumis Letter to a G-Man
explores the local treatment of Arab- Americans by security
forces after the attack. Bayoumi, a professor in the Brooklyn
College English department and co-editor of The Edward
Said Reader, begins his acerbic letter by weighing in
with a heavy irony: his own extended Arabic family began immigrating
to America with the Worlds Fair of 1876. And where did
his familys later arrivers come? To the neighborhood
just south of Ground Zero, centering on Washington Street
above Morris Street.
As co-author of two pertinent books, The Anthropology of
Space and Place and Place Attachment, Setha Low
is ideally cast to explore the plans for a Ground Zero memorial
in her essay Spaces of Reflection, Recovery, and
Resistance. The Graduate Center professor of anthropology
and environmental psychology considers a wide variety of proposals
and offers her own in this final paragraph: I imagine
a complex space with gardens of reflection and recovery, buildings
with memorials and historical documents, as well as places
to work and play, and open plazas for people to come together
to discuss and disagree in a public environmenta post-industrial
plaza where the imagery and imagination of all communities,
children and seniors, workers and retirees, residents and
visitors, will then find public expression.
Another example of perfect casting would be Robert Paaswell
as the author of an essay on A Time for Transportation
Strategy. Here, the director of the University Transportation
Research Center at CCNY and of CUNYs Institute for Urban
Systems expands on the views he offered in the March issue
of CM on priorities to be observed as Lower Manhattans
transportation infrastructure is redesigned.
Paaswell concludes with this challenge: New Yorkers
are used to thinking bigexcept when they want their
institutions to do something. We have the brains, energy,
ideas, and the right technology to rebuild the Lower Manhattan
infrastructure as a working model of how to do it right in
the global city. But if we rebuild the last centurys
systems, we will greatly shortchange ourselves.
As befits a co-author of the Pulitzer-winning Gotham, a history
of the city up to 1898, historian Edwin Burrows lays
out a more expansive perspective in his Manhattan at
War. In this essay, the Brooklyn College historian highlights
previous moments when violence spawned by international trade
and war erupted in the city. His first focus: the Anglo-Dutch
wars for hegemony in America in the 17th century.
The wind-up essay of the collection is New York, New
Deal, by Mike Wallace, Burrows Gotham co-author
and founding director of the Graduate Centers Gotham
History Center. The John Jay professor begins by invoking
the summer of 1814, when New York boiled with activity
under the threat of British invasion. Artisans and patriotic
ladies, lawyers and cartmen, merchants, shopkeepers, and free
people of color felled trees, dug trenches, and hauled
artillery about Brooklyn Heights and Upper Manhattan, while
some 23,000 volunteer militiamen
drilled and paraded.
The attack never came, but Wallace thinks the example of city-wide
mobilization for our common weal fits the post-9/11
city perfectly. He finds another historical analogy even more
attractive, making this modest proposal: Im not
talking about something far greater than the anemic stimulus
packages that have been bruited about. We need, I think,
a new New Deal. Wallace then outlines the remarkable
accomplishments of the Works Progress Administration during
the LaGuardia years.
Though Wallace grants the WPA was not perfect,
he suggests the model might help in the push to replace
tax breaks for corporations and the rich with a massive transfer
of federal monies, under reasonable national guidelines, back
to badly strapped states and localities.