The tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 came and went in September. I'd been avoiding going to the memorial - until recently. I'm glad I did.
I was in New York two months after the attacks. Though I didn't want to gawk, my journalistic curiosity got the better of me, and I made a trip downtown; Broadway was still grimy and dusty, and all available wall space was papered with pictures, notes of support, appeals, missing person notices. There were candlelit memorials and a silent line of people slowly making their way along the narrow streets. Downtown had a noticeable burning odor, an incendiary battleground of fire and hurt and loss. The site was a real-life horror scene. It was impossible to get too close, but the gigantic, yawning hole of where the Towers had been - a hole in the skyline, a hole downtown - was just as upsetting as the enormous pile that sat in their place. It was a pile of wire, concrete, twisted metal, stones, and ash. People stood and stared. Some took pictures. The memory of that visit still makes my stomach turn.
Despite a number of setbacks and delays, construction at One World Trade Center continues. The Center is expected to open in late 2013.
I returned to New York eight months later, and was impressed by the cleanup effort, if still emotional about the yawning emptiness both on the site and around it. The pile had been significantly reduced, and the streets seemed cleaner, if more brittle, cold, unfriendly. The NYPD stood watch every few paces. There were still notices and appeals stapled and taped onto walls, some of them ripped and withered with age. I still wonder how many of them were answered - and how many weren't.
The 9/11 Museum (with the World Financial Center reflected in the background) is set to open in late 2012. The museum was the subject of a funding dispute between the New York Port Authority and the September 11 Memorial And Museum last December. Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, recently blocked a bill that would have provided $20 million in annual federal funds for the museum and memorial, saying supporters should find the money elsewhere.
When I moved to New York in 2011 I was curious how the site had changed. Downtown has experienced something of a revitalization in the past decade, and it was good to see businessmen bustling past Church and Vesey, barely (if ever) casting a glance at the construction happening beyond the borders. The busy pubs and shops were encouraging, even inspiring. When the 9/11 Memorial site opened, however, I wasn't sure I could go. Would it be disrespectful? Exploitive? Too painful? A combination of time, opportunity, and that old journalistic stalwart, curiosity, changed my mind.
Flowers are laid on the names of loved ones at the 9/11 Memorial. There are nearly 3,000 names of women, men, and children who were killed on September 11, 2001. They are stencil-cut into the bronze parapets which encircle the sites of the original World Trade Center towers.
The Memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker And Partners, is a beautiful tribute featuring tree-lined walkways and wide, airy spaces. It invites quiet solo contemplation what with its benches and mandala-like walks, and it also opens new connections by encouraging conversation around the edges of its water-lined monuments. I encountered a variety of visitors, all standing in silent, respectful awe, as I quietly navigated around the walkways. A visiting couple asked me to take their picture with the new One World Trade Center in the background. An older man explained to his pie-eyed grandchildren about the buildings that once stood on the site. Teens smiled and took photos around the Survivor Tree. I noticed that tree has buds on it and I smiled too.
The "survivor tree" at the 9/11 Memorial site is a magnet for visitors. Despite its branches being severed and suffering severe charring on 9/11, the Callery pear tree was nursed back to health at a nursery in the Bronx and blooms white flowers every spring.
As I had a pint at O'Hara's afterwards (and noted its own incredible 9/11 history), I thought about how New York has changed in ten years. Some things - like subway delays and crazy cab drivers - haven't changed, but some things have. If you do decide to visit the memorial, wear your comfortable shoes - and bring plenty of tissue.