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The Saving of Ground Zero

A tale of power, money, tragedy, and the unlikely rebirth of the World Trade Center site

To the degree that it’s possible for a 102-story building to take a city by surprise, One World Trade Center snuck up on the New York skyline. For years the project, conceived in the throes of tragedy, has been debated, negotiated, renamed, redrawn, hailed as a beacon, and maligned as a boondoggle. It wasn’t until recently, though, that it presented itself as an immutable fact, beginning to replace the void above Ground Zero with steel and reflective glass. Designed to commemorate lost life and recapture lost revenue, the half-completed skyscraper is both a nationalistic statement—it was formerly known as the “Freedom Tower”—and the centerpiece of a speculative real estate project.

From his headquarters high above 42nd Street, about three miles to the north, real estate developer Douglas Durst has been keeping watch over One World Trade’s rise. “I think it’s going to be quite spectacular,” he says one sultry July afternoon, sitting in a room decorated with photographs of his forbears in the family real estate company. Looking south over the majestic spread of Manhattan, One World Trade was wrapped in midsummer haze, and the air was thick with irony. If anyone in power had listened to Durst years ago, the vastly expensive tower would not exist.