Monday, September 9, 2013

The 9/11 Memorial, Visited

Just before the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attack, The 9/11 Memorial opened its doors in the evening just to the Lower Manhattan community. I jumped at the chance to view the memorial away from the hordes of tourists. And I was touched that we residents were given a moment of our own. Much of the attention, rightly so, has been on those who lost loved ones in the attack. But those of us who witnessed the neighborhood engulfed in the toxic cloud of debris and human remains and heard of the sudden death of thousands of our fellow New Yorkers have been in shock and grief ever since and also in need of some structured place to heal and pay our respects.

After 9/11, far from having a public place to go for contemplation and healing, Lower Manhattan was upended. We spent a dozen years trudging around the World Trade Center site assaulted and jostled by the noise and harsh visuals of the largest construction project in the world.

But here it is, finally. With just what I wanted to see first. Soft, verdant grass. Trees. Life.

I'm glad they took the time to do such a splendid job. The plaza spreads out with ample place to stroll. You can choose where your footsteps go and where your mind takes you. The two reflecting pools, supposed to be the size of the footprints of the towers, if not at their exact location, are enormous.  Appropriately monumental. And the sound of rushing water, falling from the sides, running horizontally and falling deeper into a center rectangle is LOUD. A breeze can cover you in wetness. All of this is surrounded by a varied cityscape of Lower Manhattan buildings, modern and old, that embrace the site with a sense of belonging, together with an ever-changing sky that is all part of the memorial experience.

Most striking to me is the presence of the names carved expertly and beautifully into the dark stone surrounding the pools. You can touch the letters and ponder. I don't know them, so they are abstract texts to me, but not just text-art as in Ed Ruscha's works - far more profound. The letters spell out a person who once lived, who was special in some way and whose death will not go unnoticed. All kinds of names, different ethnicities, first names chosen by parents long ago with great care. I wonder about their lives. I remember reading small biographies of many of the dead in the paper. One in particular I wish I had remembered to look up ahead of time so I could look for him. The man who had no family or close loved ones to report him missing. The only way authorities knew he was among the dead was because he did not make his regular Tuesday haircut appointment and the woman at the salon reported his name.  Now it's etched in stone somewhere on this plaza.

The sheer monumentality of it all makes one humble. It succeeds as a memorial by creating a place to lift us from our trivial daily lives so that we have the space and time to ponder the still unimaginable magnitude of the loss. The destruction of hate. Heroic acts of selflessness. Healing and continued anguish. Our individual self and this great city.

Though firmly and sometimes grumpily an atheist, I was happy to see a Buddhist monk there - our city needs all the help it can get where such tremendous violence took place.

It said in the news that there are well over a thousand people who worked at or lived near the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks that now have cancer. The terrorist attack did not just happen and end on September 11, 2001. It continues to this day in horrific, anguished memories and in the very bodies of people walking in the city. The 9/11 Memorial does what it should do. It pays respect, to the dead and to the living. We were in great need of such a place and it is finally here.

Looking up from the dark pools of water and my thoughts I was gladdened to see the city, rising, flourishing. Look there - you can see the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's wings take shape over the new Fulton Transit Center next to old, beloved, St. Paul's Chapel, and 1 World Trade, almost ready for business.