From a green building perspective, Stephen’s post from last week about the project formerly known as Cordoba House and currently known as Park51 sums up pretty much everything we know about this still strictly notional building. Besides the rendering atop Stephen’s post, there are no real public plans for the building as yet — which is not even fully funded at present — so the announcement that Park51 will pursue an unspecified LEED certification is really about all we could expect to know at this point. But there is — as you’ve probably noticed given that this post exists — more to say about this. Yes, even after Stephen wrote about it.
It’s my hope that gbNYC is about more than me airing my insulation fetish green buildings — it actually is coincidental that the first two letters are lower case and the last three in caps (we thought it looked neat), but all these green buildings we discuss are, I’d argue, important only insofar as they exist within and interact with the living, breathing, wonderful/terrible, deceptively green city that’s acronymized there at the back end of this site’s name. (Well, that city its neighboring regions, of course) All those cool new green buildings and stunningly impressive green retrofits are interesting on their own insofar as they represent the forward progress of green building, which is obviously a thing we like and care about quite a bit here at gbNYC. But they’re most important, and perhaps only important, inasmuch as they contribute to the life of the city in which they exist. You know, this one. Which is New York City, if you’re just joining us.
The importance of that context is why we make such a big deal about corny, idiotic projects like New Domino and why we cheer Community Board 7′s ability to turn around a similarly corny, marginally less idiotic mega-development on the Upper West Side. It’s why we can comfortably lampoon all the big-ticket green buildings in the hilariously and intractably un-green city of Los Angeles. In short, the city’s the thing, and simultaneously the whole context and the capital-s Subject. As such, New York’s built environment — and the policies that shape that built environment — matters a great deal more than an innovative new daylighting system or even (gasp) intelligent use of insulation within any one building in Manhattan or Queens or the Bronx or wherever. And if we accept that New York City itself is what matters most, here — both that it’s what we’re covering and the reason why we’re covering it — then it’s a given that what makes NYC’s green buildings meaningful is how they contribute to the whole that is this place. By that standard, then, Park51 is meaningful regardless of the level of LEED certification it eventually achieves. Regardless, in fact, of whether this spectacularly (and, it seems to me, unjustly) embattled project ever comes to fruition.
By this point, we’re fairly deep into the story behind Park51, and I’m going to assume you know at least a bit about it. At this point in this post it’s probably fair to offer a bit of biographical disclosure by way of context — Stephen and I were both in New York City on September 11, 2001, and that day changed both our lives in ways both concrete and intangible. Stephen worked months of long shifts at Ground Zero that shaped the person he has become in the years since; I, being who I am, got drunk for a year or so and wrote about it a lot but was also lucky enough to meet the woman who would later become my wife, right there on the ashed, silent, heartsick streets of Brooklyn that very night. We’re not unique in this. Most New Yorkers and a great many people from Jersey and Connecticut and Long Island and other areas around can tell similar stories of how they have and have not filled in the crater that 9/11 left in their own lives, what they’ve built atop all that scorched earth.
The question of which people “own” or “get” this event — to go by the media’s simple, silly binary, the competition is between the absolutists in Fox News’s notional “heartland” and the out-of-touch liberal elites like those of us whose actual lives were singed and marked by the event itself — is, to me, pretty frankly repellent. But to answer it all the same: I think the right to comment on, fulminate about, hijack blogs with posts about the event belong to those who feel and think seriously about the event and its aftermath. It is probably not entirely a coincidence that many who fall outside that category also are not of the greater New York area. With the exception of homegrown bigots like serial Muslim-baiter Pamela Geller and the shameful and shameless Rudy Giuliani, the debate over whether the “Ground Zero Mosque” — which is not actually mosque, and is exactly as far from Ground Zero as all these other prosaic sites documented by blogger Daryl Lang — should exist has broken down between people whose rhetorical use for New York City began and ended on September 11 and those of us who actually make our lives here, and thus have much greater allegiance to the city. And, of course, much deeper demands of the city than that it flatter our political biases and sentiments.
Leave aside that so much of this debate is, on its face, about anti-Muslim bigotry — it smells just as bad whether it arrives in dunderheaded Newscorp trolling or the (ahem) ultramontane perfervidity of your more self-important bigots. That’s a lot to leave aside, but let’s do it. And let’s acknowledge, too, the way in which intolerance profiteers and plug-ugly bigots essentially created this controversy out of nothing at all, and let’s then move on from that as well. Finally let’s shrug off the way in which Park51 has been transformed into an object of political posturing, which politicians address with varying degrees of grace and cynical un-grace.
Let’s try to look at what is actually at stake here, at the thing itself: a nonprofit group wants to open an institution that is, in purpose, something much like the 92nd Street Y — notionally affiliated with a religion, but fundamentally a high-end community center — in lower Manhattan; they wish to do this by razing an unremarkable and vacant commercial space and replacing it with an architecturally distinguished and sustainable new construction building. That the ground on which the planned center is to be built is or is not “hallowed” is open for debate — it probably seems more that way when you’re a presidential hopeful dictating Tweets to an aide than it does when you’re a New Yorker looking for a place to eat lunch. At least, it’s open to debate relative to the other principles in play, here. Of these principles, even more so than the abhorrent discrimination against the center because of the faith it represents, fair play is the one that stands out to me. The Cordoba Initiative has been as transparent as can be, and its developers have followed the city’s laws and rules to the letter; that the Imam behind the project is to all appearances about as upstanding a public citizen as one could hope to find is not strictly important, but it happens to be true. This should not be complicated; at a fundamental level, it is not. At least not to New Yorkers.
This city is not a place in which who live here can field-test new strains of crypto-reasonable intolerance, or a venue for the playing out of kookily curdled conspiratorial imaginings of the world in which we live. Others can use it as such as they deem fit, but for gbNYC and much of our readership, New York City is our home, for good and ill but very much and finally for real — that, more than anything else, is why I write about it, why I care about it, why I actually can manage to get pissed about something as cosmically trivial as New Domino. For all its symbolic freight, Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero are finally just a part of that home — a part with a past beyond 9/11 and with a future that must similarly transcend that day, and in that sense like any and every other neighborhood in the city. Yes, the neighborhood is marked by the tragedy that happened there. The city is marked by it and we who live here are marked by it — there’s no sense in denying that. But there’s also no sense in dwelling on that mark, not when there is so much else to be done. And all of that stuff is getting done in NYC, right now. New York City is alive, and goes on living. Which means that Park51, which has done everything the city requires projects like this to do, needs to go forward, too.
Jane Jacobs said, “Never underestimate the power of a city to regenerate.” That idea of regeneration is what Park51, and the neighborhood around it, and even finally the World Trade Center site, represents. Strip away the cynicism and media noise and idiot spectacle and you have in Park51 one small (and LEED-hopeful) example of New York City doing what it does — surging, changing, moving, existing as its ineffable and inexplicable self, being the greatest city in the world. If New York City didn’t do that, we’d have nothing to write about here at gbNYC. If it didn’t do that, we would probably move someplace else, someplace with cheaper rents. But New York City is New York City, still — vast and challenging and disagreeable, diverse and unique and difficult. It will be all the more those things — and thus all the greater, and the stronger — when Park51 goes forward. We look forward to writing about it, but we really look forward to writing about something else once the sour-souled cynics and gawping disaster tourists who made Park 51 an issue in the first place finally head on home. We’ll start that “something else” tomorrow, promise.