By Dustin Brown
Greater Astoria Historical Society shifted its gaze from the past to the future Monday night as it gathered community input on how the World Trade Center site should be redeveloped.
The session was part of an extensive effort coordinated by the Manhattan-based Municipal Arts Society to brainstorm and pool people’s ideas for rebuilding the property, a project known as Imagine New York.
“We were very, very pleased that the Municipal Arts Society had put something like this together,” said historical society President Bob Singleton. “The various communities in the area had an opportunity to participate as part of the healing process.”
More than 50 such workshops are being held around the metropolitan area this month.
About three dozen people attended the session at the society’s home at the Quinn Building in Astoria, where it became clear the pain of Sept. 11 has yet to fade more than six months after the attacks.
Individuals recalled personal experiences from Sept. 11 One woman described the uncontrollable and irrational rage she felt toward Arabs when the act of terrorism overwhelmed her with grief.
“I screamed, I cried. I went almost hysterical,” she said, remembering the moment she was told one of the towers had fallen. “It was horrible.”
Ann LaCascia of Long Island City said an out-of-state relative saw the towers collapse and thought it was a scene from a movie.
“She couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Deborah Van Cura, the society’s secretary and treasurer, acted as moderator and posed a pair of open-ended questions to gauge how the loss of the World Trade Center has affected people in the long term: “What have we lost?” and “How have we changed?”
“Before we can look forward to the future of the Trade Center, we have to kind of look back a bit,” Van Cura explained, wielding a marker to transcribe responses onto a list on large sheets of white paper.
Thomas LaCascia lamented that Americans have lost their innocence.
“In all the wars we’ve been in, we’ve never experienced anything here,” he said. “It’s stunning to us because we have been living in innocence.”
One man mentioned the city has lost a tourist attraction, but without missing a beat added it has also gained one, eliciting a few ironic chuckles.
The list ultimately cataloged losses ranging from human life to the concerts formerly staged in the World Trade Center plaza.
The participants also observed changes in their attitudes, such as a recognition of how precious life is and a newfound respect for police officers and firefighters.
But many of those assembled expressed a strong distrust of the American government and a loss of faith in U.S. intelligence operations, a sentiment that ran counter to the way people rallied around the nation’s leadership immediately after Sept. 11.
When told to imagine the future of the site, participants voiced conflicting opinions on how to remember the victims. One man warned against creating a large, overwhelming memorial that would make the entire space feel like a graveyard. But another reminded him in response that the site actually is a graveyard.
Fran Rappo of Woodside even handed in a letter and diagram documenting her own ideas for the site, which included a memorial listing victims’ names on miniature replicas of the Twin Towers.
The session was scheduled to be continued Saturday at 3 p.m. in a second meeting, when the ideas will be organized for submission to the Municipal Arts Society. That group is expected to summarize all findings in a report to the agencies responsible for developing the site.
The historical society also offered a brief but powerful look backwards in an introductory slide presentation documenting the area’s history, in which Singleton said the World Trade Center was not the first structure to occupy the area as the world’s largest office complex.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Lower Manhattan was transformed by the construction of the first skyscrapers and modern offices, including the expansive Hudson and Manhattan Terminals, the largest offices ever built when they went up in 1908.
Similar sessions are scheduled April 11 at Queens at Lexington School for the Deaf, April 13 at Jamaica Center for the Arts and Learning and at Queens Botanical Garden, and April 14 at Flushing Town Hall and branches of the Queens Borough Public Library. For more information, call 212-750-3972, or visit www.imaginenewyork.org.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.