Twice during the past six months, I've traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the neighborhood ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. As a New Yorker, I have reason to pass within sight of Ground Zero, site of the former World Trade Center, at least every few weeks.
These incidental pilgrimages have taken on extra meaning for me lately, during the two-week period that includes the anniversaries of both Katrina's landfall on August 29, 2005, and the Al Qaeda terror attacks on September 11, 2001. In ruminating on those dates and places, it is impossible not to feel disappointed, even disgusted, by my country.
These sensations hit me in an especially heightened way in the aftermath of a recent visit to Israel, where for whatever else ails the nation and the body politic, it seems at least to my visitor's eyes to have succeeded in exactly the ways American has so vividly failed in the Lower Ninth and at Ground Zero - in memory, in reconstruction.
Any sensate American exhaled with relief earlier this week when Hurricane Gustav battered at New Orleans without managing to breach the levees as Katrina so catastrophically did. The near-miss, however, should not become the occasion for any broader sort of national self-congratulation.
THE SITUATION in the Lower Ninth makes for a continuing indictment of the Bush Administration as well as the incompetent Democrats in the local and state governments of New Orleans and Louisiana. Had the levee broken again this week, the second-biggest scandal would have been how little there was in the Lower Ninth to destroy.
You can drive for block after block through the Lower Ninth, as I did in both March and July, and find only isolated homes rebuilt. The electric grid covers only a sliver of the neighborhood. Where there once stood a working-class neighborhood - despite the conventional portrayal of it as impoverished, the Lower Ninth had a high rate of home ownership - marsh grass and saplings rise shoulder-high and wetlands rats called nutria roam the landscape.
Every one of those reconstructed homes in the Lower Ninth represents both a triumph and a condemnation - a triumph for the resourceful owners and volunteers who did the work and a condemnation for all the layers of government slow or unwilling to make the revival of the neighborhood anything remotely like a priority. If you want to understand the built-in limits of even the most noble, idealistic sort of voluntarism, look around New Orleans at all the kids from colleges, churches, and synagogues in their matching shirts from this or that disaster-relief group - look at all that sincere compassion - and then count the number of houses it has managed to erect.
Wandering the overgrown desolation of the Lower Ninth makes me think of the development towns - drab yes, but inhabitable - that a young, poor Israel created for hundreds of thousands of refugees. The mighty, wealthy United States could have learned from the example. At my most cynical times, I'm tempted to suggest that we solve two problems in one fell swoop by sending all the hilltop youth from Samaria to the Lower Ninth and telling them the government has expressly forbidden any settlements from being built there. In no time, there'd be caravans linked up to power lines.
A DIFFERENT Israeli point of reference comes to mind in considering Ground Zero. An American friend of mine visited Jerusalem soon after the September 11 attacks and was walking with an Israeli companion past the Sbarro pizzaria that had been devastated by a suicide bomber. The Israeli pointed out that within weeks of the bombing, the restaurant had been fixed up and reopened, which of course is the Israeli norm. As for the World Trade Center, the Israeli told my friend: "You should build it back up to the sky. You can't let them win."
Well, as the seventh anniversary of September 11 nears, the construction of the so-called Freedom Tower has made it about 25 feet above ground level. A leading official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the public body responsible for the site, has cast doubt on the proposed completion date of 2011, leading to speculation that 2013 might be more plausible.
There are plenty of logical reasons for the slow pace - the legal struggle involving the Twin Towers' developer, Larry Silverstein, and insurance companies; the competition among architects for a Freedom Tower design; the competing interests of survivors for a memorial to their martyred relatives and other stakeholders for a viable assemblage of commercial real estate.
Still, only a certain failure of will and a certain psychic exhaustion can round out the explanation for the tardy, tedious effort at rebuilding. I sometimes wonder if New York, and more broadly the nation, spent all its emotional and physical energy in the first months after the attack. Rather than trauma leading to paralysis, the shock inspired the most exemplary acts of selflessness - the search for survivors at Ground Zero, particularly by New York's firefighters; the treacherous "unbuilding" of the ruins, as recounted memorably in magazine articles and a book by William Langewiesche; the impromptu memorials of candles, flowers, and homemade "Missing" posters; the wrenching yet consoling art made by Bruce Springsteen on his album The Rising and Anne Nelson in her play The Guys.
Year after year, the commemoration of September 11 has diminished and turned more rote. The date itself has been reduced to the cold, impersonal cliche 9/11. The tragedy has become merely a campaign symbol. The sluggish pace at Ground Zero, with so little to show after seven years, has indeed, as my friend's Israeli comrade worried, given a kind of victory to Al Qaeda.
There are houses in the Lower Ninth. There are construction crews and equipment at Ground Zero. But in a deeper way, each of these places, which should be consecrated ground, remains inexcusably barren.
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