A Visit to the 9/11 Memorial

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.

Walking the High Line

{Note: My next few posts are about a pre-Sandy visit to New York, a tranquil New York with subways, bridges, electricity, and little rain or wind. I’ll go ahead and post in honor of this great city, while sending wishes for safekeeping to all in the path of Sandy. May the power return soon!}

With our younger son and his sweet bride, we walked in New York City for a week in October. Each morning we left our rented apartment on the Upper West Side and set out.

The first morning we walked past the Dakota and the “Imagine” Memorial to John Lennon, through Central Park full of people on a holiday Monday, and emerged at the Fifth Avenue corner by the Plaza Hotel. We watched a Columbus Day parade, celebrating everything Italian, passed glitzy stores with familiar names, and rode a series of elevators up 70 floors to the observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center. Afterwards, with the grid of New York streets and the green of Central Park in our minds, we headed home, up Broadway from 47th to to 74th Street.

We walked in daylight across the Brooklyn Bridge and, at nighttime in the brighter-than-day light of Times Square. We ambled through Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and SoHo, with a long stop at the Strand Bookstore (shelves so tall the store provides ladders), and a quick peek into the Prada flagship store (designed by Rem Koolhaas, elegant and tranquil). We strolled through the Greenmarket at Union Square where New York chefs shop for fresh food.

Streams of people walked toward us, so many clothes and faces and conversation fragments – spoken to companions or on cell phones – “I keep playing the typical teenager really well!” (spoken not by a teenager), “I want to eat some ice cream,” “The only reason to have a car is to get out of the city,” “Can we just enjoy the walk?” (I always wish for a bubble overhead, identifying what the person does in this amazing city.)

For years I’ve read about the High Line, about the transformation into a garden path of an abandoned, elevated rail line running north from the Meatpacking District. On a sunny day with wind at our back we walked the mile and a half from its southerly beginning. What a pleasure.

Inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the tracks in the 25 years after trains stopped running, the plantings are sturdy – full of grasses, trees with fall foliage, and shrubs full of berries or rosehips. You walk above the sirens, car horns, and bustle of the neighborhoods below – closer to sky and air.

Sidewalks of aggregate looking like wide planking expand into areas for seating, and for eating from food stands and restaurants nearby. Wide wooden chaise lounges built for two, narrow perching benches by the guardrails, and a set of stadium-style bleachers provide seating in limited space. A shallow stream flows for a while beside the walkway. At one point the path passes through a building, but mostly you tread a garden path.

A huge billboard and unused boxcars make perfect urban canvases for artists – surprising public art pieces. An exhibit of tiny sculptures tucked into spots along the route is titled “Lilliput.” A sound installation – a voice seeming to come out of the bushes – recited the names of animals, dividing them into human goods and bads: panda, swan, spider, tapeworm.

In a week of walking, the High Line was a high point!