On a blue crystal day like September 11th, 2001, we emerged from the subway at Fulton Street across from tiny St. Paul’s Chapel, recognized from reports of that day, and now surrounded by a huge construction zone.
The entire site where the Twin Towers stood is fenced off now, but won’t always be. Standing in a line full of tourists, snaking back and forth, listening to the babble of languages, gave me time to think about that day and how different we are now. Time to picture, or try to picture, the whole area covered with a mountain of debris, and to wonder about the adjacent old buildings – still standing – and to admire the shiny new ones attended by cranes.
But once through the elaborate security checkpoint, a roar of water muffles voices and the rumble and screech of construction, the line dissolves, people disperse on a tree-covered plaza, and the reality of absence, of what’s missing hits.
Your eyes go first to the new buildings arising, a complex of towers. The angled wall of one exactly reflects the sky, but a line of tilted windows makes dots like an airplane’s contrail. The slim shape of the tallest, 1 World Trade Center, brings to mind movement, an arrow-to-the-earth shaped façade bringing the eye down fast.
Memorial pools fill the Twin Towers’ actual footprints. Waterfalls cascade 30 feet down the four sides of each pool to a flat surface of water, broken by a hole where the water disappears – all rapid, all noisy, all on the edge of scary. Scary and beautiful. The water catches the sunlight and flickers gold like flames.
I wasn’t prepared for how moving and perfect these torrents of water are, disappearing into a hole – a void in the center. Victims’ names are carved on a waist-high parapet around each pool. Eventually a 9/11 Memorial Museum will tell the tale of the day and honor the lives of the victims.
The site stirs up memories of the uncertainty of the day and images of streets full of ash and desperate people. There are countless reminders of New York’s first responders. And something about being here in the middle of such commercial activity, unexpected department stores and, of course, offices, makes you think about the ordinary people who died.
With the construction around, it also seems now to be so much about what people do. They go on living, rebuilding, go on growing like the 400 swamp oaks planted on the plaza surrounding the pools – and the one tree left from the original plaza. A Callery pear, found by workers as an eight-foot tall stump in the Ground Zero wreckage, was nursed back to health in a nearby park and replanted here.
The site is unbelievably beautiful and sad. Designed beauty to replace horror.
It’s a fine memorial.