Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ground Zero – all these years later...

The Pit at Ground Zero - today...

All these years later...

It seems like such a strange way to put it when something feels so fresh – like it just happened yesterday.

It seems so a strange way to put it when, nine years later, we are still fighting a war over this, halfway around the world. Us: the most powerful military machine in history, slogging along against a seemingly ragtag bunch of throwbacks from the Dark Ages.

It seems like such a strange way to put it when you visit Ground Zero and realize that construction of the World Trade Center towers’ replacement has yet to rise.

All these years later.

The Pit - more than five years ago...

For someone who does not live in New York City, it is remarkable to see that nine years after that horrible day in September 2001, more has not been accomplished at Ground Zero. Understandably, it took some time to properly recover the deceased, survey the site and begin clearing it. It also is understandable that a proper amount of time be given to thinking about how the rebuilding would take place, what the building(s) and memorial(s) would look like – what kind of statement it would all make. It is hard to believe though, that here in the self-proclaimed and widely acknowledged “Greatest City in the World,” this giant scar still exists.

When I first visited Ground Zero shortly after the terror attacks, rubble was still being cleared; remains were still being discovered, and the grief – and anger – that hung over everything was still palpable. People circumambulated the ruins, trying to come to terms with the big hole in the city’s skyline and their memories of what once was. Round-the-clock television coverage had turned parts of Ground Zero into familiar, visual touchstones: there was the South Stairwell – the storied shield and last refuge for a handful of brave survivors; the girders standing silent watch at the edge of the Pit, partially sheared by the collapse and draped with a piece of melted steel, closely resembling a shrouded Christian cross; and there was the ramp down into the site’s gaping maw, serving as the final stairway out for victims’ remains as they were carried out in slow, solemn processions.

In the ensuing years, each time I returned to Ground Zero, I never failed to be moved by the quiet respect visitors gave this final resting place of thousands. Veterans wearing baseball caps bearing the names of wars served in or ships they served on paid their respects to the fallen. Likewise, firefighters and police from around the nation (many wearing caps and shirts emblazoned with their departments’ names) came to honor their brethren who had given all. And ordinary citizens, some arriving by the busload, would stand at the site and see with their own eyes that it was not just a bad dream. While there were open expressions of sadness, there seemed to be a proud certainty that the people of the city and the country – not to mention the buildings – would emerge from the tragedy better than before.

Today, nine years later, they still come but the feeling is different. Large groups of French-, German- and Russian-speaking tourists are seemingly everywhere, strolling the perimeter and gawking at construction cranes standing over the site. They look at memorials – formal and temporary – erected to commemorate the bravery of first responders as well as the lives of ordinary citizens who were caught by fate at the wrong place at the wrong time; they listen as “unofficial” tour guides and t-shirt peddlers hawk their wares and services; and they marvel at the architectural renderings of the replacement “Freedom Tower” posted around the site – promises of things to come.

Promises – promises that are taking a long, long time to fulfill.

Here in the World’s Greatest City, the same place where the Empire State Building was built in less than two years back in the 1930s, the WTC Pit is still there. Granted, it does not bear resemblance to the Pit that lay under the Pile in the days and weeks after the buildings’ collapse, but it is still there. In the Greatest City, the metropolis that became synonymous with skyscrapers still lacks a building of any significance on the site.

Another view of the Pit (today)...

And that is a shame.

Since the day the North and South Towers were destroyed, the world has seen a host of enormous structures erected around the world, each considered vitally important to their respective cities and nations. Yet the commercial and symbolic replacement for the WTC still has not been realized almost a decade after the towers came down.

The wounds of 9/11 are deep and it is unlikely any monument or rebuilding effort will ever be enough of a salve, but completion of the WTC site project will signal a return.

All these years later.

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