What’s In a Name? For the WTC, a Lot.

There are 93 World Trade Centers worldwide. So what bearing, if any, does this fact have on establishing the name of the trade center currently under development in downtown Manhattan? This was one of the questions raised at “Starting at Zero: Reinventing the Identity of the World Trade Center Site,” a panel discussion held Sept. 24 at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. The purpose of the event, which was sponsored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, New York Chapter, was to reflect on the issues around the moniker of the sixteen-acre Ground Zero site; consider how the site’s identity can be rebuilt; and most of all, think about how a name had the power to reflect our views of the city.

An odd fusion of sensibilities has already formed around the “World Trade Center” moniker. It has been no surprise that corporate interests want the Trade Center’s name to remain the same: When the rebuilt PATH Station opens in November, it will be called the World Trade Center Station, and both the Port Authority and leaseholder Larry Silverstein have clearly stated their intent to use the WTC moniker for the site.

But other New Yorkers who have no financial stake in the new development also favor keeping the name. They believe that the monolithic nature of the original towers and the scale of the catastrophe that brought them down give that place name an immutable power and resonance; the site will be forever associated with the towers and their collapse. Efforts to change the name would simply be a pointless—and offensive—branding exercise.

Panelist Joshua Sirefman, COO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) observed that unlike the towers preceding them, the new buildings in the Libeskind/SOM plan would constitute a series of places (and functions)—retail, cultural, memorial, transportation hub, office space. But that said, the name “World Trade Center” has evolved, and he suggested the other identities of the site be established within that. “It will still be the financial center of the world,” he said. “The name helps to convey that.”

Other New Yorkers are of a different mind. If the monumental twin towers were expressions of 1970s urbanism, these citizens hope that the new buildings will represent a urbanism more responsive to its times—a complex of buildings that are more sustainable, more connected to the city around them, more human, more humane.

“This is a working neighborhood, not an isolated financial center, and the more the name reflects that, the better,” said architect James Biber. He was echoed by graphic designer Ann Harakawa, who suggested that “a name can reflect these opportunities.”

Believing that a new name can resonate with new intent and a new identity, architect Rick Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the AIA, stated, “This is a chance to do something better.” Perhaps most important, moderator Susan Szenasy asked, “Is it possible for us to think beyond ourselves, beyond our own experience?”

Panelists also discussed accuracy in place names. The McGraw Hill Building, the Chrysler Building, and the RCA Building have all ceased to serve their original developers and tenants, yet their names remain embedded in popular memory and imagination. Certainly World Trade Center is a powerful name, and its failure of accuracy is probably irrelevant in New York City, where all manners of place names like Madison Square Garden and Battery Park are used unquestioningly. “Powerful names,” said Biber, “have a way of sticking around. Names are tenacious. The best ones are the ones that are colloquial.”

An audience member questioned whether honesty was more important than accuracy. “There is a concept in psychology of the good mother,” the member said. “This is a mother who is OK—not a great mom, but not a terrible one, either. Can’t we adapt this concept here? A good enough name would be OK. What we need most to be watchful of are dishonest names. We have a long history of dishonest names in this country—think of all the places named after Native Americans after we wiped those populations out. Let’s just strive not to be dishonest.”

“Having a meaning in a name is a wonderful thing,” Harakawa said, but it seems to remain open whether such meaning need necessarily be rooted in history. The executive director of the Port Authority told the New York Times recently the name World Trade Center is “a statement of respect for those who died there and what happened there. At the same time, I think it’s a statement of hope.”

If it’s a statement of hope you’re after, it would seem only logical that you might choose a name not reflective of the past but resonant with the future. But in September 2003, that seemed to be only one more uncertainty about the sixteen-acre site. If there is any consensus two years after the towers’ collapse, it seems to be that the names of urban places be decided by the public rather than by an institution. As one member of the audience said, “In the end, having a voice is more important than what it’s called.”

A writer and editor, Akiko Busch was one of the principal organizers of the “Starting at Zero: Reinventing the Identity of the World Trade Center Site” panel.

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