To Build Future, Rebuild the Past

It is four years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and Ground Zero is still a barren hole. There have been "redevelopment plans" galore, but the site remains empty, a reminder of what was taken away from us: the Twin Towers were symbols of our creative genius in design and construction that showed us what we were able to do.

Over the last few weeks it’s been reported that the New York Police Department has notified the powers-that-be that the "Freedom Tower" proposed for the site—a 1776-foot structure which was to rise as an "inspiration" to New Yorkers and the world, signifying that the city had recovered from the attacks—is not safe, and that the plans for the tower had to be scrapped.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

Perhaps New York Gov. George Pataki, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, et. al., will finally listen to the people who want the Twin Towers rebuilt much the same as they were: as the headquarters for the World Trade Center, maybe a floor higher, and somehow stronger and more secure than the originals.

On Sept. 10, 2001, no one talked about redeveloping lower Manhattan like it was downtown Newark. If someone had suggested a project like the Freedom Tower, it would have been dismissed as ridiculous, costly and simply unnecessary. So, what's changed? Some diabolical maniacs taking those majestic towers down should not result in us coming to believe the towers didn't belong there in the first place. The thought that the redevelopment of Ground Zero would in some way reflect a fear of terrorism has always seemed un-American to me.

The Twin Towers opened in 1973, the same year I was born. For all of my life I admired those two towers anchoring the lower end of the awesome Manhattan skyline. I’m embarrassed to say that I never ventured inside them. It was a "touristy" thing that I never got around to doing, figuring that "someday" I would make my way inside. But from the part of New Jersey where I live, I could see them. And every day since that awful day, when I look at that still-awesome skyline, it still angers me that they are gone and that I missed my chance to visit them.

In the New York area, we remember the emotionally and physically painful work that followed that horrible day, the daily removing of debris and recovering of victims. For months and months, men and women who have remained somewhat anonymous summoned from within themselves the strength and resources to go down to what was called "the pit." New York City firefighters would finish their shifts at the firehouse and then proceed to Ground Zero where they would search for one of their lost 343 brothers, as well as for one of the nearly 3,000 victims. It was amazing to see how these people, after suffering so much loss, were able to do what they described simply as "their job."

When we gathered at the site on the first anniversary of the attacks, many who were there a year earlier couldn’t fathom, couldn’t believe, how the area had been "cleaned up." I had the opportunity to walk with a few firefighters that day. As they passed sites that had been covered with stories of smoldering debris but were now storefronts and refurbished businesses, they seemed stunned. "I never thought this place would ever be ‘normal’ again," they would say.

With all the painful memories we were surrounded with that day— recalling the thousands who were killed—the people were able to feel proud that the city’s wounds had started to heal with the completion of those first important steps—the lost had been recovered, the debris had been cleared.

In our lifetime, it will probably never feel "normal" to visit those grounds. In a post-Sept. 11 world, as we live with terror threats, warnings and fears, and with the memories of the horrors of that day, it’s hard to imagine that, even decades from now, any of us who witnessed the attacks would not be filled with emotion in that place.

What would, however, bring a sense of normalcy back to Ground Zero would be to see the towers restored. Our elected officials need to marshal the same strength and resources that moved people to clear the site to motivate them to rebuild.

When our leaders made the rebuilding of the site a competition among architects to be judged by politicians—well, I won't say they forgot the victims, but they seemed to have forgotten those anonymous men and women who worked there not to participate in a "redevelopment" but to help rescue a city that was wounded.

In unveiling the Freedom Tower, those who presented the design spoke of how it would speak of the human desire for freedom and would represent events important in our American history— for example, the freedom tower would be 1776 feet tall to recall the year our country was born. While that is admirable, it seems to miss the point. As Americans, our daily lives, expressions and pursuits all give life to that human desire of freedom.

By rebuilding the Twin Towers, we would give a voice to the longing in all of our hearts and to the hope—however remote- that we might one day return to some of the normalcy of a Sept. 10 world.

Father Jim Chern is a Roman Catholic priest, ordained in May, 1999 with the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. He is a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in West Orange, N.J. He is a 1995 graduate of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and graduated from Arthur L. Johnson Regional High School in Clark, N.J. in 1991.

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