Ground zero: Where the buffalo roam?

A new film from "Slacker" director Richard Linklater offers a daring, crackpot vision for the World Trade Center memorial: A 16-acre park full of free-roaming bison.

Published January 21, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Maybe there are no new ideas. Maybe the universe is finite and maybe that's why after two rounds of proposals for the World Trade Center site, the designs fall short of the call for innovation and look like, well, variations on Epcot Center.

The most revolutionary proposal isn't on the table of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. or the Port Authority or the governors of New York and New Jersey. It's in a short film by Richard Linklater (best known as the director of "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused") that premiered Monday at the Sundance Film Festival, exactly a week after the public hearings on the new WTC site proposals.

In the 20-minute film, "Live From Shiva's Dancefloor," Manhattan walking-tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch posits that the site should be turned into a park full of free-roaming American bison, popularly known as buffalo. "Sixteen acres of blazing green grass, a place for togetherness, healing out loud, and spontaneous culture," says Levitch. "And in the middle of the park, the memorial should not be an inanimate slab of stone, but should have a heartbeat." Thus, the buffalo.

It sounds like a crackpot notion, initially. But as Linklater points out in an interview, "Many things we take for granted and enjoy as part of our lives were initially crackpot ideas that the establishment scoffed at."

Levitch, a native New Yorker and a tour guide since 1992, was in San Francisco on Sept. 11, 2001. Several weeks later, on his first night back in New York, he visited the site with Linklater and their ongoing discussion about what might become of it spawned "Live From Shiva's Dancefloor," shot in the summer of 2002. Linklater and Levitch first met in 1998 at a screening of "The Cruise," another documentary in which Levitch holds forth on New York City and the universe.

The first question is, of course, why buffalo? "This is an American tribe that has been experiencing Sept. 11 for 400 years," says Levitch, citing the near-extinction of the shaggy beast (actually a species of wild ox) at the turn of the 20th century.

"You will learn a lot about America's subconscious expectations for its future in what we finally decide to build on that sacred ground," Levitch continues. "And I say that subconscious expectation should be the lost sages of North America brought back to the existential front-and-center of America, so that the new Americans will not be interested in slaughtering the buffalo but in learning from the buffalo, and not view the buffalo as a strange beast and an icon on a flag but as a living, breathing soul that also has moments of cosmopolitanism."

"No one really thinks like Speed," says Linklater, by which he does not simply mean thinking of bison as cosmopolitan. "No one has the kind of all-encompassing vision. And that's what's lacking in so much of the proposals people are throwing out there."

It's not so much the proposed designs that are disappointing as the parameters that dictate what will be considered for the site. (Needless to say, Levitch's proposal doesn't comply with the stipulations of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., et al.) "That's the problem when you limit yourself to official this and official that," says Linklater. "The realm of possibilities is so small."

Linklater recognizes that it's an impossible task for both designers and decision makers. "You'll never be able to satisfy people, so I think everyone needs to start thinking an entirely different way." Arguably, this point is reinforced by a recent New York Times headline: "New Trade Center Plans Draw Old Complaints." In other words, the time for crackpot ideas is overdue.

"Live From Shiva's Dancefloor" embodies the élan of the buffalo idea and Levitch himself. It was shot in one day with a hand-held camera in the now-symbolic landscape of Lower Manhattan. "It was important to have some kind of historical perspective about the area," Linklater says. Levitch provides this with adenoidal wistfulness, along with applicable wisdom from Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Hamilton and Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher.

Levitch maintains that the history of New York City is the history of the world. So when he says in the film, "The creation and destruction that is the rhythm of the universe is a part of our every day," he is referring not just to Lower Manhattan or New York but to life itself. "Behind me here," says Levitch, standing in front of the chain-link fence at ground zero, "this might look to you like a hole in the ground. But what it actually is, is a delightful, benevolent opportunity for rebirth." He manages to say the word "rebirth" without the worn rhetoric of a Lower Manhattan Development Corp. press release.

Levitch saw the WTC's towers as twins in sibling rivalry, forever trying to look taller than each other. He says in the film, "I used to ask people, 'Will the trade centers ever speak to one another again?'" His idea is to counter the legacy of competition (what he terms "meek intimacy") and transaction ("bad sex") by creating a conduit for interaction. "For I don't believe that the city even exists until human interaction is happening," he says. "So this park will be the melting down of alienation, which was a major ingredient of Sept. 11, and is a major ingredient of violence the world over."

Levitch's proposition is both counterintuitive and reverent, but is it humane? "There was a man recently," says Levitch, "he asked a very valid question, which was, 'Don't you think it would be a tragedy to bring a majestic being like an American bison into this claustrophobic and polluted setting?' And I said, well, we're doing it. We're majestic beings and we're doing it."

There are, in fact, precedents for four-footed urban herds, as Levitch points out. Central Park's Sheep Meadow was home to its eponymous rams and ewes until Robert Moses banished them in 1934, and in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, 11 bison graze in a 12.5-acre paddock. "The bison in New York would actually have more space than the buffalo in San Francisco," Levitch proclaims. If not cleaner air.

Bringing buffalo to the WTC site, Levitch believes, will not only result in spiritual healing of the city but financial growth as well. "Live From Shiva's Dancefloor" culminates with Levitch sitting atop the bronze bull on lower Broadway and declaring, "When executives get promoted to the corner office mainly so that they can get a good view of the buffalo grazing on an average afternoon, you'll go way beyond the duality of the bull-and-bear market."

Levitch admits he's not terribly concerned with precision when it comes to figures. (In the film, he states that 600 million buffalo once roamed North America. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number was more likely somewhere between 30 million and 75 million.) He's more of an idea man than a detail man, trying to jog the American mind out of strictly vertical concepts of rebuilding.

"We're serious about this," says Linklater of the park. "It's kind of playful but that's the point." It is unlikely that "Live From Shiva's Dancefloor" will move a committee of bureaucrats to take the bison idea seriously. The hope is that the film will spawn new thinking on a greater scale, change the scope of thought and vision on a fatigued subject. "Even if it doesn't actually happen," Levitch says, "there is triumph in just having people imagine it."

By Su Ciampa

Su Ciampa is a writer in New York.


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