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Gary Younge
Manhattanites muse on a void and spurn the Aftermath Mall

Welcome to urban planning, New York style - a mixture of people power and group therapy for those determined to influence the rebuilding of the site where the World Trade Centre once stood.

It was an evening that began with formal introductions and ended with a call to arms. In between came personal reflections, political positions and occasional tears.

"Most cities are nouns," said John F Kennedy. "New York's a verb." And so it was that I attended the meeting, because I thought it would be intriguing, and left inspired, ticking the box "interested citizen".

It was the second phase of Imagine New York: The People's Response - a Municipal Art Society project to make sure the vox populi had its say on the regeneration of lower Manhattan.

The first six proposals, unveiled in July, were so underwhelming that Lower Manhattan Development Corporation literally went back to the drawing board. It returned with a far more encouraging shortlist of nine models, which have been on display for several weeks.

After we viewed them in the Winter Gardens, more than 100 of us were directed to a nearby campus and split into workshops to discuss our preferred topic.

With the two most popular, architectural design and economic development, already taken, I nabbed the last place on "sacred space" and "flexibility for a creative memorial".

In a group of about a dozen, which included two people who lost relatives on September 11, stilted conversation between strangers soon gave way to passionate and delicate philosophical debate.

Much of it hinged on Daniel Libeskind's "bathtub" - the exposed pit he plans to leave under the trade centre, to remember those who died.

"What kind of comfort do you get from a void?" asked one woman. "A void is not denial. It's reflecting something that actually happened," replied another. "I don't want to forget."

"But do you want that point to stay there as a constant source of pain?" asked the man opposite. "I don't know if I want that wound left open for all to see."

The woman next to him, with tenderness in her eyes, and Ricki Lake in her voice, said: "In order to heal you've got to have a scar."

One participant who lost a close relative in the attacks was more practical than prosaic. "The first priority should be safety," he said.

"We shouldn't make buildings that high because they're not safe. And they should be energy efficient. Part of the reason we were involved in this attack is because of oil."

But even as they talked, they wondered whether their voices would be heard.

Responsibility for the site is divided between the governors of New York and New Jersey, who own the land, and two businessmen who leased the space.

Those in my workshop were keen to ensure that popular participation would lead to popular ownership of the projects, largely so that the interests of money would not supersede memory.

Together, and without any apparent irony, the room full of white people bemoaned the inordinate influence of the "rich white guys", and vowed to keep Starbucks away from any sacred space.

"We don"t want an Aftermath Mall," said one. And so they went from Libeskind to lobbying, assessing their chances of taking on business in the shadow of Wall Street.

"All of us have the power if we just get out and do it," she said, ending the evening with the ultimate verb.

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