Monday 18 November 2019

New York: a city that will never forget horror of 9/11

The memorial to the victims is a beacon for tourists, but some critics have said it does not reflect the true energy of the city. Siobhán Brett reports
Remembered: Carrie Bergonia looks over the name of her fiance, firefighter Joseph Ogren, at the 9/11 Memorial on the anniversary of the attacks. Photo: Chris Pedota
Remembered: Carrie Bergonia looks over the name of her fiance, firefighter Joseph Ogren, at the 9/11 Memorial on the anniversary of the attacks. Photo: Chris Pedota
The new World Trade Centre, the city's tallest building

On a cold and wet evening in Manhattan, the World Trade Centre is largely deserted. Commuters file along the thoroughfares on its perimeter, jostling gently at traffic lights and on subway station steps.

The glow of a nearby shopping mall backlights the empty plaza at One World Trade Centre (1WTC) - or "the Freedom Tower", as it is still known, the tallest in the city.

This part of town is orderly, spacious, and brighter than most. But in the fog, these qualities are less obvious. The skyscraper is obscured. All is grey.

For New Yorkers, 1WTC acts as a beacon, and it is unusual to have to scan the sky for it in vain. The same is true for the outline of the Empire State, three miles north, or the Chrysler Building or, since 2014, the slender shape of 432 Park Avenue, just south of Central Park.

Today, the World Trade Centre feels like any other major, modern, metropolitan centre in a major, modern, metropolitan place. Now, in the tail-end of winter, ivy beds are covered in tarpaulin pierced by signs asking passers-by not to walk on them. The lighting, fonts and materials of the building are universally subtle, clean and simple. They are new.

Aside from its newness, few pieces of evidence mark this out as the site of the deadliest terrorist attack in world history. Sure, there are visible concessions to security. The vaguely gloomy presence of beaten-up signs that say: "All Bags, Packages, and Containers are Subject to Search". The reinforced concrete barriers. The circling trios of armed military officers in combat uniform. Guard booths. Roadblocks.

Yes, there are gentle directions to the museum and the memorial pools.

"Hello, Tomorrow," reads one contemplative stretch of property developer signage. "We never forget what has gone before. Yet our eyes have always been on the possibilities ahead."

On September 11, 2001, I was 12 years old and at school in Salthill, Galway. Mine is the classic experience of the remote outsider. When two Boeing 767s flew into the side of the north and south towers, 14 minutes apart, killing 2,606 people, I was in a business studies class.

As if it were any other Monday afternoon, I walked out of the school gates and in the general direction of my mother's parked car. Unlike any other Monday, the doors of most of the cars of parents waiting on children were hanging open. The sound of RTÉ Radio 1 carried on the air.

Some parents gathered in small groups. Others, like my mam, were sitting in their cars with the driver's seat door thrown open in anticipation of just what, exactly, I don't know. Few people had words to say. We drove home in silence and sat before Sky News for the evening.

In 2010, when I visited New York City by myself for the first time, I took photographs of heaving, fresh-seeming shrines to victims and stared at a vast building site, a recessed, moving mash of concrete and metal behind railings and partitions, elements of it smoking and steaming in the January air.

Nine years after the attack, "ground zero" was a hole in the earth. The environment was tough, the visible grief had no focal point.

Living in New York today, more than 15 years later, it is not uncommon for people that I meet day-to-day to relay, impromptu, their experience of 9/11. It is startling to hear about the avenues they found themselves standing on, or the office boardrooms they were in, or the people they tried to call.

Spirited New Yorkers speak freely about an atrocity that, as then-mayor Rudy Giuliani said, intended to break the city's spirit but could not.

New York made slow peace with the prolonged loss of its public space. In the aftermath of 9/11, there were layers of checkpoints and restrictions in place the likes of which I struggle to imagine today. Parts of Manhattan will be heavily policed forever.

The New Yorker's relationship to shutdown, the addition of cladding and the creation of fortresses on the city's streets was tested anew recently, when a high-profile New York resident, Donald Trump, was elected to the White House. "He's ruined our Fifth Avenue," a passer-by told me bitterly while I was reporting at Trump Tower earlier this year. President Trump's effect on security and ideas about freedom have already surpassed physical imposition and ventured into larger, more philosophical territory.

His administration's line on "radical Islamic terrorists", and Trump's own express desire for "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States", whips at some of the old antagonism of 2001 and almost became a reality.

"These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve," then-president George W Bush said, into a lens, on the night of 9/11. "America was targeted attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world, and none will keep that light from shining." He declared war "on terror" nine days later.

In 2017, the World Trade Centre is set upon by throngs of selfie-snapping tourists. They peer into the two vast pools - each filling the outline of the foundation of a tower- gaze at the non-stop cascading water and trace the names of the victims that run alongside. They squint up at the mirrored clouds and beaming light reflecting from the new skyscraper's sides. On a clear day, 1WTC can be seen for miles.

The memorial is futuristic, shining and conducive to commerce. "Formal, gigantic, impersonal, flat, built to awe," wrote New York Times' architecture critic Michael Kimmelman in 2014. "The place doesn't do much to celebrate the city's values of energy, diversity, tolerance, openness and debate."

Kimmelman and others initially struggled with the treatment of the site, baulking at the rules and feeling at odds with its seeming rigidity and sterility which he feared cramped the expression of those values, values grasped at more tightly by New Yorkers this year than ever.

"Life has a way of renewing a wounded city," he wrote. Few living in this city could disagree.

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