August 31, 2003 ñ New York Times

Keep Your New Towers. They Want the Towers.




AT the food court beneath Grand Central Terminal, four radicals are gathered around a table plotting a revolution. Andrew Oliff is 35, lives in Bayside, Queens, and is a neuropathologist. Marcy Mellos is 48, lives in Murray Hill and works as a legal assistant. Joe Wright is 58, a Kentucky native who lives near Gramercy Park and designs voice mail systems. Louis Epstein is 42, lives in Rockland County and runs a small Internet service provider.

There are relatively few circumstances that might draw together people with seemingly so little in common. Jury duty is one, or an open call for game-show contestants. Group therapy is another, and that gets closer to the truth.

These four unlikely comrades are the leaders of the World Trade Center Restoration Movement. In close solidarity with one another, and in opposition to the city's political establishment, business leaders, academics and civic groups, and just about everyone else whose opinion matters, the W.T.C.R.M. demands that the World Trade Center towers be rebuilt. Not replaced by something new and supposedly better. Rebuilt, hewing as closely as possible to the design of the buildings that were lost on Sept. 11.

The members of the group may not be the only ones who dare to mention rebuilding the towers, but they are by far the most visible and the least afraid of humiliation. Their experiences at the public forums convened to discuss ground zero, however, have been painfully disillusioning.

"The process was a sham," said Ms. Mellos, whose previous political experience was organizing a rent strike in her neighborhood. "Early on, they decided that the high stories could not be tenanted, so they wouldn't bother trying." She paused for a deep breath, but emotion overtook her. "It was a business decision," she cried. "But they made it out like this was the right thing to do."

For the Restoration Movement, any decision to do anything other than rebuild the towers is the wrong thing to do. And the decision to adopt Daniel Libeskind's plan for a faceted glass tower is the wrongest thing of all.

Their setbacks have only fueled their resolve and hardened their rhetoric. They now refer to Mr. Libeskind's plan as "a death pit," and they declare, in press releases, that if the towers aren't rebuilt the terrorists will have won. None of this has endeared them to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, of course. But it has also enraged representatives of the victims' families. "Some people really think that the towers killed their loved ones," Mr. Wright said. "So for supporting the rebuilding of the towers, I was called a murderer."

Sensing that their ideas were being dismissed, the members began holding meetings at one another's apartments and in coffee shops. They drew up a 1,500-person e-mail list and sent out frequent updates. And they took to the streets, collecting signatures and handing out stickers that read, "YES I'd work on the 110th floor!"

On July 26, they held a rally at City Hall Park that was preserved on videotape by one of the members. It was an exercise in civil obedience. Competing with the roar of passing buses and the general torpor of a hot summer day, a succession of supporters made heartfelt speeches. The proceedings hit their sharpest edge when Jonathan Hakala, who worked on the 77th floor of 1 World Trade Center, dismissed Mr. Libeskind's tower as "anorexic spires that resemble large drinking straws."

According to Mr. Oliff, "a lot of passers-by stopped to see what was happening." And at a coffee shop afterward, two tourists told the rally's organizers that the memorial for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was already suffering a drop-off in attendance. That only confirmed the group's belief that Americans have a short attention span, and formal, somber memorials are a waste of time.

"You know that joke, `Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?' " Mr. Epstein said. "It became a joke because over time, nobody went there anymore It was forgotten. Because that's what happens when you build things for the dead and not for the living."

Lately, the group has been fixated on the slurry wall, a part of the twin towers' original foundation that Mr. Libeskind proposes to leave intact and exposed. The Restoration Movement regards that move as structurally unsound and symbolically inappropriate ó a way, Mr. Epstein said, of "setting the terrorists' act in stone and forcing us to live with the emptiness they imposed on us."

Three members of the group knew people who died on Sept. 11, but they say that's not what drives their crusade. Ms. Mellos is motivated by a deep sentimental attachment to the landmarks of the city where she has lived her entire life. Mr. Oliff feels betrayed by politicians who initially supported rebuilding. Mr. Wright, who describes himself as an "Ayn Rand objectivist," views the towers as an expression of "the city's individuality." For Mr. Epstein, who has never lived in New York and didn't know anyone who worked in the towers, rebuilding them is a larger, abstract cause, a matter of patriotism.

They know that the original World Trade Center was built over the opposition of grass-roots groups like theirs, but that doesn't bother them; once the towers went up, the group says, they became a kind of public trust, and that trust must be defended.

The Restoration Movement is now trying to organize its own renegade architectural competition, one that posits two tall towers as its starting point. But before a call for submissions can be issued, a jury must be chosen, and that has proved difficult. Mr. Epstein said he has received commitments from two architects and an architectural historian, but he won't name them because "they haven't given me authorization yet."

Mr. Epstein shook his head. "I don't think there's any doubt that people are afraid of being associated with us," he said. "At the moment, we are the losing team."

Asked if they believed they would eventually prevail, all four members offered an obligatory yes. Then Ms. Mello recanted. "No," she said. "They will build what they want to build, and they will not care what we say."

Her colleagues around the table nodded stoically. Then Mr. Epstein piped up. "She's right, we won't win," he said. "Not right away. They will build something like they say they're going to build, because there's too much riding on it for them to back out. The victims groups are still too powerful, too determined to let their personal grief speak for all of us. But it will be a huge failure and everyone will know it, and they will tear it down and rebuild the towers at least as tall as the old ones."

There were vigorous nods around the table. At last, they had struck upon the blueprint for victory.