Tom Bernstein and Peter Kunhardt, co-founders of the embryonic International Freedom Center at Ground Zero, could once take solace in the idea that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on their side.
He had intimated as much. And it was his right-hand man at Ground Zero, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, who stood up for the Freedom Center during a critical meeting of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation last month. Or rather, he defended the “process” that led to its selection as the museum component of the Ground Zero master plan.
Then the Mayor, in a press conference on Sept. 27, was asked whether he supported it. His answer was typically rotund.
“I think at this time it is clearly problematic,” he said. He added that there were “some things that you might want to put elsewhere” and not on the site. (Like the Freedom Center?) And finally: “It’s up to the LMDC in the end, but I would urge them, and I’m certainly urging my members on the LMDC, to read that report carefully and then discuss it and see if we can’t come to some resolution. If you can’t, then you just can’t do it.”
In withholding his support, Mr. Bloomberg seemed one step closer to joining Governor George Pataki in committing the project to the growing Ground Zero purgatory, if not coming out against it like Senator Hillary Clinton, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Republican Congressman Peter King.
“I am troubled by the serious concerns that family members and first-responders have expressed to me,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Mr. Giuliani was blunt: “They should change the whole concept and scrap those plans and start from the beginning and focus it on Sept. 11.”
This week, Messrs. Bernstein and Kunhardt will personally make their pitch to different community groups, while the LMDC, that esteemed deliberative body, is collecting comments on its Web Site concerning the project. As early as its Oct. 6 meeting, the LMDC could save or sink the Freedom Center.
Just what the relationship between Sept. 11 and the Freedom Center ought to be has become a sticky wicket. And it seems more and more likely that if Mr. Bernstein and his partner’s team cannot explain that relationship adequately, they will lose the site.
“We’re a piece of the puzzle. We always thought the 9/11 story had to be told, but we wanted it to be woven into a wider experience,” Mr. Bernstein said.
The LMDC, when it issued its call for applicants to compete for one of the Ground Zero spaces, specifically asked for a museum that would deal with “tolerance, diversity, and understanding among nations.” Mr. Bernstein’s center fit the bill, but as he and the LMDC revised the plan, he actually removed much of the Sept. 11 content so as not to repeat what would go in the separate museum devoted to the attack, now planned for below ground.
But Mr. Bernstein denied that he reintroduced the Sept. 11 elements to respond to critics who saw the Freedom Center as a distraction.
“Originally, the idea was 9/11, the city, the country, the world,” he explained. “What we always hoped was to draw on history to tell the bigger story of freedom, and this is one way to do it.”
The Freedom Center’s critics, he said, are being shortsighted about what the city will need at the site of the attack to make it personally relevant for future generations. “All programming decisions should not be ‘How do you hold up a year from now?’, but rather ‘How do you hold up 25 or 50 years from now?’” he said.
Mr. Bernstein is one of those serial entrepreneurs for whom setbacks are their daily bread. He and his business partner, Roland Betts, have bought the Texas Rangers, financed movies, and established the Chelsea Piers sports and entertainment complex. Asked by Crain’s New York Business once to sum up their business philosophy, they said, “Perseverance and a mastery of facts can still make impossible things happen.”
But along with perseverance and facts—published on Sept. 22 in a 47-page report available on the Web sites of the Freedom Center and the LMDC—Mr. Bernstein and his team have been investing time and energy into building a constituency to support the project, clearly conscious that when it comes to such a sensitive and emotional subject as Ground Zero, public relations is most of the battle.
Mr. Bernstein was on vacation in France, oblivious to the danger his project was in, when the LMDC took it up at a meeting last month. Richard J. Tofel, the center’s president, was in his office—just 14 floors above the LMDC. And Mr. Doctoroff’s heroics notwithstanding, at the end of an otherwise sleepy morning meeting, just a little before 9 a.m. or so, the chairman of the agency charged with planning the reconstruction of Ground Zero, John Whitehead, ordered Mr. Bernstein to “present its specific plans, program and governance structure” for the center and put them up on the Web. “If at the end of this process,” said Mr. Whitehead, “the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is not satisfied with the I.F.C.’s proposal, we will find another use or tenant.”
An ultimatum had been issued—but what was expected of them by the LMDC (have we heard this before?) wasn’t crystal clear.
“The statement was made, and we went to work,” Mr. Bernstein told The Observer. “It was consistent with the way we’ve approached this from the beginning. We have a substantial number of people involved in this whom we’ve worked with very closely and intensively, and we got them involved again and put our best foot forward.
“Peter Kunhardt was the captain. He approached this in a very comprehensive and meticulous way.”
Probably the most important constituency the team had to reach was the families of Sept. 11 victims, a group of whom had spoken out publicly against the center as an injurious intrusion on the sanctity of the “memorial quadrant,” driving the story of the Freedom Center much further than Mr. Bernstein or Mr. Kunhardt had yet done themselves.
The memorial quadrant is the southwesternmost eight acres of the former World Trade Center site, which master planner Daniel Libeskind determined would be devoted to a memorial to the victims, a museum about the attacks and some sort of “culture.”
Throughout the months and years of preparing for the Freedom Center, the families never figured much into Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Kunhardt’s plans. The pair had forged an extensive network of advisors from universities and museums who could tell them about the history of freedom and how to put it on display.
The vice chair of the Freedom Center’s board, Paula Berry, had lost her husband in the attack. But the center hadn’t gotten around to forming a family advisory committee until early July, by which time the Freedom Center was on the defensive. To complicate matters further, the media was treating the “Take Back the Memorial” movement as if it represented most, if not all, of the families.
Ms. Berry, who was charged with forming the advisory group, had lots of lost time to make up.
“She asked me, ‘What do you think about this?’ And I said, ‘I am upset that a small, vocal minority of families is presenting themselves as speaking for all families,’” said Chris Burke, a former Cantor Fitzgerald trader who lost his brother that September day, and who established a mentoring and service organization, Tuesday’s Children, for victims’ families.
It’s been noted before that the families of the Sept. 11 victims are split strongly into different ideological camps. Mr. Burke, surveying the ones who objected to the I.F.C. plan, found that many of the same people who had been involved in other campaigns that Mr. Burke objected to were popping up again.
“If they have their way, what we will have at the end of the day is a memorial to carnage and a memorial to death and to the crowning glory of the Fire Department,” Mr. Burke said. “It’s not just about the Fire Department.
“They are the sole source of the public’s fatigue with 9/11 families,” he added, referring to those families.
About two weeks ago, Ms. Berry invited nine Sept. 11 relatives who were sympathetic to her project to Mr. Bernstein’s Chelsea Piers. They were there to reverse the perception that the families were unanimous in their opposition to the I.F.C. It took four hours, and the message resonated with Mr. Burke, who signed up for the family advisory group.
“What was it that was attacked Sept. 11? It wasn’t Cantor Fitzgerald. It wasn’t a building,” Mr. Burke said. “I’m a guy who doesn’t often agree with our President, but he said it just a few days after Sept. 11: They attacked our freedom.”
The 10-member family advisory group was announced shortly thereafter and has slowly gained more attention in the press. But it has failed as yet to capture the imagination of politicians in an election season, as their opponents have done so well.
The Critique, Left and Right
Meanwhile, other members of the Freedom Center team were talking with members of various newspaper editorial boards. They had already succeeded in turning around The New York Times—which, just a few months before, had been the mouthpiece for the liberal critique of the Freedom Center, namely that it was liable to become a front for a Republican White House. (Mr. Bernstein and his business partner, Mr. Betts, are personal acquaintances of the President.)
“Mr. Pataki, who is clearly terrified of offending a vocal cadre of families of 9/11 victims, has totally abdicated his role as a leader in this controversy,” The Times said on Aug. 16. The usually skittish Daily News came down firmly in favor, and Newsday has reiterated its support.
The New York Post, of course, remained true to the opposition. The newspaper paid little attention to the families during the site-planning process, some of whom had long complained that they wanted the memorial quadrant free from outside intrusions. But once the fight was put in ideological terms back in June, the Murdoch boys—and, at the time, Murdoch’s boy—just couldn’t say enough about it. And they still haven’t stopped talking.
The Post’s lead editorial on Tuesday was about how right Rudy Giuliani was to oppose the museum.
Its lead editorial Sept. 24 was about how right Senator Clinton was to oppose the museum.
Its lead editorial Sept. 23—no, its only editorial, for it took up the whole page—was about how the Governor and Mayor had to kick the Freedom Center out.
The Times’ conversion notwithstanding, there is still a liberal critique out there. Even among professional planners who agree with the Freedom Center’s advocates that a museum, not just a memorial, will be necessary to keep the site relevant to visitors 25 or 50 years into the future, there are questions whether the Freedom Center is the right approach.
That was evident when the Civic Alliance hosted a forum with museum executives on Sept. 13, to get a preview of the new, improved Freedom Center that would be presented to the LMDC.
Ethel Sheffer, the president of the New York chapter of the American Planning Association, who attended that meeting, said that she personally still doesn’t understand the name. (Her association hasn’t taken a position on the matter.)
“I think they are genuinely sincere people and want to do good,” she said of Mr. Bernstein and his team. “The sad thing is that ‘freedom’ has come to mean so many different things: Sometimes it’s battling for freedom in the world by invading Iraq, or we have the Freedom Tower. It’s a word with too many meanings; I don’t know what it means. What is a Freedom Tower anyway? It’s a commercial office building, right?”
A number of family members were present as well, including Charles Wolf, whose wife died on Sept. 11. He said that the Freedom Center’s plan had actually gotten worse in the revision, because it was now proposing to incorporate more elements of the Sept. 11 attacks into what was earlier conceived as a museum about the history of an idea. Those elements include some artifacts from the attacks, and a film that would tell the story of victims whose lives somehow embodied the American dream of freedom—like an immigrant kitchen worker who came to this country for economic freedom.
“It’s a hook to turn the 9/11 people who went to work that day into part of this bigger idea for freedom,” Mr. Wolf said. “My wife is not a goddamn freedom fighter. All she was fighting for was a chance that we might move to a bigger apartment.”
In that way, the liberal critique that Sept. 11 wasn’t an attack on freedom, and the conservative critique that the Freedom Center is a distraction from the business of memorializing the dead, finally meet—on the other end of the circle.
In reality, the debate over how much of Sept. 11 to put into the museum is a detail that could be worked out with the LMDC later. The LMDC has to decide to keep the Freedom Center in place first.
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