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The WD Interview – Anita Contini, Director Memorial, Cultural and Civic Programs, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation

May 6th, 2009 · No Comments · Arts & Culture, General, The WD Interview


We don’t know what the new downtown skyline will look like. But we do know it will contain a memorial. According to one dictionary a memorial is ‘something that keeps remembrance of persons or events alive’. It is Anita Contini’s task to project manage the process of creating that ‘something’. The words she uses most when she talks about how this process should be approached are ‘carefully’ and ‘thoughtfully’.

Anita Contini has lived downtown for nearly thirty years. “I live in lower Manhattan in the South Street Seaport area. My day starts there,” explains Contini. She walks to work, trying different routes once in a while. “I am in the office between 7.45 and 8.15,” she says. “Some days I am better at it than others.”

To focus on the tasks she has to complete throughout the day, she always checks her email first. “My to-do list is very long,” says Contini. “There are two or three things I have to deal with every single day. Because there is a lot to do in one specific area, there are a lot of steps in the way. I try and get some of those steps accomplished.”

In the mornings she tends to meet with the staff of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (L.M.D.C) where as she puts it: “everybody is helping everybody to accomplish something.” Currently she is spending time with each of the six planners who are redesigning the site: “I am talking to them on how to designate the site. It’s their task to come up with idea how the site can be looked at, how it can function.”

So how exactly do you plan a memorial? Contini has spent a lot of her time in the previous weeks to listen to relatives on what they feel is appropriate as a memorial. She has also visited many memorials around the country to research the best practices. She has spent time with members of other advisory councils. “We are still working on a mission statement and that’s beginning to get much more focused,” says Contini.

While a memorial seems to be the most urgent task, Contini’s brief is to look beyond that: the cultural and civic programmes attached to the new site.  “I wish I could say my focus was 50/50, but some days it’s all cultural and civic programs and some days it’s all memorial,” she says. “I see the whole thing holistically, because it’s part of what going on downtown.”

She meets with ‘many, many cultural institutions as possible’ some of which might be interested in moving downtown, some of which just want to share their ideas with her. “We are working on a criteria and guidelines for cultural institutions who might want our support and how that should be developed,” says Contini. Very generally that means museums, educations facilities, community centres, libraries.

Contini has been in her job since early August and hasn’t quite figured out how to incorporate sustenance into her busy day.  “Often I don’t have lunch,” she explains, pointing to unopened sandwich bag on her desk. “I haven’t gotten used how to have lunch in a comfortable way. I haven’t gotten into a routine here yet. I grab what I can.”

So is the deadline for the memorial driven by commercial demands of the developers? “There is no easy answer to that,” says Contini. “I think we are just trying to get things back to normal as much as possible. And it’s happening. The residential community is thriving and that calls for shops and restaurants and education facilities and recreation.”

By mid-afternoon Contini is usually engrossed in something that needs to be done for the next day. “There always seems to be a lot of presentation materials, a lot of documentation,” says Contini. These are mainly for the L.M.D.C board or advisory councils. “We just did a tour of memorials and we had to put all the information together to share with people. The whole office is getting involved in helping with that.”

While Contini is firmly involved in shaping the future downtown, one of her favourite spots is a historical landmark: “I have always thought Brooklyn Bridge was one of the great public artworks. It’s a great walk. If you haven’t done it, you should cross it. It was a major construction project created by a very passionate family, the Roeblings.” She also enthuses about the proximity of the water wherever you are in downtown whether you walk across to see it or around it.

After a long day at the L.M.D.C offices, Contini is either going home between 6.30pm or 7.30pm or leaving work to visit cultural institutions.

Amid the emotional aspect of the task at hand coupled with the New York brashness of its commercial drive, Contini seems as a strong, but very calming presence. What is the greatest challenge in her job for her? “Not have a failure of vision. Not to rush. Not to miss the opportunity. Getting it right.”

 And somehow you trust, she will.

 

 

(This article first appeared in New York’s Downtown Express in 2002)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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