Our Raccoon Lodge buzz made for a lovely walk down West Broadway towards the Ground Zero area. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was located, but it was a Saturday afternoon and I figured we’d eventually see a lot of other tourists heading to that vicinity.
I couldn’t help but feel an eerie sense of awe at the buildings we were passing by. These were the places that I remember seeing on TV on 9/11. These were the buildings that were swallowed up by cement clouds of horror. These were the buildings that dust and blood covered people were running past. Faces of shock. Running to everywhere… to anywhere.
There was no sign of the terror here now.
Like an oasis in a desert of concrete and glass, we came upon St. Paul’s Chapel. Through all the clamor of the city I could almost hear a choir of sweet angels singing hallelujah as we rounded the corner seeing tall oak trees of cool, quiet shade cradling the aged brown-stoned building and the historic cemetery of tiny worn, etched monuments at her feet. Her steeple reached high into the blue sky this day. She was sanctuary. A haven during that day in September. That day too had a clear blue sky. A sky that insanely accentuated and mocked the nightmare unfolding in 2001. She was our brief haven this afternoon.
The smell of hot dogs suddenly brushed into my face. Daryl and I scuttled through ghost-like wisps of sidewalk steam to an aluminum clad street cart for a couple of dogs and some ice cold sodas. Lunch was served and we continued our trek to the shade of St. Paul’s. Observing the chaotic motion of confused tourists of every ethnicity mingling with pot bellied construction workers, and orchestrating traffic cops, I shoved the last bite of hotdog into my mouth sucking spicy mustard from the corner of my lip. Daryl and I leisurely strolled the recently refreshed grounds of the cemetery while enjoying the cool respite from the summer heat. The grass beneath us was new. The tender soft green contradicting the slate stones dating to the 18th century. The churchyard reportedly was 2 inches deep with debris from the twin towers which were a short block away. The chapel came away mostly unscathed, apparently protected by the large trees surrounding it.
I asked Daryl if he wanted to visit the chapel itself. He shook his head no as he too threw the last of his lunch to the back of his throat with a gulp of Coke. I pulled out my phone to check a map of where we were and which direction we should head. As I looked up I saw construction of a huge building with enormous white spikes coming out of its top. Almost in an arch. It reminded me of the crown of the Statue of Liberty that perhaps had been freakishly enlarged and then thrust into the street below. It was surrounded by wooden fences that blocked the actual construction view and was plastered with graphic signs stating that it was going to be the new World Trade Center (WTC) Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) Transportation Hub. It’s ultra modern sleek architecture in sharp contrast to the church at our back.
And that IS the beauty and the irony that is New York.
We headed toward Greenwich Street to the area that would take us to the 9/11 Memorial. As we closed in on our afternoon destination, I noticed the crowd getting larger with each step as we began to get swept up in the urban humanity. I could smell colognes mixed with sweat. I heard unfamiliar dialects. I could have been somewhere overseas for all I knew until I noticed the tourist shops along the way.
It reminded me of the Boardwalk in Wildwood. Signs and flags everywhere. Hawkers calling out to anyone who would listen. Music mixed with yelling. Families stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to touch green Statue Of Liberty souvenirs of every conceivable size. An old Asian man selling what I’m guessing was a coffee table book open to a page of the original towers at moments of impact. It was like a circus… A carnival.
We were continuously swept up in a sea of bodies, which in our still slightly-buzzed state was almost hypnotic. Looking up at the buildings as they stood sentry in guarded fashion, trying to protect us, knowing they could not. Faces looking ahead, glancing at each other, strangers faces… all heading toward a destination where most of us knew the story… where none of us lived the story.
We were finally dumped by the crowd into a large courtyard with benches and newly planted trees that was anchored by the tallest building in the city. Soaring above the skyline at 1,776 feet, One World Trade Center is America’s tallest building – and now, an indelible New York landmark. Designed by David M. Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the 3-million-square-foot building includes office space, an observation deck and restaurants.
The memorial at its base has at its center two of the largest fountains, or rather cascades, I have ever seen. Each occupies the exact footprint of the Twin Towers destroyed in the attacks. Each cascade is a cuboid Niagara, an inverted eruption, falling 30 feet to a flat basin, and then another 30 feet through a smaller square hole in the center.
Around the rim of each is a long bronze strip perforated with the names of victims: of the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, of the hijack of Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, and of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The names are grouped by the location of each victim at the time of the attacks, modified by “adjacency requests” whereby relatives could ask for individual names to be by others to whom they were close.
The fountains stand in an eight-acre paved plaza, filled with 415 trees: they are all the same size. The intention of the whole ensemble, according to architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker, is to make a place of both death and life – where victims can be properly remembered, but where office workers can come to eat their sandwiches. Underneath the plaza is a large museum of the events, and all around are rising office towers that will replace the 10m square feet of floor space that used to be on the site.
A sigh, a tear, and a breath of fresh air.
As Daryl and I stepped forward to get a clearer view of the fountain memorial, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disturbed by folks taking family photos and selfies with the memorial in the background. It didn’t seem appropriate to me. This was an area to be felt… to be respected… not a tourist destination like the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, or Central Park. At least that’s how I felt.
As we finally maneuvered our way through the throng to the side of the fountain where we touched some of the names of the victims that were etched into the border, the smell of chlorinated water, and the rush of the waterfall captivated me. I have never seen anything so powerfully displayed. With all the people surrounding its border, and all the hot commotion of the city this place was peaceful. It was soulful and quiet. The rushing water drowning the hot city, I could feel the death and destruction… the true horror of that day. But I also felt peace as my eyes followed a path across the fountain and into the clear blue summer sky. I welled up and a few tears escaped my eyes as the world around me dissolved into soft silence. I touched a few of the names on the wall to feel the innocence and the innocents lost. It was a truly mesmerizing, reverent, and spiritual experience.
We stayed for a few more minutes and breathed deeply before turning around and finding another path through the life that is New York and back to our hotel to clean up and rest before our Saturday night on the town.