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I: 9/11 Memory in situ

Manic memories, contested meanings of place

The terrorist attack in New York City was concentrated to a 16-acre site—it was quite amazing! And those buildings did what they were supposed to do; they came down, they pancaked down. They didn’t go falling over causing collateral damage. Who would have imagined that commercial jets, fully loaded with 10-20 thousand gallons of jet fuel, would be smashing into them? Because that’s what happened, and the fuel from the planes burned all the fire-retardant off the steel beams, and the towers literally melted. It was quite a successful hit. After 9/11, 1 was still working ... I found that to be a great relief. I’m an emergency room nurse, so that was—there’s nothing better than listening to other people’s problems, you know? My youngest was still in college ... I think his college had about twelve kids whose parents had been killed at the World Trade Center, and they provided them with a counselor. I think it was the third or fourth meeting with the counselor, and I asked my son how it was going, and he said, “Mom, Mr. So-and-So had a nervous breakdown!” And I said, “Oh!” And he said, “Yeah, we’re really worried about him.” [laughs] My daughter was working as well, but she stopped going. She was also engaged at the time, and a year later, she broke off her engagement and moved back home with me. I think if her father hadn’t of been killed then, she probably would have married the young man—he was very nice. She just got thrown into another area of life that she couldn’t handle getting married. Everyone has their own way of dealing with things. I think the memorial should be brutally honest—people jumping from the North Tower because they had no hope, no hope at all. And I guess they [the jumpers] wanted the families to have something, a body, which they never got anyway because the buildings collapsed. I just don’t want the memorial watered down ... I don’t want roses in a garden and names of loved ones with blue skies. I want it to be brutally honest; I don’t want people to forget that this happened in the middle of New York City. But as I said, I have no expertise in memorials, or how to attract tourists—I just don’t want it watered down. I want it to be a true memorial, so that people who are my granddaughter’s age will have some idea of what it was like, the experience of that day, and who did this. (Personal Communication, August 2010, original emphasis)

The above recollections are excerpts from a longer conversation recorded in the suburban. Long Island home of a “9/11 widow” just before the ninth anniversary of the attacks. The nine-year anniversary had spurred a frenzy of media attention surrounding the site and its broader cultural meaning, yet my two-hour exchange with this woman was relatively benign. She felt little urgency to discuss ‘memorial controversies’ like the proposed Islamic Community Center, blocks away from the World Trade Center memorial site, or the reactions of the self-appointed ‘avengers of national healing’ who were spinning their opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque” for personal and political gain. Rather, the woman spent our time together highlighting her day-to-day reality as she and her family continue to mourn the loss of a husband and father, delegating the emergence of something called “9/11 memory” to heritage professionals, media pundits, and politicians. As this woman simply put it, “1 don’t feel I have any kind of expertise to offer about the memorial. I’m just not that passionate about it.”

Subsequent interviews with 9/11 family members echoed this ambivalence toward the heritage landscape emerging in Lower Manhattan. Even as families rationalized their ambivalence differently, many families still participated in communities of 9/11 remembrance, education, service, support, and political activism. Serving as proxy witnesses to the murder of their loved ones, these family members actively organized their grief in memoriam of someone, or, in many cases, something—a cause. As a result, government officials, media outlets, and, at times, the 9/11 memorial institutions themselves—the Flight 93 National Memorial, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum—bestowed 9/11 families with a considerable amount of cultural authority on the subject, regardless of whether such a decree was individually or collectively desired. Yet not all “9/11 families” employed, or even accepted, such cultural authority—as the opening recollection demonstrates, and their experiences, identities, and political views cannot be reduced to a homogenous constituency.1 When individual families or family organizations did seek to employ their authority on the subject, however, it was not always recognized or received as such by municipal or heritage entities. Rather than debate the centrality of 9/11 families in shaping the World Trade complex’s rebuilding, this chapter focuses on the contradictory narratives embedded in the heritage site at Ground Zero that emerged as various stakeholder communities—including family groups—competed to dictate the site and its broader cultural significance.

After 9/11, the decision to rebuild the World Trade complex provoked intense debate about what to build in the emergent heritage landscape, who gets to decide, and how the public should understand those decisions to reflect broader cultural values (see Greenspan 2013). To establish the history of “Ground Zero,” the site actively required curating, narrativiz-ing. Its present-day memory is a contested cultural product shaped by the divergent interests of a variety of stakeholder groups: family members, first responders, local residents, government leaders, developers, politicians, urban planners, and architects, to name but a few. As the premier cultural institution dedicated to remembering the victims of the September 11 attacks and historicizing the events that produced them, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum aims to balance the private needs of families to mourn in relation to the public’s desire to memorialize.2 This has resulted in passionate conflicts over definitions of the mnemonic site, as well as which communities it should serve and for what purposes. As individual needs to mourn buttressed collective, national imperatives to remember, competing narratives of place were mapped onto and extracted from the mnemonic site.

This chapter seeks to understand the institutional curation of 9/11 memory from Ground Zero ruins. The terra firma of World Trade Center redevelopment collectively dictates what can and cannot be said or represented at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Memory’s provenance—or who claims ownership of the site and occupies positions of relative privilege and dominance in deciding what it should entail—is ultimately complicated by the cultural institution’s location at the authentic site of death and politicized by the presence of unclaimed human remains. As one 9/11 Memorial & Museum staff member aptly articulated,

We would be having, perhaps, a much greater freedom to dig deep inter-pretatively, and to take some creative risks [at the memorial museum], if it were located anywhere else in the United States, including across the street from the World Trade Center. But it’s not. It’s on the sixteen acres, this unintended burial ground if you will, for 2,800 innocent people. It is a very emotional, complicated site and so everything we do here [at the 9/11 Memorial Museum] is balanced by this fact. On the one hand, we are setting the history as straight as it can be set, to educate, and hopefully stimulate many generations to come. But at the same time, we are on a site where there is blood in the ground. People physically died here and many never came—their remains were never found. And so there is this constant balance that you have to negotiate between the historical side and the kind of emotional side of what we’re doing. (Personal Communication, June 2011, emphasis in original)3

Striking a balance between history and emotion, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is thus impregnated with affective attachments to this place and its wounds, as the opening vignette also confirms. It is therefore crucial to ask which narratives were enshrined in situ and whose interests those narratives serve.

Places are repositories of collective memory, cultural beliefs, and values; they are emotionally fraught epicenters where social identities and group histories are made and unmade. As Stamelman instructs us,

Whatever might be said about the past is immediately contested and undone by the changes perpetually at work in the landscape of disaster.

As a landscape of wreckage and debris, a field of ruin and decay, a place of loss and mourning, history is ... a ground zero. (2003, 12)

Highlighting the cultural “structures of feeling” that shape the places we inhabit, affective meanings of place shape cultural identities as much as we shape them (see Williams 1977). Affective heritage, this chapter argues, is grounded in everyday practices of “place-making” and identity formation (Cresswell 2004, emphasis added). It is an understatement to say that cultural meanings of the World Trade Center have shifted over the last fifty years: its Twin Towers have been both admired and disdained as architectural icons; a concurrent symbol of diplomacy through world trade and US economic dominance; a target of international terrorism, not once, but twice; and finally, the sacred resting place for nearly 3,000 poor souls; an image of ruin and rebirth that continues to haunt. In more recent memory, the newly rebuilt World Trade Center is a twenty-first-century showstopper of architectural innovation and design prowess, a paragon of postdisaster revitalization, and a symbol of American resilience in the face of unthinkable adversity. This remaking of a landscape forever imbued with the carnage of the demolished World Trade complex challenges us to process such contrarian meanings of place. The site’s most recent transformation from a landscape of traumatic ruin into a place of cultural history and remembrance—even of healing—thus begs us to consider the institutional curation of collective memory from cultural stories enshrined at the site— stories chosen to convey ideas about the afflicted geography and its relationship to global history and national identity.

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is a powder keg of public scrutiny. A place where history is constructed from the ashes, the heritage complex at Ground Zero is overwrought with divergent emotions and sentiments of place following the September 11 attacks. Commemorating the events of September 11, 2001, as well as honoring its nearly 3,000 victims, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is also the place where visitors come to learn about the historical threat of international terrorism and the human actions responsible. The history of Ground Zero is, as a result, a difficult story to narrate, subject to intense emotional debate due to the contradictory feelings the mnemonic site can and does elicit from the public.4 As one 9/11 Memorial & Museum staff insightfully illuminates, “With the opening of a memorial [at the World Trade Center], memory becomes a public good in a way it hasn’t been before because it has a locus, it has a place .... [it] will draw all of the interactions that people want to have, like a magnet” (Personal Communication, August 2010, emphasis in original). Put otherwise: at Ground Zero, the law of attraction prevails.

This chapter documents everyday manifestations of affective heritage encircling the “New World Trade Center.” A beacon of twenty-first-century cosmopolitanism, the New World Trade Center (see Figure 1.1) is engendered with sentiments of “soft power”—a true emblem of state power and wealth, creativity and innovation, influence and progress (see Nye 1990; Dexter Lord and Blankenberg 2015). The architectural complex is also deeply haunted by the ghosts of the buildings it replaced and their violent undoing. As a repository of public feeling “tapping into everyday emotional resonances and circulations of feelings,” affective heritage at the World Trade Center memorial complex extrapolates 9/11 heritage “as a complex and embodied process of meaning- and sense-making” (Waterton 2014, 824). According to the site’s master planner, Daniel Libeskind, “the art of the master plan” for World Trade Center redevelopment is to “balance [...] life over death” (Arad and Libeskind 2018). With half of the site’s 16 acres allocated for commercial use and its remaining half for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, ‘striking a balance’ between urban recovery and cultural healing is at the root of this decades-long rebuilding effort.

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum further transforms World Trade Center wreckage through witnessing, education, and experience as it spins loss and ruin into urban renewal and national regeneration. A paragon of redemptive loss, the site’s ability to promote renewal and proximate persistent loss dictates much of its development. As various constituencies competed to remember 9/11 and instill their version—and visualization—of the historical event in situ, Ground Zero was and remains emotionally contested terrain. Illuminating what the 9/11 memorial juror and memory scholar James E. Young refers to as “stages of memory” (2016), the memorial landscape in Lower Manhattan is a material manifestation of the conflicting commitments, values, and needs

Completed New World Trade Center Design. Courtesy of Dbox

Figure 1.1 Completed New World Trade Center Design. Courtesy of Dbox.

to remember, forget, or simply move on for different stakeholder communities. Here, social meanings of place were publicly deliberated and disputed in ensuing memorial “battles” over the World Trade Center and its meaning and the aestheticization of an emergent 9/11 memory in the landscape as stakeholder groups wielded their collective power to re-present the landscape anew, some more successfully than others (see Greenspan 2013).

In the pages that follow, I reflect on the divergent sentiments, feelings, and attitudes engendered in the formation of 9/11 memory at this specific lieu de mémoire (see Nora 1989) but not necessarily on the amount of public outcry or support each memorial ‘battle’ garnered. 1 begin with an overview of the geographical literature on places of memory to illuminate the emotional stakes attributed to the development of the New World Trade Center and the emergence of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

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