A National Theater for Ground Zero

Just as downtown Manhattan was re-invented after the Great Fire of 1835, when hundreds of buildings in the financial district burned to the ground, it is once again being transformed after 9/11. As the neighborhood rebuilds, cultural institutions are looking for a place alongside the cathedrals of commerce, a development that promises to make lower Manhattan more vibrant, more interesting-more New York-than ever before. Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation should make certain that the arts are a critical element in the new downtown, through public sculpture, art galleries and performance spaces.

The most exciting and visionary proposal so far comes from a group of prominent artists and writers, who are supporting the construction of a $170 million theater complex to be called the American National Theater and to be located at Ground Zero. The theater project is one of several arts projects under consideration by the LMDC, and it surely is among the boldest. The plan envisions three theaters, each of which would stage five six-week-long productions a year. The theater would have several rehearsal halls which other theater and arts organizations could use. The complex would become an epicenter of American theater, with an annual budget from $17 million to $20 million. It would also assure an active weekend and nighttime cultural life-something essential for the area’s economy.

The project has the backing of Arthur Miller, Meryl Streep and Harold Prince, among others. Mr. Prince has pointed out that the plan, with its schedule of limited engagements, could be a creative shot in the arm for American theater. In an interview with The New York Times , he said: “Producers have a priority, and it’s ‘Is this going to make money?’ And I don’t think that should be our qualifying agenda.”

The American National Theater would instead pursue art for art’s sake. Best of all, it would do so in downtown Manhattan.

Chris Whittle and Benno Schmidt: The Art of the Scam

About a dozen years ago, the entrepreneur Chris Whittle announced to great fanfare the formation of Edison Schools, a for-profit company that would operate public schools across the country. It sounded like a fine idea, combining the best of capitalism with the mission of public service, using the profit motive to do what the government had failed to do. To add dignity, prestige and gravitas, he brought in Benno Schmidt, the president of Yale University, to be Edison’s chairman. They proceeded to raise millions of dollars from individual and institutional investors, but the academic results were mixed; parents were wary of Edison’s motives, and large school systems like those of New York City and Philadelphia were resistant. As the years passed, the company failed to show a profit, and shareholders watched the price of their stock plummet -this during the best stock market in history. But now, for the first time in a decade, the company has reported a profit of $10 million for the quarter. And wouldn’t you know it, this news comes just after Mr. Whittle and Mr. Schmidt announced over the summer that they’ll be taking the company private, buying back the stock at pennies per share: $1.76 to be precise, less than half the per-share net worth of the company. Aren’t these guys cute?

Now, we don’t know if the common stock of the company is worth $10 a share or $20 a share or more. We do know it’s worth more than a buck seventy-six. And Mr. Whittle and Mr. Schmidt know that, too. Although his stewardship of Edison has been shaky, Mr. Whittle has managed to do quite well for himself over the years. As an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, he published a series of college guides and magazines that became Whittle Communications, half of which he later sold to Time Warner. At age 32, he became publisher and part owner of Esquire magazine. In 1989, he founded (and later sold to K-III Communications) Channel One, an advertising-supported cable-TV network for classrooms. In 1991, he spent the absurd sum of $55 million on lavish corporate headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn. He also owns a Manhattan townhouse and an 11-acre East Hampton estate which he’s listed for sale at $36 million.

One wonders how investors in Edison will greet the news that Mr. Whittle and Mr. Schmidt want to throw pennies at them in return for their long allegiance and suffering. Edison stock traded at a high of almost $40 in 2001, which means that shareholders have lost $200 million, and all the while these scam artists were drawing millions in salaries and perks from money invested by these same shareholders-not to mention approximately $10 million in loans from the company to Mr. Whittle and almost $2 million to Mr. Schmidt. And now Mr. Whittle and Mr. Schmidt are trying to steal the company. Why couldn’t Chris and Benno, who have lost millions for the shareholders, refrain from this schlocky ruse and give the shareholders one last opportunity to make a few bucks?

So much for dignity, prestige and gravitas-and the president of Yale, no less.

More Than Moody

Few people get through adolescence without a good deal of angst. But when parents casually accept that their teenage son or daughter is “just moody,” they may be missing clues that point to a deeper depression. New research shows that teens who experience even just one episode of a major depressive disorder are more likely to experience lifelong struggles in work, relationships and physical health. As noted in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology , a study of high-school students in Oregon revealed that those who had suffered an episode of depression later reported “greatly reduced life satisfaction.” “We know that there are certain things that predispose people to being depressed, like being pessimistic,” psychologist Peter Lewinsohn told The Monitor . “And now we’re seeing there are traits like this evident after a depressive episode that weren’t there before the depression. It’s a scar that can affect a person throughout their life.” Not to mention that each year, 400,000 teens in the U.S. make a suicide attempt that requires medical attention.

Fortunately, newfound attention is being paid to depressed adolescents and the fact that they represent an untreated public-health crisis. In his recent book, More Than Moody , Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz advises parents on how to distinguish adolescent irritability and hypersensitivity from the “black dogs,” as Winston Churchill put it, of depression. It’s no secret that New York teens face enormous pressure, as they are raised in one of the world’s most competitive, status-conscious cities. Dr. Koplewicz and his colleagues at the Child Study Center of the New York University School of Medicine are committed to greatly improving the way children, adolescents and their families are treated by the mental-health profession. The center may be reached at 212-263-6622.

A National Theater for Ground Zero