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9/11 families protest cultural plans at Ground Zero

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN

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The cultural buildings are part of the master plan for rebuilding the World Trade Center site that architect Daniel Libeskind developed.

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Manhattan (New York)
September 11 attacks
Daniel Libeskind

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Dozens of relatives who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001, attacks are protesting plans for cultural institutions on the World Trade Center site, particularly the International Freedom Center that some families fear will detract from a 9/11 memorial.

Family members from support groups gathered Monday at the site to launch a campaign to "take back the memorial" weeks after a model for the first cultural building was unveiled.

"If the memorial fails to convey how we as Americans value the loss of life, if it fails to tell the story to those who visit 100 years from now, then we as a nation have failed," said Mary Fetchet, founder of Voices of September 11th, whose son, Brad, 24, died in the twin towers.

Families have expressed concern that the cultural buildings will sit adjacent to the 16-acre site reserved for the memorial and an underground museum.

The Freedom Center is the most controversial of the proposed four cultural institutions. The others include the Joyce International Dance Theater, Signature Theater Company and a fine arts drawing center.

Freedom Center planners said the yet-to-be-determined exhibits will offer a historic "narrative of hope" to complement the memorial. Rebuilding officials said the content will reflect "humankind's quest for freedom."

"The organizers of the International Freedom Center say that in order to understand 9/11, we must see exhibits about slavery, segregation and genocide and its impact around the world. This is a history that we all should know and learn, but not here -- not on sacred ground," said Michael Burke, whose brother, Billy, was one of the 343 firefighters killed responding to the attacks.

"Nobody is coming to this place to learn about Ukraine democracy or to be inspired by the courage of Tibetan monks. They're coming for September 11."

Some families also said they find the size of exhibition space planned for the Freedom Center -- roughly double the 100,000 square feet for an underground memorial -- unfair.

"If we put the wrong buildings on this site, the 9/11 memorial will be lost in the abyss. If we put the right buildings on this site, the entire site will seem as a memorial," said Rose Talon, whose slain brother was also a firefighter.

"We have another tragedy -- forgetfulness," said Edie Lutnick, whose brother, Gary, worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, the brokerage atop the north tower where 658 people, more than any employer, lost their lives. "9/11 is being buried underground."

The debate erupted in public when one of the September 11 family members on the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, Debra Burlingame, wrote an op-ed column this month in The Wall Street Journal complaining about plans for the site.

Burlingame's brother was the pilot of the jetliner al Qaeda hijackers crashed into the Pentagon outside Washington.

"Looking generations ahead, people will come to this site and they will want to know what happened on that day and the days going forward, and they'll be confused because the real events of that day will be plunged underground," Burlingame said Monday.

"It is a massive, imposing building which dominates the site, and inside there will be nothing -- nothing about September 11."

Some families also cited concern that the political nature of the Freedom Center's exhibits could dilute the story of September 11 and become a magnet for disruptive protests.

"Do you find a debate about Nazism at Auschwitz? Do you find a debate about the North and the South at Gettysburg?" asked Charles Wolf, who lost his wife, Katherine, in the trade center attacks.

Seeking to rebuff the complaints, rebuilding officials pointed to a new poll of 105 September 11 family members that found them nearly evenly split, with 47 percent for the cultural plans and 45 percent against them. The Families of September 11 commissioned the telephone survey.

"This vision for the Freedom Center should be a tribute, a celebration of those men and women who through the course of history have moved us forward in our march to freedom," said John Cahill, a special adviser to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the agency overseeing the rebuilding effort.

Cahill and Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Chairman John Whitehead said it was too early to characterize the Freedom Center's content. Whitehead advocated installations for the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and "important events in our history that we are all proud of."

"The Freedom Center stands for what was attacked that day here and around the world," Cahill said. "The idea that we are going to allow the Freedom Center to get hijacked from the political right or from the political left is something that none of us will stand for."

Whitehead also said the September 11 memorial center will be underground to provide families what they wanted -- access to the bedrock of Ground Zero and the site's thick concrete border "slurry wall" that survived the collapse of the towers.

"The memorial has always been and will always be the centerpiece, the heart and soul of our efforts. At six acres in size, it will be an appropriately prominent and moving memorial," Whitehead said.

The cultural buildings are part of the master plan for rebuilding the World Trade Center site that architect Daniel Libeskind developed. The plan includes a 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower and a massive new train station.

Libeskind originally described the buildings as buffers between the high traffic street on the east side of Ground Zero and the memorial plaza.

The memorial, chosen after an unprecedented international competition, will feature two reflecting pools where the acre-wide towers once stood.

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