Imagining New York

By James Wong

"The people are gone
"The towers are gone
"The steel is still here..."

Michael Greene was reciting his poem, "Close Enough to Touch," and it was too much for Mike Kuo. He left the room in order to regain his composure.

Kuo's father died on September 11th. Kuo, 26, a graduate student of urban planning at Hunter College, was going to drop out of school. But, instead, on the prodding of one of his professors, he was here six months later, along with nearly one hundred other people, at the first workshop of "Imagine New York."

Organized by the Municipal Art Society of New York, in conjunction with over 50 civic and community organizations, Imagine NY is based on the premise that, as their literature explains, "no plan for the World Trade Center site will truly succeed without the insights and ideas of the vast public affected by September 11."

Thousands of people are expected to participate in hundreds of workshops throughout the metropolitan region; anyone can organize a workshop. The events are mostly open to the public at large, and will culminate in massive meetings April 11 to April 14.

Kuo is a volunteer helping to organize the workshops. "Eighty to ninety percent of the time it's work," he said, "but moments like today it does become cathartic."

As emotional as they are likely to become, though, the workshops are not intended just as group therapy sessions. They provide a forum for ideas about rebuilding, offering participants the opportunity to express their thoughts on everything from what a memorial should look like to how to get the government to be more responsive to their needs.

The two main objectives of the project are to gather public ideas and visions about rebuilding, and to ensure that those ideas are heard by decision-makers. To that end, all the ideas will be collected and catalogued, available on the web, and presented to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the group in charge of rebuilding, and local and state politicians.

The first Imagine NY workshop was held, with separate sessions in English, Spanish and Chinese, on March 14th at the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side, only a mile and a half away from Ground Zero. Most who showed up had never been asked their thoughts about 9/11, and they were eager to discuss their visions for rebuilding New York physically, economically and emotionally.

One suggested that the United Nations move downtown, another that a museum open up dedicated to the victims. Many among the group said that office space was not the answer.

Kuo said he wants to see a memorial built at the site with a strong educational component that tells individual stories of who the victims were and what was special about them. It should be "a world memorial, very powerful, about world peace, big, and beautiful" said another participant.

At issue for many of the Lower East Side residents present was how best to revitalize a community that, like much of the city, has suffered after 9/11. Cedric Hargrove, currently unemployed and a single parent of two, said that he would like to see the city invest in more job training for all those without jobs. Many agreed that the city should do more to create jobs for welfare-to-work recipients. Others focused on the need for more affordable housing. One participant said that the city should call a moratorium on all evictions and work on extending rent stabilization laws.

Among the myriad ideas presented, there were certain themes that everyone seemed to agree on. "We need to reprioritize our resources to be inclusive of all people in the community, especially low and moderate income families, in issues of housing, jobs, and environmental justice," said one participant, as heads nodded in agreement all around the room.

The first Imagine NY workshop ran an hour longer than scheduled. Everybody stayed.

"Being with strangers is a wonderful experience," said Mindy Fullilove, a participant and member of the Imagine NY steering committee. "We need to make a city where we get out of our ruts. We should have Imagine NY every day and be able to get out of our segregated groups and meet each other."