New York City, Part II, 9/11 Memorial

My daughter was born a couple of weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She’s 15 now, and this was her first trip to New York City. In the back of my mind I was thinking it would be good to hold off visiting the city with her until the site at ground zero had been repaired and the new tower completed.

On the first full day of our trip we took the subway to lower Manhattan and walked to ground zero. One thing that seemed odd to me is that even though the new tower is the tallest structure in Manhattan, you can’t see it as you approach. I was looking for it as a visual clue on how to get there, but the view of it is blocked by other tall buildings, so I had to use the map application on my phone for navigation.

Finally, you round a corner and there it is. Another odd thing is that it doesn’t look that tall when you’re right up near it. I think there must be an optical illusion at play related to the tower’s wide footprint and narrowing shape as it rises skyward. When you see the tower from a distance (e.g., from the Brooklyn Bridge), it is very impressive and there is a direct correlation between how far away you are and how tall the tower appears in relation to the rest of the skyline.

I remember visiting New York as a child and seeing the twin towers. By comparison, the new tower struck me as kind of an only child; somewhat lonely. The choice to build one tower instead of two probably had to do with the building site. The tower competes for space with the footprints of the twin towers, which incorporate the memorial and the museum, so my guess is building two towers was never a possibility. That said, they did a nice job of the fitting the new tower into the site without creating a shoe-horned feel; it looks like it belongs there.

If you plan to visit the 9/11 memorial, I recommend that you visit the museum first, before contemplating the fountain memorials inscribed with the names of those lost. The effect of the fountains will be much more profound that way.

Kudos to the people involved in creating the memorial and museum. I can’t imagine the difficulty of conveying the experience New Yorkers went through that day, while respecting the sanctity of the site itself, which is, in effect, the final resting place of those whose remains were vaporized in the collapse of the towers and could never be recovered. So, here is my subjective perspective on the memorial and museum.

To me, the most important aspect is that the footprints of the twin towers are incorporated into the museum experience. By that I mean there is an above ground structure that you enter, and after passing through security you go through an introductory exhibit that leads down into the ground to an overlook. When you get to the overlook you instantly realize that you are looking at the actual excavated area below where the towers stood; you recognize it from the innumerable television broadcasts that showed the workers digging out the debris. When I walked to the edge and looked down, my breath caught in my throat and my eyes moistened.

Care has been taken to retain features of the footprints; there are still pieces of metal supports sticking out the sides of the walls. The space hasn’t been prettied up at all, except for removal of the debris. A sloped walkway leads you down, down, into the ground, past a sign that says here is the epicenter of where the truck bomb exploded in the first terrorist attack on the towers back in the 90’s. You continue going down the sloped walkway until you are at the bottom, which is decorated sparsely with a few items: a crushed fire truck; a huge steel beam bent back on itself like a pretzel; a display case of personal items recovered from the debris field. There is also the so called “last column,” a rectangular monolith of steel and concrete that is covered with the names of various fire companies and other memories of the first responders. It’s devastating. There is nothing they could have created in that space more impactful than the simple space that was left when the debris was removed; it is unique, haunting, a bit claustrophobic, and evocative of the experience of those who died there, and of those who toiled there in the aftermath.

But nothing can prepare one for the museum within the museum; a structure that you enter through glass doors, and which contains a comprehensive multi-media recitation of everything that happened on 9/11. Through the use of video, news reports, photographs, sound recordings, recovered personal items, and projections, the museum re-creates the events of that day. I can’t imagine that someone can walk through it without reacting emotionally. For me, there were moments when I felt like I was going to lose it completely and I had a strong urge a couple of times to run and get outside. I imagine different people will react to certain things more strongly than others. For example, they have sound recordings of goodbye messages from the doomed left on voicemail and answering machines – the final calls to loved ones from the airplanes and the buildings. They also have children’s pajamas, toys, and blankets from the airplanes that somehow escaped destruction.

All of the people I met on the trip who live in New York, when I told them I had visited the memorial, said that they couldn’t go. They lived through it once already. I think the point of the place is for people who were not there on that day. While people who were not there have their own memories, visiting the memorial connects them more closely to the terrible events; something approaching but never matching the experience of those who were there.

Visiting the memorial is not a “fun” experience, but, I think, essential for anyone who wants more than a superficial understanding of what happened. People will react to it in their own way. For some, it will be cathartic; for others, painful; for others, life affirming; and, I think, for most everyone, a reminder of the best and worst of humankind.