Planning For The Worst
New York magazine|August 30 - September 12, 2021
After 9/11, we had a chance to build the downtown that New York deserves. Two decades later, timidity and fear have us hemmed in at every turn.
By Justin Davidson

ON A HEAT-STUNNED late-summer afternoon, the World Trade Center Memorial feels livelier than much of Manhattan. The sun shatters against the tree canopy, reaching the ground in green-gold shards. Tourists approach the twin voids, mesmerized by the whisper of four-sided waterfalls. Even on less sultry days, people slow their pace; it’s rare to see someone striding purposefully across the plaza bearing a briefcase or a pizza. That might be due to the solemnity of the memorial’s design or the explicit border between this sacramental zone and the profane city beyond. Or perhaps it’s because visitors sense the enduring spirit of this place: timidity. You can feel it in the grid of gray stone and gray glass, in the orderly arrangement of planes, and in the swarm of security guards. Two decades ago, the Twin Towers were attacked because they were seen as emblems of capitalist arrogance; the complex that replaced them is a monument to overweening caution.

The feeling of contemplative satisfaction fades as I circle the edge of the plaza, which is dotted with prefabricated police booths. Here and there, rows of pointy steel traffic stoppers break through the asphalt like dragons’ fangs. At the corner of West Street and the fantastically misnamed Liberty Street, I’m thwarted by a formidable set of obstacles: bollards linked by steel bars, a stack of metal fence segments that have been chained together, and, for those who are slow to take a hint, a sign reading no pedestrian zone. Obediently, I detour up the stairs to Liberty Park and the construction zone for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Below the railing, the lifeless moat of Cedar Street curves toward a parking lot filled with stacked shipping containers that serves as a command center for the Port Authority Police. Another set of stairs leads back down to Greenwich Street: more barriers and guard booths, complemented by a herd of NYPD vehicles and, no doubt, a flock of lurking surveillance cameras. This is a landscape shaped by fear.

It has been formed not only by the reasoned response to a documented threat but by an amorphous, open-ended anxiety. You can see that disquiet embedded in the architecture—in the blank, nearly 200-foot- high base of One World Trade Center and the blast wall facing the entrance, in the placement of the truck ramp away from tall buildings, in the armored delivery lane on Church Street, even in the signs prohibiting sitting on the ground, playing instruments, or walking dogs. Here, there is no mess, no noise, no spontaneous anything. Even grief operates during business hours: The memorial plaza is roped off every day at 5 p.m. and, until it reopens each morning, the public is banned from this ostensibly public space. The message of all this heavyhandedness is two-pronged. To peaceable visitors: This former site of chaos and terror has been sealed, surveilled, and protected, so if you die violently, it probably won’t be here. To would-be evildoers: If you’re planning to commit an outrage, please choose one of the city’s many other easy and symbolically resonant targets.

A belt of similarly constrictive zones stretches clear across lower Manhattan, from Park Row, where the NYPD maintains a defensive perimeter around its headquarters and the Metropolitan Correctional Center, to the Hudson River Greenway, where bikers must shoot through narrow openings between concrete barriers installed in 2017, after a driver used a truck to mow down cyclists and pedestrians, killing eight. Four centuries after the Dutch West India Company built Manhattan’s first fort near here, New York has erected another kind of fortress, part high-tech, part slapdash. We’ve become so accustomed to stepping around reinforced perimeters that we rarely stop to wonder what purpose they still serve, whether they will ever go away, or if they protect us against the most urgent forms of menace. Today’s World Trade Center towers were emptied not by fire or blast but by an invisible microbe and the vagaries of market forces. Climate change will not be impressed by steel barriers.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINEView All

Jonathan Franzen Thinks People Can Change

Even if his new book suggests it’s nearly impossible to make it stick.

10 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

860 minutes with…Stephanie Grisham

In Kansas with Donald Trump’s former press secretary, who does not believe she will be redeemed.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Bed in a Box

Just how much drama can you pack into a studio apartment?

2 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

COVID Diaries: Sarah Jones

The 700,000 Death Toll An atheist stumbles toward a way to grieve.

6 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Nothing Like the Real Thing

Since when does a comedy special also need to be a documentary?

7 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Kumail Nanjiani's Feelings

The actor always wanted his own superhero transformation. Now he’s buff, a Marvel star, and struggling with how much of his new body is his own.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Performance Review: Ben Affleck Plays Himself

Becoming a tabloid star gave the actor his best role ever.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

The Murders Down the Hall

393 POWELL STREET WAS A PEACEFUL HOME UNTIL RESIDENTS STARTED DYING IN BRUTAL, MYSTERIOUS WAYS.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

The POST-COVID, POST-MANHATTAN PLANS PLANS of the MOST MANHATTAN of RESTAURATEURS

KEITH McNALLY, TO GO

10+ mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021

Under Her Skin

Julia Ducournau funneled years of fury, angst, and comedy into her Palme d’Or– winning, genre-smashing film Titane.

8 mins read
New York magazine
October 11 - 24, 2021