Saturday, January 22, 2005

The resilience and persistence of cities

On February 11, 2002, just five months after disaster struck in the form of four hijacked airplanes, scholars at MIT launched a remarkable series of discussions on "trauma, recovery, and remembrance." For many it was too soon to think about recovery from the devastation in the heart of New York City, but for urban planners and historians, there was a long view to be taken.

The conference reached beyond the campus walls via live streaming video (the videos are still available). And the book that came out of it, The Resilient City, has just been published. "The process of organizing and producing this book," write editors Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella, "was, in the end, both a scholarly and a therapeutic exercise."*

It is heartening, in a way, to learn that "only forty-two cities worldwide were permanently abandoned following destruction between the years 1100 and 1800." Latter-day examples of dramatic recovery include Atlanta and Richmond, Dresden and Coventry and Berlin. What I'm especially interested in, though, is what the recovery looks like, how a city remembers and tells future audiences what happened: the issue of memorialization.

At the time of the conference, the memorializing process in New York City was not nearly as far along as it was by the time the book was published. Vale offered these cautionary words: "The process of post-disaster recovery is a window into the power structure of the society that has been stricken. . . . Who decides what will be rebuilt where, and which voices carry forth the dominant narratives that interpret what transpires? . . . To analyze remembrance is to look at how what is remembered gets selected, when, and by whom."

The conference videos, especially Vale's talk, were useful to me two years ago as I finished a talk for a conference on "commemoration and the city."

Sgt. William Jasper monument, Savannah

My subject was the history of a statue in Raleigh of Judge Thomas Ruffin, a man revered in official North Carolina history for having been one of the best-respected judges of the 19th century, a man better known by legal historians as the author of an infamous case in the law of slavery. On the one hand I find it therapeutic and deeply necessary to tell the truth about Ruffin's part in solidifying the "absolute" power of the master over the slave. On the other, I worry about my own small place in a sorry history, about the flip side of judging the memorial narratives of the past. There's plenty we might want to ask Judge Ruffin if we were to bring his statue out from the shadow of the court building where it stands today, I concluded, but "the jury is still out on all of us. Before we become too comfortable with our satisfying revisions of a troubling history, as we grapple with the choices we make, the stories we tell, in a new time of war, we might ask how we think we ourselves can avoid the snares of myth and memory."

The jury is still out on the process of memorialization in New York City, too. By the time The Resilient City was going to press, there was more to say about it: architects David Childs and Daniel Libeskind were, as Max Page put it in his contribution to the book, "thrown together in a shotgun marriage," out of which they designed their Freedom Tower; while Michael Arad and Peter Walker's "Reflecting Absence" won the memorial competition.

"Reflecting Absence"

Writing in 2004, Page found New York "poised between two kinds of resilience." One embodied a "renewed vitality," a spirit "that led, in the months after 9/11, to an unprecedented outpouring of radical ideas for rebuilding commercial hubs, public housing, and parks across the entire city." It seemed to him, though, that this was giving way to another kind of resilience: "elasticity--that is, like a rubber band, things return back to normal, to life before the event."

Everything, we were told, would change. With office towers ringing a beautiful, clean park and an elegant, clean memorial, we have returned to a vision of New York--including its political and economic state--before 9/11. If all that the rebuilding comes to is a memorial garden with some reconnected streets, a thicket of office towers, and a million-plus square feet for a hotel and shopping mall, then we will have failed to invest in a more vibrant, more just new York, our national jewel, what E.B. White called "the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions."

But this end is not necessarily the end, in New York or anywhere where the past, through conscious process, becomes present: in every urban landscape, there remains the space to reflect upon what is remembered and what will persist.

*An instructor at MIT at the time of the conference, Campanella is now on faculty at UNC. Vale spoke at UNC in 2003 at a conference on affordable housing. Among the speakers at MIT was Edward Linenthal, who spoke here last fall at the conference on "Remembering Reconstruction at Carolina."

UPDATE: Newsweek reviews The Resilient City.

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