September 11, 2003
As I sit here at my neighborhood coffeehouse this morning, my thoughts go back to that morning when the first reports came over the radio as I was getting dressed. News of the second plane striking came as I was driving here. When I got here, the coffeeshop was an oasis of calm and normalcy in what was already clear was going to be a day unlike any other day. As I ordered my coffee, I struggled over whether to tell them or not. Nothing was clear at that point. In the end, I said nothing and simply cherished watching Julie make the coffee like it was just any other day.
I was in New York City in late June and went downtown on a rainy Friday morning, exiting the subway at the Chambers Street station. I started walking down West Broadway with the intent of making my way to 120 Broadway where I had worked during a summer internship with the New York Attorney General’s Office when I was in law school. I got to Barclay Street and was starting to cross the street when I looked past the construction site in the next block and saw the open space above the Trade Center site, suddenly realizing that it wasn’t just any construction site before me. I immediately turned east toward City Hall and Broadway.
I had meant to approach the Trade Center site from the angle I remembered best, from the route that I had taken too and from work that summer. But, you cannot escape the site. It is twelve blocks of open space a block west of Broadway, and it calls to you as you cross each street. A friend described the site on his visit last summer as a raw, gapping socket, as if a tooth had been lost. The site may be beginning to heal, but the emptiness remains.
I approached the site from the plaza on Liberty Street where I had spent many of my lunches during my summer internship. I remember the plaza as a respite of green and open space amidst the towering buildings. Now, it is barren and forlorn, empty except for a few stunted trees. It seemed shunned.
Stepping onto the Trade Center site at Church Street, the rhythm and pace changes. One of the things that distinguishes New York is the quick-paced rhythm of its streets that gets you moving and walking ten blocks or more without thinking. When you step onto the Church Street sidewalk, where memorials have been placed, the pace slows. Like a cathedral, the site calls for reverence, and you cannot walk quickly along the blocks surrounding the site.
The site itself is difficult to see, both due to its scale and to the fencing and construction equipment along its edges. The walls of the bathtub could be seen, as could the casement for the subway crossing the site. Walking along Vesey Street, you actually cross the site, traveling between where the Towers stood and the block where WTC 7 stood where rebuilding is already underway. All around the site and throughout Downtown, there are signs of the loss, from the pedestrian bridge over the Westside Highway that ends in empty air, to the vendors hawking memorlbia, to the empty sidewalks elsewhere.
The night before, I had dinner with a friend who works Downtown for the EPA. She said that one of the things that distinguished Downtown after September 11th had been the absence of street vendors within the security zone below Canal Street. There had been no one to buy coffee from on your way to work, no one to buy a falafel or hot dog from at lunch. When I had worked Downtown, I had been amazed that it was cheaper to by lunch Downtown than in White Plains where I was in law school. Downtown had also been marked by the vendors hawking baseball cards and other trinkets along Broadway. Now, the vendors are all gone and the sidewalks are empty.
From the Trade Center site, I made my way along the Westside Highway to Battery Park. There, the Sphere from the Trade Center site has been placed as an interim memorial. It is hard to imagine how they will be able to come up with a more fitting memorial. The Sphere is a large, bronze Modern sculpture that originally sat between the Towers. The sphere had been a memorial to world peace. Now it stands amid the green of Battery Park, dented, scratched, and torn, indelibly marked by the violence. It is just inside the park from another symbol of peace, a flagpole dedicated by the Dutch as a memorial to the founding of the City.
From Battery Park, I walked past the bull statue at Bowling Green and on around to Fraunces Tavern. Appropriately ending my morning at that 18th Century museum dedicated to the founding of our Republic and linking together the past with our hope for the future.