New York, July 20 -- We came to the vast hangar at the Javits Center expecting the worst. Put 5,000 New Yorkers in a room, charge them with planning a hunk of the New York future, and the result would be a lunatic asylum. We would erupt in waves of mega-kvetch. Shouts, curses, tantrums, hurled objects, nets hurled to make mass arrests. All laced together with self-righteous sound and obsessive fury.
None of that happened.
Instead, our 5,000 men and women, including people from the suburbs, New Jersey and Connecticut, were broken down into groups of 10, seated at tables equipped with a computer. Their opinions - essentially votes - would be fed all day to a central computer base. Called to assembly by the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, there were representatives among them of every race, religion or ethnic group.
“We came...expecting the worst. Put 5,000 New Yorkers in a room, charge them with planning a hunk of the New York future, and the result would be a lunatic asylum. Instead...they debated in a sober, thoughtful, civil way.”
I spotted gray-haired veterans of old civic causes, too, from the Lower Manhattan Expressway to Westway, people whose first uttered word each morning must be "no." There were young artists, designers and architects, brimming with visions. There were people who were gallantly raising children below Canal St. and others who had lost husbands or wives or children when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11. Most of all, there were plain citizens, thousands of them.
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., they were presented with basic issues about the rebuilding of those 16 gutted acres in lower Manhattan. At each table, they debated in a sober, thoughtful, civil way. They voted, offered comments, and moved on to the next item on the agenda.
We have a word for what they were doing.
The word is democracy.
And because the process was an exercise in democracy, not demagoguery, no bellowing idiots grabbed microphones to perform for the TV cameras.
'I' yields to 'we.'
All around the vast room, you heard citizens saying politely to others, "What do you think?" And then listening - actually listening - to the replies. In this room, "I" had given way to "we." Yes, the assembly was boring to look at, too serious, too grave, too well-mannered for standard TV presentation. And it was absolutely thrilling.
At this forum, no uniformed killers in sunglasses stood along the perimeter of the room, ordering votes with a nod of the head. No religious frauds directed votes as if they were demanded by God, or justified by some vague line in an ancient book. There were no party votes, or even party lines. These were Americans having their say about the future.
At one point, I saw John Whitehead, the 80-year-old chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., wandering past the perimeter tables piled with sandwiches and drinks for the citizens. No bodyguard was protecting his back. He had no flack in attendance. He was alone. Several citizens spoke to him, and he listened, and nodded, and offered reassuring words. I asked him what he thought of the scene before him. He gazed around the room and gestured.
"This is what the terrorists didn't understand," he said. "This is what they didn't know." He shook his head and smiled. "It's absolutely beautiful."
The energy in the room could not be photographed but it was as real as the tables and chairs and computers. Later in the day, the collective verdicts were announced, expressions of the visions and ideas of the assembly. All reflected a critical intelligence.
Yes, there must be a memorial and the footprints of the twin towers should be preserved for that purpose. Yes, West St. should be buried, as shown in the plan called the Memorial Promenade, with a green lawn stretching from the site to the Battery, and a dramatic view of the Statue of Liberty.
But there was near-unanimous condemnation of the first six plans offered last Tuesday by the Port Authority.
"They look like plans for sewage treatment plants," one citizen typed on his screen. The LMDC had described them last week as mere first drafts, saying the actual buildings would probably emerge from an international competition among architects. Too vague a promise, said the people. And in this case, the people are the clients.
Very few wanted the site to become a memorial, and nothing else. In effect, they rejected (with respect) the notion of 16 acres of "hallowed ground," a bleak and permanent downtown necropolis. But they were also against the concentration of office buildings to satisfy the Port Authority lease on 11,000,000 square feet held by developer Lawrence Silverstein.
"Why would he want all those millions of unrentable square feet, anyway?" one woman typed into the computer. "Who would insure him?"
They wanted more space for affordable housing, so that downtown could flourish around the clock as a fully human community, wedded to Battery Park City and Tribeca, with new schools, cultural facilities, shops and restaurants. It must be more than a place to stack offices. They wanted the new buildings to fit into the existing downtown architecture - which the twin towers never did. Some ideas were utopian. Most were practical. None were frivolous.
Electricity fails, not power.
Later, wandering into the hot afternoon, this visitor was exhilarated. Our modern Committees of Correspondence were sending their messages. Only fools or knaves would ignore them. Then came news of the Con Ed power failure. My subway lines were closed, and I jumped into a taxi. The driver said he was from Peshawar. He didn't want to talk about Pakistan. His shrug told me the heat and traffic were bad enough.
Below 14th St., every traffic light was dead. And then at Seventh Ave. and Bleecker St., standing in the middle of the avenue, I saw the first citizen directing traffic. A white dude with gray beard and baseball cap. "Stop right there, man," he ordered one pickup truck, and the truck stopped. At Houston St., a thin black man in his 40s was doing the same, using hand signals as if he'd worked at this job all his life. The traffic moved, and not a cop or politician was in sight.
Then at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, a packed steel-glass-and-rubber line of westbound cars refused anyone a chance to pass toward downtown.
"Goddamn Jersey drivers," the man from Peshawar said.
We the people, baby.