Note: The following piece is an essay I wrote for my fourth progression paper for my class Writing the Essay: Art and the World at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
As strange as it sounds, I will always remember the World Trade Center towers that were destroyed on September 11th, 2001 first and foremost as aesthetically powerful art pieces. Obviously, my view is a bit more complicated than that – the towers will always evoke painful memories of 9/11 for me. But ever since the age of five, I have been amazed and obsessed with the towers, as the architecture fascinated me, and the towers represented a larger and richer world than the one in which I lived. When I was seven years old, my mother and father took me to the top of one of the towers while we were visiting New York City, and I was even more amazed. From years seven to nine, I had an obsession with drawing and painting images of the towers – I simply loved them. I am someone who, when seeing images of the towers now, does not immediately think of September 11th, 2001. I think of my childhood and my memories, and I oftentimes forget that the World Trade Center towers became objects of terrorism on that horrible day. I prefer to remember them as art.
The Ground Zero site in downtown Manhattan today is a difficult site to comprehend and classify. After all, there is no historical marker setting a definite perimeter for the space, and therefore the nearby buildings and various unofficial memorials surrounding the site must be taken into consideration when attempting to fully understand this demanding space. For instance, does Ground Zero encompass simply the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center towers once stood, or might its limits be more far-reaching, extending into the neighborhood and district affected by that awful September day? Even blocks away from the site, American flags hang from buildings, some of them dusty and perhaps even still covered in ashes and debris from that horrible day in September of 2001. Outside of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, there is a 9/11 Memorial Cross dedicated to those who lost their lives in the attacks, but like many of the memorials near the site, this one does not seem to be an official memorial from the city, but rather the work of those who witnessed the attacks themselves.
The memorials are not difficult to identify; they include plaques from the Lawyers’ Association and several surrounding businesses, along with street signs that, every so often, present an image of the old towers when pointing toward Ground Zero. The space certainly welcomes travelers by asking them to preview the upcoming 9/11 Memorial Site and look at computed-generated photos of The Freedom Tower, which is due to be completed in 2013. Alongside the gated perimeter of Ground Zero, these photos illustrate the desired results of the current construction, and visitors are free to admire the pictures of the tower. And yet the space simultaneously expels travelers by asking them to step away from the site and keep their distance from the construction. Traffic guards direct pedestrians and visitors every which way, so that you can get close to the site, but not too close. Visitors wishing to catch a glimpse of the construction taking place inside the site will have a hard time finding a peephole through the fence, and attempts to enter the space itself are futile. The city wants the site to be embraced, and yet they are also protective of a wound that has not yet healed and perhaps never will heal.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of visiting Ground Zero is witnessing what seems to be a clash between those wishing to erase the memory of the old World Trade Center towers with the upcoming new tower and those clinging to the memory of the World Trade Center towers. On one hand, many small coffee shops and delis are decorated with large images of the World Trade Center towers standing in all their glory. There is also the Tribute WTC Visitor Center on Liberty Street, offering visitors the chance to remember that tragic day and its heroes – but even this tribute is in private, away from the mainstream view. In fact, there are many areas near the site where, if you had no prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, you might not know a major tragedy took place at all. The major construction that is in the mainstream view, however, is for the unfinished 9/11 Memorial Site, and pictures alongside the fenced-off areas of Ground Zero show images of the new tower and a calm, serene future against the Manhattan skyline. Images of the old towers are present but sparse, and nowhere to be seen are images from the haunting day of September 11, 2001.
Of course, tourists are far from being the only people who take in Ground Zero – in fact, citizens who work near Ground Zero are forced to reckon with the site and the tragedy that they very likely witnessed nearly every day. Interestingly enough, visitors vacationing in New York City often visit the site and snap pictures, but they leave rather quickly. Nobody lingers at Ground Zero the way that they linger at Central Park, or the Museum of Modern Art, or the Statue of Liberty. In fact, Ground Zero may be the only New York City tourist attraction that is not associated with fun and excitement. There is no community ice-skating rink or even a marvelous spectacle and awe as some might expect – there’s just a huge hole in the ground, and cranes constructing what might otherwise be just another new building. Many tourists I have observed seem to feel some sort of duty to visit the site, stay for a few minutes, and then quickly hop on the subway to get to that night’s Broadway show. Does this signify that a once-sacred memorial is now worth nothing more than a quick snapshot? If so, Ground Zero may become less and less of an attraction with each passing day.
Of course, this also has to do with the changing landscape and feel of Ground Zero. The area is very depressing, yes…and yet, it’s almost become just part of the landscape – you know, the giant hole that Wall Street bankers walk past every morning on their way to work. Maybe the public visits Ground Zero expecting grief and depression, but instead they see business as usual. As the years go by, I suspect Ground Zero will become less of a tourist and public attraction for this very reason.
Behind this conflict, of course, is my expectation that not only should the area memorialize the tragedy of 9/11 and the thousands of lives lost on that day, but also share my recognition of the former World Trade Center towers as art and memorialize their grandeur. A fear similar to mine about the original World Trade Center fading from the public consciousness is present in Jonathan Lethem’s essay “Speak, Hoyt Schermerhorn,” where he fears that the train station he loved and knew as a young man “[won’t] actually be able to be captured in depiction” and will be forgotten in the years to come (74). Just as he wonders “when…the last person to have purchased panty hose or a razor at Loeser’s [will] pass from the earth,” I, too, wonder when the last person who remembers the World Trade Center towers in all of their glory will pass from this earth (78).
Despite this assumption on my part, though, the question still begs answering – why has Ground Zero become just part of the landscape? One answer to my question may be found in the historical space surrounding the site. City Hall, only minutes away from Ground Zero, is the former home of Boss Tweed and the Tweed Courthouse, and the system of corruption that thrived during his reign (a corruption, perhaps, that made it’s way down to Wall Street and the entire Financial District). When taking into consideration the history of greed and capitalism that runs through the Financial District, from Wall Street to the buildings surrounding Ground Zero, it is important to remember that the World Trade Center towers were a part of the functioning city economy (and very possibly an extension of Wall Street greed). But how, you may ask, will the city feel about building a new business building on Ground Zero and allowing said building to become a functional part of the greedy Wall Street culture? Although I have a hard time believing that businessmen will so easily capitalize on the failings of others while working on a site that represents so much grief to the American people, it is very possible that the new towers that replace the World Trade Center towers will soon become associated with the same greed and larceny with which Wall Street is now associated.
The idea of Ground Zero going through corporatization is not unthinkable. In "Hybrid Place: The Experience of the Local and the Remote," Andrew J. Blum quotes Ted Relph as speculating that “‘in a world of multi-national corporations, universal planning practices and instantaneous global communications, we have to take seriously the argument that sense of place is just another form of nostalgia and that places are obsolete’” (1993, p. 25). If this is true, the public may at some point lose its sense of nostalgia for the old towers, and, as Blum puts it, “dismiss the idea of place altogether when faced with the absence of its more romantic characteristics” (7). This loss of nostalgia matters because it renders the original World Trade Center towers as symbols without meaning, abstract buildings familiar only in photographs but not in memory, the towers that once stood for the ambition and scope of New York City relegated to a distant memory and associated with an event that most people would prefer to forget.
There is another possibility as to why Ground Zero may have become just part of the landscape. In the article “The Synthetic Sublime,” Cynthia Ozick considers New York City to be a city that consistently destroys and rebuilds itself to the point where, in one hundred years, we wouldn’t be able to recognize or identify the city anymore. She claims that “our New York too will melt away, and a renewed and clarified city will lift out of the breathing breast of the one we know” (224-225). This will happen sooner than we know it with Ground Zero – not just in a physical transformation, but in the public perception, as well. I am in a unique position – fifty years from now, when new towers stand where the World Trade Center towers once stood, I will be able to say that I stood on top of the World Trade Center towers as a boy, only to watch them fall down and a new building to sprout up several years later. In New York’s historic custom of tearing buildings down and rebuilding them, will we soon forget that the cause of a new tower replacing the World Trade Center towers was an act of terrorism? Will the World Trade Center site just become another New York City building in the public consciousness to be torn down and then rebuilt again? It’s hard to fathom now, as so many people have the memories of 9/11 haunting their lives. But one hundred years from now, that will not be true. Are the current memorials enough to keep this horrible event part of New York’s collective history?
In general, sites and spaces that serve as public memorials seem to exist at first as solely a memorial. However, after some time, society demands that these memorials must also function as part of the place’s economy. Once the space begins functioning on that practical level, does it somehow cease functioning as a memorial? Can a space do both at the same time? Or does one annihilate the other? There is certainly an implied conflict between the surrounding space and the site itself, as if the city feels pressure for Ground Zero to function on a practical level similar to the buildings and offices surrounding the site. After all, memorials do not play a role in the city’s economy, and although the Ground Zero site is a sacred place that played host to a devastating tragedy, the construction suggests that the space must be used to the city’s economic advantage. If the new tower can simultaneously serve as a memorial to the victims of 9/11, then that is even better for the city; however, the tower cannot serve solely as a memorial (which may explain why most of the current memorials near Ground Zero are unofficial, almost makeshift ones). But with the rise of the new tower impending, the question arises: will the memorial aspect be preserved?
In order to attempt to understand how future generations will perceive Ground Zero and the building that is eventually constructed in its space, I am going to look at the city of Hiroshima in Japan, as both Hiroshima and Ground Zero are areas affected by warfare and destruction, by circumstance and tragedy. Although Hiroshima is a far more expansive area than Ground Zero (after all, Hiroshima is an entire city and Ground Zero is just a hole in the ground), I believe we can look at the Ground Zero site today as a microcosm of the city of Hiroshima in the years after the end of World War II. On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, effectively ending the Second World War. The atomic blast killed around 90,000 to 140,000 people, accounting for radiation and other chaos after the blast. In the years following its destruction, Hiroshima was rebuilt and reconstructed, and the Genbaku Dome (Atomic Dome) was opened as part of the city’s effort to memorialize the tragedy. Although many other memorials were built in reference to the devastating effects of the atomic bomb (including the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum), today Hiroshima is rebuilt and, for the most part, is a healthy and functioning city. Much like Ground Zero, Hiroshima is not so much a public memorial anymore as it is a functional part of the country of Japan. I am not suggesting that the Japanese do not remember and/or grieve the tragedy that took place in 1945, but I do believe that, more or less, business is back to normal in Hiroshima. If the memorials weren’t present in Hiroshima, would today’s youth immediately recognize that this city was almost completely destroyed sixty-five years ago? It’s hard to say. Years from now, I believe Ground Zero will still be recognized as a public memorial and a place of grievance – but, for the most part, it will function much like the rest of the city functions – for practical purposes.
The purpose of memorializing tragedy is to remind and inform the public of a horrendous event and honor those who suffered in the tragedy. The difficulty of such memorializing is that events as painful and raw as those that occurred on September 11th, 2001 are not comforting to the public, and therefore there is a reluctance to relive and remember the suffering of that day. This reluctance conflicts with the need to inform future generations of this tragedy, and the compromised result may produce a memorial in name only.
Because of the public memorials and art surrounding the space, I would hope that the public never will forget the original towers and the terrible tragedy on September 11th, 2001. Ozick ends her article by musing about our future generations and “what thoughts [they will] think” and if “[they will] think our outworn thoughts, or imaginings we cannot imagine” (225). Nobody knows the answer to those questions, but I can say this for sure: the public that is receiving the Ground Zero site at this moment will not be the same public as the one that receives it tomorrow, or the next day, or one hundred years from now. With each passing day, September 11th, 2001 fades from the public consciousness, becoming less of a memory and more of an abstraction. And as it goes, so do the World Trade Center towers.