A decade of turmoil

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 7, 2011

SAMUEL ZIPP
THE TOWERS

Zipp, a professor of American Studies and Urban Studies at Brown University, lived in New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks and watched the towers burn from his roof in Brooklyn. The fate of the site, he says, feels personal. But it is also of professional concern.

Zipp has focused, lately, on urban renewal in post-World War II Manhattan. And the World Trade Center, he tells me, was a sort of apotheosis of that project. It wiped out an entire neighborhood, the Lower West Side, and struck a final blow at the "fortuitous adjacency" of traditional urban living — the side-by-side press of people and purposes of all kinds.

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His concern, he says, is that the Freedom Tower planned for the site will only repeat the mistake. And there's an irony here, he suggests. The new building could, in a way, do the work of Al Qaeda. The terrorist group, after all, is violently opposed to the sort of intermingling and messy tolerance — the fortuitous adjacency — that the Freedom Tower would stamp out.

WAS THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, THEN THE TWO TALLEST BUILDINGS IN THE WORLD, AN EXPRESSION OF AMERICAN POWER, HUBRIS, OR SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY? Their blank façades, their great height, their overwhelming impact on the city around them — they were always much criticized by planners and by architects and by other people who value public space, [who think] about cities as places where interconnected social relationships happen, rather than [mere] skylines.

But I think part of the reason these buildings were loved, in the end, by many regular people is because they spoke to a certain understanding or feeling or expectation of American invulnerability, American power, American ascendancy in the third quarter of the 20th century.

YOU'VE SUGGESTED WE MIGHT THINK OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER AS BOTH THE THRILLING CONCLUSION TO, AND TERRIBLE END OF, URBAN RENEWAL. The World Trade Center was, in many ways, the last of the tower-in-the-park, superblock projects. It was the final triumph of the vision of bulldozing old 19th century industrial and commercial cityscapes — with their tenements and their factories and their mixed use — and replacing them with these kind of single-use, very austere, very clean, very open spaces.

It was planned in the 1960s and built in the early '70s, and that was a time when those ideas were coming under quite a bit of fire.

WHAT, THEN, DID AL QAEDA STRIKE? [The terrorists] picked their targets pretty well — they picked symbols of American military and financial power. And what they did that was so telling, and that I think we need to grapple with — as much as it's uncomfortable to do so — is they revealed how much of that power was in crisis and much of it was, really, an illusion. And they showed how those buildings [created] this sort of façade — those façades were really screens keeping us from seeing the illusion of our invulnerability.

So what we need to ask, I think, going forward is: [are we just going to] recreate that illusion in the rebuilding the site? Are we just making, in some sense, new targets, new opportunities to show that American power is no longer dominant, but in decline? Are we kind of walking into another trap, as we seem to have been doing so much — particularly in Iraq, where we walked right into the expectations of our enemies?

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