Book Review: Power at Ground Zero: the Definite Story of Rebuilding the World Trade Center Site

Book Review: Power at Ground Zero: the Definite Story of Rebuilding the World Trade Center Site

Fifteen is the number in some lists of anniversary names where you start skipping the numbers, suggesting that this is a moment where you start forgetting about the years. So with this being somewhat of a milestone number, we read about US President Barack Obama memorializing the 15th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York recently, but from where I was standing (the Netherlands) it wasn’t a big headline. Time does that kind of thing. Two weeks prior to that I was in New York, noticing that the World Trade Center area had become something of a tourist destination, with people standing in line to go up to the One World Trade Center observatory, Instagramming the inside of Calatrava’s new transport hub, or solemnly taking in the sight of the memorial.

Off course here are many, many books discussing the development of the former Ground Zero site, or parts of it, like the recently discussed book on One World Trade Center, but none of these have been able to portray the full picture as development was still in progress. With the main building blocks in place, now is a good time to look back one more time to sum up what happened in the years in between.

Lynn Sagalyn is a professor of real estate at Columbia University Business School, who writes about how cities revitalize themselves through urban renewal. In 2003 her book about the transformation of Times Square was published, which had taken her ten years to research and write. Even though she must have had an idea what she was up against when she started looking at Ground Zero, I doubt she had imagined ending up with a 900-plus-page book fifteen years along the road. And the thing is, this story really requires that number of pages.


Reading “Power at Ground Zero” brings to mind binge-watching tv series such as Game of Thrones when it comes to the sheer number of individuals and organizations involved and the many worlds and circumstances in which the main characters struggle for power. Having said that, Sagalyn does an excellent job at untangling the many storylines and capturing the motives of the characters, and the backdrop against which they act. You already know that everything about this development is big and complicated, but along the way it becomes increasingly hard to imagine anything happened at all, yet it did. Understanding the size of the context make you realize that fifteen years is actually not that long of a stretch to rebuilt this area.

In a number of ways, the book itself is a metaphor of the development of the World Trade Center site. The project started out as a number of essays, but only ten years on Sagalyn realized what the end result was going to be. The many people and their motives involved means the project is a long and costly one, but the fact that they all have all been heard and all of their motives mattered means that not only the end result is a symbol of freedom, but the story on how to get there as well.

The book is properly illustrated, including a good number of cartoons from newspapers and magazines which help to understand the general perception at the time. Even though the size of the book might seem like a challenge, the list price sure isn’t. I’m not sure how the Oxford University press does it, but a list price of $39,95 really is one of the best deals you’ll find in the skyscraper bookstore. “Power at Ground Zero” is a true monument for a monument.


Power at Ground Zero
Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan
Lynne B. Sagalyn
publisher: Oxford University Press
2016 | hardback | 901 pages | ISBN-13: 978-0190607029
more: OUP shop

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