Rebuilding Lower Manhattan: Participatory democracy, civic renewal & the question of citizen voice

David William Woods, Fordham University


In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, middle class professionals organized a civic renewal movement to give citizens a voice in expressing the meanings of this event and in the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. Their aim was to help ordinary citizens influence decision-makers with institutional power to decide the future of the 16-acre World Trade Center site and surrounding areas. The sociological questions focus on the motives and efficacy of leaders of the four coalitions—The Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, New York/New Visions, Imagine New York, and Rebuild Downtown Our Town—in assessing the extent to which middle class leaders really believed in participatory democracy, and consistency and effectiveness of their efforts to empower the democratic participation of other citizens. I analyze what constitutes “effective empowerment,” and what kinds of tools, processes, and resources seem to work best in such disaster-linked American context. In framing my analysis I draw on three strands of social theory: (1) contextual participatory and deliberative democracy, (2) classical American pragmatism, and (3) contemporary feminist standpoint theory. My methods research included participant/observation, interviews with 36 leaders, and archival review. In the first year, Phase One, September 2001 to September 2002 I found both consistency in leaders' motivations and significant effectiveness of their efforts; I also describe a drop off in effectiveness, after the leaders were drawn into “expert” consulting roles in a longer, less publicized Phase Two, October 2002 to December 2005. While this study is unique in focusing on middle class professional leaders, it offers lessons for other civic renewal movements in the United States and elsewhere, whether or not disaster-related.

Subject Area

Social research|Social structure

Recommended Citation

Woods, David William, "Rebuilding Lower Manhattan: Participatory democracy, civic renewal & the question of citizen voice" (2009). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3377060.