Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fifteen years

New York City- I can't tell you how many times I've been to New York, but I can say the last time was ten years ago. The time before that was the year 2000, one year before the terrorist attacks that shook the world and took down one of the city's most distinctive landmarks, the World Trade Center. I distinctly remember the end of that trip. I was waiting for the bus in the lobby of the North Tower of the WTC to take me to Newark Airport, but one never came. Time was getting short so I decided to spring for the cab ride rather than missing my plane. When the taxi emerged from the Holland Tunnel on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, I looked back and the Twin Towers were bathed in the most beautiful late afternoon, or as photographers call it, "golden hour" sunlight. I resolved that on my next trip, I would photograph the buildings from that vantage at that particular time of day and year. Alas, there would be no next time, it was the last time I laid eyes on the towers in person.

It would take five years after their destruction for me to return. Even though I watched both towers collapse on September 11, 2001 live on TV, a part of me refused to accept they were gone. As I flew into La Guardia in 2006 and my plane made the left turn over Brooklyn to approach the airport, I caught my first glimpse of the site where the familiar landmark once stood, and it took my breath away.

The first thing I did upon arriving in New York in 2006 was visit the site which by that time was cleared of rubble but was still a hole in the ground that resembled an enormous construction site. That is with the exception of the cross shaped beams from the destroyed building that were left on the site as a memorial and reminder of that terrible day, and the many monuments, both public and private that were displayed on the wall that was the barrier between the tremendous void of Ground Zero and the outside world.

It is almost inconceivable to me that my last visit was ten years ago. This time, accompanied by my fifteen year old son, we caught our first glimpse of One World Trade Center, completed twelve years after the destruction of its predecessor, also from the air, this time flying into JFK.

It was a bright and beautiful, but nippy September Tuesday morning almost fifteen years ago. We had tickets to the Cubs game for that evening. It would have been my then eight month old son's first baseball game. I'd been dying to take him to a game but the chill in the air combined with his tender age made me less than thrilled about going. Sitting down to breakfast, the first news report came on the radio, a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I immediately recalled a similar event that took place during World War II when a military plane accidentally crashed into the Empire State Building, causing serious damage and loss of life. As I am wont to do during breaking news stories, I turned on the TV.

It quickly became apparent that what hit the North Tower was no small plane and no accident. The network anchor guy (no point using his name) was interviewing a witness who said the plane that hit the building was a commercial jet that appeared to be headed directly, and purposefully toward the North Tower. Incredulous, the anchor guy pressed the woman if she was absolutely sure of what she saw. Just as the words were coming out of his mouth, the shaken woman standing practically at ground zero reported exactly what she and everybody including me who had the TV on that dreadful morning saw, a second commercial jet slamming into the South Tower. "The pilot just flew that plane into the building" she screamed. Now on any given day it's unusual for one, let alone two planes fly into the same complex of buildings, so it seemed rather strange to me that the news guy continued to press the woman about how she at that point knew the crashes were deliberate.

About an hour later I was on the phone with my mother in Arizona when the South Tower collapsed. "Ten thousand people just died before my eyes" I said to her as I hung up the phone, unable to continue the conversation. It seems strange to use the word "fortunately" in the context of this event, but I overestimated that number by about a factor of ten. Fortunately many, but not everyone evacuated the South Tower when the North Tower was hit. However most of the police and firefighters who perished that day died in the South Tower as they rushed up the stairs in vain to save lives. Again fortunately, the North Tower rescuers were evacuated after the South Tower collapsed.

All through the terrible day I tried with no luck to reach two of my friends who live in New York, one of whom could very well have been at or near the World Trade Center that morning.

So began the string of events that changed the world forever. How much everything had changed that day after the optimism of the new millennium, at least once we realized that the world wasn't going to end on January 1, 2000. Instead, a little bit of it died on September 11, 2001.

Watching the horror along with my wife and me was our little boy, completely oblivious to the situation. One of my most distinct memories of that day was the innocent little smile on his face as the most unimaginable horrors played out on the TV in our living room. It would be several years before we talked about 9/11 with him. We didn't know how the thought of people hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings would affect him, this after all is a boy who still covers his eyes when commercials for scary  movies appear on the tube.

It turned out that real horror of history didn't effect him as much as graphic, fictional horror; he was fascinated with the story. Flash forward fifteen years and for the first time, son, born the same year as the terrorist attack, and father just stood together at the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero. It took ten years and one day before the Memorial officially opened to the public. It was worth it.

Reflecting pool and waterfall on the former site of the North Tower
of the World Trade Center
As we've seen with the memorials in Washington DC, people come out of the woodwork when it comes time to express an opinion over the slightest commemorative work. Multiply that by 2,977, the number of innocent people who died on that day in New York City, Arlington, VA, and Shanksville, PA., and further still with all people they left behind, and you get an idea of what it had to be like to come up with the design for the memorial to one of the most gut wrenching moments in American history.

As the remains of many of the victims were never recovered, it was  appropriate not to build above the site of the Twin Towers, despite the tremendous value of the property. As a consequence, the single tower that replaced the twin towers is squeezed rather awkwardly between the monument and the Art Deco AT&T Building to the north. So be it.

On the actual site of the Twin Towers sit two reflecting pools, one for each building, sunken a couple dozen feet below grade level. The pools are fed by water cascading from the parapets that line the pools. The names of the victims are inscribed into the parapets. The names are arranged, not alphabetically, but according to the relationship between the victims; people who worked and died together are found side by side in the monument. The names of the.victims who died at the Pentagon and aboard all four hijacked aircraft are also found at the monument. The unborn children of several of the victims were also noted. On the rest of the site of what was once the enormous wind-swept plaza that connected the towers, today stand hundreds of white oak and sweet gum trees.

It is almost impossible to imagine anything built on this patch of land not being tremendously powerful and moving, and the monument as it exists today, certainly will disappoint no one. The designers, Michael Arad, Peter Walker and the partnerships of  Davis Brody Bond and Snøhetta, beyond creating an original work, have borrowed the best concepts from the two Washington memorials, those dedicated to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, fitting them brilliantly into this very specific site. Over the years as the trees begin to mature, the monument will only become more beautiful. Despite its success as a piece of design, the true power of the monument comes from the people who visit it. Obviously the sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, lovers and friends of the victims bring to the site a power and purpose that the best design in the world could not come close to matching. The real quality of the design will begin to take effect, only after all those people are gone. Unfortunately I won't be around to make a critical assessment when that happens.

However I was able to bring my own sense of memory and loss to our visit. Along with my son, I visited the site with two of my oldest and dearest friends, the people I desperately tried to reach on the morning of September 11. Brooklynites, my friends lost eight members of their local fire department when the South Tower collapsed.

Along with three of the closest people in my life, all paying a large role in my memories of 9/11 (my wife unfortunately couldn't make the trip to New York), visiting the memorial brought the event around full circle, after nearly fifteen years.

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