You know something’s not right when you pull into the subway station under the World Trade Center.
Even if it’s your first experience with the New York City subway system, nothing here looks as it should. It’s a catacomb of concrete pilings, wire and boards; unfinished and unfriendly looking. Then you stop to think about what happened here on Sept. 11, 2001, and you realize it’s amazing that this station has been rebuilt even to this point.
Walk through the station, past the placards explaining the station’s progress and the hard-hatted workers, up the stairs and the long escalator to the street. The temporary entrance to what will become a major transportation hub when it is finished in 2015 faces Vesey Street. Walk east, then south along either Church or Greenwich, then make a right on Albany, and you finally arrive at the lineup area for the 9/11 Memorial. Free passes are assigned by name and time, and entry requires photo ID and passing through six checkpoints and under the eyes of countless police officers and site security personnel. It’s a sobering ritual; there’s nothing to steal on the site, yet the sanctity of it is so great, it demands such attention.
Once through the security, it’s a freeing experience to walk out onto the plaza. Two fountains, granite benches, trees – and the metal fences all around, separating hallowed ground from hard-core construction on the new tower, once called the Freedom Tower, now more commonly referred to as 1 WTC. The sound from the waterfalls drowns out the street noise as you get closer to them. You cannot see the water until you walk right up to the fountains, and there they are.
The names. Nearly 3,000 people killed in the towers and on the planes. Six are from the first attack on the Center in 1993; the rest are from Sept. 11. You walk around and read. First responders, Port Authority employees, office workers, restaurant staff. Women who were pregnant at the time are listed by name, along with the words “and her unborn child.” You understand as you gaze at the names of people you don’t know, that the carnage defies understanding, and these people mattered to someone.
I saw mostly two types of visitors: people with a personal reason for being there, such as the loss of a loved one (or in my case, their survival that day) or an attachment to the city itself; and visitors who come here to be photographed the same way they would in front of the Empire State Building. They have no reason for coming here to be sad; it’s simply a tourist site to them. I admit it bothered me to see people actually smiling and taking photos of one another in front of the fountains. It seemed sacrilegious. But upon reflection, I realize that not everyone will have cause to weep here. For some people, this will be a pilgrimage, a place to reflect and remember. For others, it will be a stop between catching a Broadway show and a Circle Line tour.
At the time of my visit, the Survivor Tree, in the middle of the plaza, was still green, surrounded by other trees with brown leaves and bare branches. A reaffirmation of what I have always known about my city: you cannot kill its soul just because you break its heart.
And after the solemnity of the memorial, there’s nothing funnier than seeing a line of NYPD Harleys on Cedar Street, just east of the memorial, an officer perched on each. No, they weren’t getting ready to go anywhere. Each one was bent over their iPhone, texting away. For a moment, I wondered if they were texting each other. Then we kept walking towards the tall old ships at Pier 17, the former home of the Fulton Fish Market.