A City of Monuments, Or a City of the Future?

Now we know what Mayor Bloomberg would have done had he been Mayor on 9/11: summoned the shade of Abraham Lincoln and told him to handle it. That is what he, and Governor Pataki, and all the worthies, are in effect doing at the one-year anniversary, by reading golden words of crises past instead of writing their own.

Mr. Mayor, we did not go to Boston to beg you to take this job. You asked us to elect you, and you spent $70 million doing so. Your victory gives you certain responsibilities, which are symbolic as well as managerial. Take a No. 2 pencil and a legal pad and jot down some thoughts. Your staff can help you polish, and the city is full of fancy hired guns who, on this occasion, would help you gratis. At worst, you will add to all the oratory that has been forgotten since the first Neanderthal pointed with pride and viewed with alarm. At best, you might say something that was memorable because it was fitting-springing from a man who, along with millions of his fellow New Yorkers, was there on the terrible day, and during the sturdy recovery. Your newness to the game of politics, and your freedom from its clichés and formulas, may increase your odds of success. You’ll never know unless you try. Cops and firemen ran up into burning buildings; you can give a 10-minute talk.

Speech is transient; monuments last. Even a nation as young as ours is, by now, cluttered with declamatory sculpture. New York’s statues cover the whole spectrum of aesthetics, from Augustus St. Gaudens’ statue of General Sherman at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, to Louise Lawson’s image of Representative Samuel S. Cox in Tompkins Square Park. One is a great work of public art; the other is a cigar-store Indian in bronze. The contrast between the two should make us think hard about what sort of physical monument we want at Ground Zero, and how large it should be.

New York has suffered disasters arguably as wrenching, in their different ways, as 9/11. Some of them are commemorated simply and elegantly; some of them are not commemorated at all. The prison ships the British moored in the East River during the Revolutionary War are said to have cost the lives of 11,000 American soldiers. Their monument is Stanford White’s granite shaft in Fort Greene Park. The cholera epidemic of 1832 killed 3,500 New Yorkers in two months. So far as I know, they are not remembered anywhere.

We forget, sometimes, because we are hurrying, always. New York is a city of business, which means it’s a city that lives in the future. Some of its expectations wash out; some are frauds, designed to coax dollars from the unwary; some turn out to be gushers and make fortunes for a few, and honest livings for thousands. Other places have different priorities, and different rhythms. My favorite light-bulb joke is about Richmond, Va., where 12 people are required to screw a new one in: One does the job, and the other 11 say how nice the old light bulb was. Richmond, not coincidentally, is full of monuments, the most recent commemorating native son Arthur Ashe.

Do we want so much of New York to be converted to elegy-especially since those to be elegized died, for the most part, going about their daily jobs? They died like New Yorkers-watching the market, making deliveries, preparing the next meal at Windows on the World. Their memorial should not be a deathopolis, but a rebuilt corner of downtown that is largely given over to more of the same: people going about their business.

Putting office and retail space on the memorial site would also be a nice rebuke to the murderers. Osama bin Laden knew the United States was rich; that was one reason he hated it. His money came from his father’s career in construction in Saudi Arabia-not a good way to understand how the world works. The Osamites think that wealth flows from oil wells, or the manipulations of Jews. If you plunked them down in some stony place, like Somalia or Afghanistan, they would, after a few generations, produce Somalia and Afghanistan. They flew airplanes into New York in the same spirit in which a brat kicks a beehive. They will be stung; and the bees will repair the hive.

If we do decide to let Ground Zero become an urban Arlington National Cemetery, then let the city shift its center of gravity, as it has done before. Time then to get serious about a high-tech center and develop Governor’s Island, or the Brooklyn waterfront. Maybe that would be the most contemptuous rebuke of all-a statement that we have so much on the ball we can afford to waste neighborhoods.

Is it too soon to be discussing memorials and speeches? The fate of our enemies is still being determined. Osama bin Laden may well have died in some cave in eastern Afghanistan; if he is alive, where’s his next video? But his henchmen remain, as well as his well-wishers in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Maybe we should save the rhetoric and the ribbon-cutting until we’ve had regime change.

Or maybe not. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought in July 1863. Edward Everett gave his great speech in November 1863 (the President also made brief remarks). The battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, which happened around the same time, are commonly thought of as the turning point of the Civil War. But the end did not truly begin until the following March, when Lincoln made Ulysses Grant commander of the Union forces. Only then did Lincoln finally have a general who would take the fight to the enemy, and not give up until they crumpled. That is why Lincoln’s references, at Gettysburg, to “the unfinished work” and “the great task remaining” were not platform boilerplate, but terse statements of hard times ahead.

Our enemies now are not as brave as the Army of Northern Virginia, but they have wiles and firepower. Victory is certain; nasty surprises are nearly so. If Mayor Bloomberg could say that, he would be doing a service.

A City of Monuments, Or a City of the Future?