Celebrating The Life of a City, New York City
On Monday, October 22, 2001, I joined a celebration of life. The life of a city. New York City. Taking advantage of the Fall Break from teaching at Hartwick College, I traveled into New York City to get as close as possible to Ground Zero. This journey was to pay my respects to all who lost their lives, to the ruins of the World Trade Center. In that process, I also rediscovered the spirit of the City from which I’d somehow separated myself.
I’d grown up in Rutherford, NJ, a bedroom community for New York City. My father worked at Con Ed on 14th Street; aunts lived in city apartments; as a young woman, I worked in the old McGraw-Hill building on 42nd Street for six years. While living in Westchester County in the 1980s, I’d introduced my children to the City at the perfect time in their lives to become “street smart” and develop a love for the City. For my Masters Degree, I attended the City University of New York’s Lehman College in the Bronx, the northern borough of the City. Then I moved away. I lost my connection to the City – and did not regain it, even after moving back to New York State in 1995.
New York City had become too much of too many negatives: too much crime; too much dirt; too expensive, too much of a hassle; and I settled comfortably into my adopted rural lifestyle. Then the attacks of September 11, 2001! I knew that at the first opportunity I needed to return to the City, to travel down to lower Manhattan, to the neighborhood of Ground Zero.
Taking the train to Grand Central Station, I hurried to the subway, the Green 6 Line down to Canal Street – I hadn’t been on the subways in decades.
New York Transit had really improved the subways and I settled back, observing the multitude of people around me on this busy Monday morning.
Canal Street, Chinatown, hadn’t changed since I’d taken German exchange students there in the mid 1980s. Shortly after the attacks, pedestrians had not been able to go below Canal Street. Now so much more was open; and visitors, businesspeople and resident New Yorkers were busy traversing West Broadway, many headed to the intersections where one could get a glimpse of Ground Zero.
Memorials were set up at many sites: along the fences of City Hall Park; on the barriers across intersections still barred to southbound traffic; along the wall in front of St. Paul Episcopal Church, open only as a sanctuary for weary police, fire and National Guard personnel and other workers at Ground Zero. At the memorials people had placed flowers and candles. There were poems; drawings and letters from school children across the City and the nation; banners filled with messages and signatures from Kentucky and California, from Alaska and Florida, from Canada. And still posted were photos of the missing, now understood to have been killed in the WTC attacks.
An African American gentleman played his violin on the sidewalk and strands of “God Bless America” and “Amazing Grace” drifted across the streets.
Men and women of the National Guard and NYPD were everywhere – all courteous to the mingling onlookers, and emergency vehicles were given right of way through the city traffic of delivery trucks. Cabs and buses hadn’t yet returned to these streets. I was amazed at how far down Broadway we were able to go. At several intersections, Washington Street and Rector Streets, only that morning had the ban against photographs been lifted. Each intersection offered a different view of the ruins. After standing in numb recognition of the extent of the devastation, I, like so many other visitors, took photos. Maybe when I hold the photos in my hand, when I show them to others, the sights will seem less surreal. At one cross street, the hull of a building, charred and empty of life stood like a silent witness. At another site, one looked down the street and jutting out from the skeletal remains of a wall was a huge piece of blackened steel, twisted and mangled, seemingly defying gravity with its obscenely rakish angle. In every view, outlined against the blue sky, were the giant, red cranes, hoisting debris.
As they disturbed the wreckage, plumes of smoke and dust rose up, ghostly, ghastly reminders.
one, wide cross street, eighteen wheelers intermittently passed, tarps covering the debris they were hauling away, their sides glistening wet and dripping water from being hosed down to prevent contaminated dust being trailed through the streets. Then a tractor trailer passed – on its flatbed was laid out a massive steel beam, its burned surface testimony to the fires of 9-11. This sight really devastated me. I knew that when bodies are recovered from the ruins the workers cover them with an American flag and stand silently as they pass. I wanted this steel beam, this once vital piece of the structure of a tower of the World Trade Center, to be draped with the American Flag. I stopped, stunned and silent as it passed, wishing it too had an official honor guard to witness its passing. I thought of the earth from which its iron had come, the industrial workers that forged the iron into steel, the construction workers who had guided it into place within the structure of the tower and riveted it securely. When that tower of the World Trade Center was attacked, all who had contributed to that beam’s existence and function had been attacked. One of the posters for sale from street vendors read, “Never Forget the WTC.” As long as that image of a steel beam on its funeral brier remains in my mind, I will never forget.
that day was not just about mourning, it was about celebration – of the spirit of the City – a spirit that the attacks did not destroy. Walking down the streets, mingling with the crowd of visitors at the crossroads, reading the memorial messages, eating in a recently reopened restaurant appropriately called “The World Café,” I felt the pulse of humanity and it beat strong. And its rhythms were as diverse as the languages and ethnic groups and ages and classes represented on those streets. I purchased bumper stickers from a Chinese-American street vendor, drank a Guinness served by an Irish immigrant bartender in Moran’s on Washington Street (inside the police lines – two forms of ID required to pass). White business executives in power suits paused in their walks to stop and ponder the wreckage, some taking photos or stopping to read memorial messages. I crossed streets along side Jewish men in orthodox garb and watched young, African American and Asian American businesswomen and men on their lunch hour; listened to French tourists and American southerners exclaim in horror at the ruins. I asked directions from a Hispanic police officer. I saw old people in wheel chairs being pushed up to the fences to see down the side streets to the ruins; children being hoisted up on shoulders for a better view, and young men – by all outward appearances, punks – comforting each other in their shared sorrow.
In retreating from the City in the past two decades, I had forgotten the incredible humanity that makes New York City thrive, that had made the World Trade Center a success. The attacks of September 11 robbed us of lives, robbed us of structures, but did not rob us of the Spirit of New York City, of our nation. In this trip to Ground Zero, I rediscovered that Spirit, that City. On Monday, October 22, in making a memorial pilgrimage, I joined a celebration of life. The life of a city. New York City.