On July Fourth two years ago, eight weeks before the Republican National Convention in New York City, Gov. George E. Pataki traveled from the Hamptons summer home of his senior economic adviser, Charles A. Gargano, to the dusty crater in the center of Lower Manhattan.
Draped in the symbolism of Independence Day, the two men descended into the baking-hot pit at ground zero. There they oversaw the ceremonial laying of a 20-ton Adirondack granite cornerstone — flecked with garnet, the state gem — for what was to be the first building to rise at the new World Trade Center: the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower.
“How badly our enemies underestimated the resiliency of this city and the resolve of these United States,” Mr. Pataki said.
For almost two years after that day’s Declaration of Independence reading and “God Bless America” singing, the cornerstone sat forlornly in the 16-acre depression, waiting for a beacon of hope to soar above it. Even as a building redesign left the cornerstone in the wrong place, it waited, inside a blue shed surrounded, often, by a brackish moat.
During that time, Larry A. Silverstein, the commercial leaseholder of the World Trade Center site, often found himself gazing down at the stone, remembering the way he had smiled through his teeth at the July Fourth ceremony. “The whole thing was speeches,” he said. “To me, it was illusory, almost like a farce. People were thinking, ‘God, this is wonderful,’ when I knew in my heart that it was sheer rubbish.”
Then, this June, after construction actually began on the substructure of the Freedom Tower, the cornerstone was in the way. Mr. Silverstein’s workers used a crane to hoist it from the site, transferring it to a flatbed for a journey that would reverse the one that the governor made on Independence Day 2004: from ground zero out to Long Island, where it is now stored.
Five years after Sept. 11, 2001, ground zero remains a 16-acre, 70-foot-deep hole in the heart of Lower Manhattan. High above it, a scaffolded bank building, contaminated during the attack, hulks like a metal skeleton, waiting endlessly to be razed.
The wreck that still stands tall and the pit that still sinks deep sum up the troubled history of ground zero. A site of horrific tragedy whose rescue and cleanup operation was a model of valiant efficiency, ground zero turned into a sinkhole of good intentions where it was as difficult to demolish a building as to construct one.
For all that has not yet risen from the ashes, there has been considerable sturm und drang, “like a novel, a cheap novel,” said Daniel Libeskind, the master planner for the site. The combination of big money, prime real estate, bottomless grief, artistic ego and dreams of legacy transformed ground zero into a mosh pit of stakeholders banging heads over billions in federal aid, tax breaks and insurance proceeds.
Only now, after a whirlwind of negotiations to resolve crises in advance of the fifth anniversary, is subterranean work substantially under way, raising the hope that reconstruction may proceed. Even so, many family members of victims are quick to point out that they still have nowhere to go to mourn their loved ones and only shaken faith that they will see a fitting memorial in the near future.
Governor Pataki, who assumed control of the reconstruction effort in the earliest days, did not intend it to be so protracted. In the spring of 2003, pressed by business leaders who had denounced the anemic pace of rebuilding, Mr. Pataki promised to be “bold and daring and swift.”
Standing in a hotel ballroom, he pledged that the skyline would be restored by this fifth anniversary when the Freedom Tower, as he christened it that day, would be topped off at 1,776 feet. By the end of 2006, he continued, a grand new PATH terminal and Fulton Street Transit Center would open, the substructure for a memorial would be built and a grand piazza, the Wedge of Light, would be created.
None of this has come to pass.
Lower Manhattan itself has experienced an unexpected resurgence with the conversion of outdated office buildings to luxury residential properties. “The problem,” as John C. Whitehead, 84, the former chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, said baldly in an interview last spring, “is the 16-acre ditch.”
To Julie Menin, the chairwoman of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan, the ditch represents the “colossal failure” of the reconstruction effort. John E. Zuccotti, whose company is a principal owner of the neighboring World Financial Center, sees it more charitably. He would give officials “an A for planning,” given the challenges posed by “a situation where more than 2,700 have been murdered.”
“Where it has stumbled,” he said crisply, “has been in the execution.”
Not long after Sept. 11, it became apparent that ground zero had very many owners, from its technical owners — the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Mr. Silverstein — to those who possessed a different kind of claim on the site.
There were developers, architects, politicians, insurers, community residents, relatives of Sept. 11 victims and multiple competing government entities. “Too many cooks,” Mr. Whitehead said. And they all viewed ground zero differently.
Where some saw lucrative real estate, others saw a graveyard. Where some saw Rockefeller Center or Lincoln Center or Grand Central Terminal, others saw Gettysburg.
By destroying 16 acres of Manhattan, Sept. 11 produced “an opportunity, as horrible as that sounds,” said Anthony G. Cracchiolo, a former Port Authority executive, referring, in his case, to the opportunity to remake a century-old transit system.
For many in government and business, it provided the heady opportunity, also, to participate in history, to “wear the ring,” as development officials used to say.
Ambitions were grand, or, critics would say, grandiose, leading to plans for: the tallest building in the country, the most expensive commuter rail station ($2.2 billion), the costliest memorial complex (at least $740 million) and the most technologically advanced “vehicle security center” ($478 million).
Despite $20 billion in federal money and $4.6 billion anticipated in insurance proceeds, however, the site’s two central projects, the Freedom Tower and the memorial, have stumbled financially, as in every other way.
Some victims’ family members consider it a skewed priority that the World Trade Center transportation hub is claiming about 13 percent of the direct federal aid while the memorial, which recently underwent cost-cutting and depends on a fund-raising campaign, is getting only about 1.6 percent.
“They saw 9/11 as an opportunity to right all the wrongs of Lower Manhattan,” said Edith Lutnick, the executive director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re doing it in the name of 9/11, then take care of 9/11 first.”