We didn’t have an exact plan for how to spend the afternoon and evening in Manhattan, but as it turned out, Manhattan had a plan for us.
My wife and I are spending the weekend here because our niece graciously offered to let us stay in her studio apartment while she is out of town, and we are caring for her dog.
So we don’t have any real agenda, we just thought it would be fun and interesting to be present in this great city for the weekend. We didn’t buy any tickets to shows or concerts, partly because of the high cost.
I did apply online for free tickets to visit the 9/11 Memorial, which was opened only last month on the tenth anniversary of the attacks. So after taking what turned out the be the wrong train, arriving at Penn Station an hour before the reservation, going to the wrong apartment (my niece’s old address was still on my iPhone so that’s where the map led us), then to the correct address, finding her nice, small studio flat, we made our way the two blocks to Ground Zero. (There is a Google Earth 3D tour of the site here http://www.911memorial.org/google-earth)
We lined up on the street beside a huge construction project with about 250 other curious people. And when I say huge, I mean that I have never seen a hole in the earth so vast. It doesn’t show it on the 3D tour linked above, just finished buildings. You can see part of it in this live webcam http://www.911memorial.org/911-memorial-webcam . There were large yellow Cat earth movers down in the depths that looked like a small child’s toys moving in slow motion to lift tiny-looking amounts of dirt from one place to deposit it a few feet into a waiting dump truck. They were about three stories below street level and not even at the bottom of the hole. These construction projects surround the site, making it impossible to see the memorial from where we lined up. I found myself wondering why people would dedicate so much expensive Manhattan real estate for what was essentially a park.
There is a very interesting PBS Nova documentary about the building of the memorial: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/engineering-ground-zero.html
The line moved fast and a person with a jacket and ball cap with the words “9/11Memorial” embroidered into it checked everyone’s printed email ticket. A sign told us that we had to take this route because of the construction projects, and that after they are completed, it will be easily accessible from the sidewalks on all four sides. Then we moved forward and another person checked our ticket, and then another, and then a fourth. We were split into two lines and a person scanned the bar code on the ticket and we entered a security area like TSA checkpoint at an airport, took off our coats and belts and watches and keys and phones and placed them in a bin which was x-rayed while we passed through a metal detector. Then we went back outside, where another person checked ourtickets, and then twenty paces more where another person took the papers and punched a star shaped hole in them, and we walked about a block to the memorial, where, you guessed it, another person checked our tickets. A total of eight people had verified that we each possessed a free ticket. Why there is a need for such high security to access a site which will be accessible by everyone like a public park is beyond my awareness. The irony of course is that before 9/11 this kind of “homeland security” would have been unthinkable, and I’m not sure people would not have stood for it.
The memorial itself is literally awesome. It is immediately clear that this is the grave site of almost 3,000 people, and a memorial to the others who died elsewhere. I’ll trust that you have seen it from the links above, and will only briefly describe it here by saying that the two fountains create a sound like tremendous waterfalls, almost drowning out the noise of the city all around us. Each of the footprints of the towers is a full acre large, so try to imagine the sound of a waterfall that wide. As one stands before each of the memorials there is a heavy panel just under your hands with names cut through the inch thick steel. Your fingers trace the letters in the smooth metal as you watch the still water just underneath them ease down into a steady square waterfall which falls about two stories into a wide shallow pool below, then into an apparently bottomless square hole in the center below. This is one of the most poignant images, a waterfall flowing into a bottomless pit down into the center of the earth.
There are computer screens off to the side where you can search for the position on the plaques of someone who died here. When you select a name, the persons’ picture appears on the screen along with their date of birth, and date of death, which is almost always September 11, 2001, and who they worked for. This is mostly for the families to be able to locate the name of their loved ones on the memorial. Without this it would be very difficult and time consuming to look through all of the names, even though they are grouped by the company the person worked for, or first responders, or by the flight numbers, and so on.
I looked up four or five random names and found myself looking at the photos of average, everyday people, all ages, all colors. They looked like everyone else who woke up that day, got ready for work, kissed someone they loved and headed off to their jobs in the city that Tuesday morning. This hit me much harder than I thought it would.
As I said above, when I first arrived here I had wondered why people would dedicate so much prime Manhattan real estate for a memorial park. Now I could see that there would be millions of people visiting this site, over and over again; parents visiting their children, husbands and wives visiting with their children, kids visiting their lost parents’ grave. Nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters... And those kids will bring their kids, and so on over the years and decades and maybe centuries. This memorial will help insure that we never forget.
Part of me wishes we could forget. Like we have mostly forgotten the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly women, because the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits.
Like we have mostly forgotten the disaster of the General Slocum, a ship which caught fire and sank in New York's East River in 1902 while carrying people to a church picnic. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board died because no effort had been made to maintain or replace the ship's safety equipment.
Part of me hopes that we will not forget 9/11, like we can’t forget the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the killing of thousands of innocent Iraqis in Baghdad in March 2003. In whatever ways these killings were justified at the time, can we forget that hundreds of thousands of people now visit these sites, just like the people who visit the 9/11 Memorial, to remember their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, their children, to remember these people who got up one day, kissed their loved ones goodbye went to work like all the rest of us, and never came back?
NEXT: We go to Wall Street!