NEW YORK CITY.
New York, New York, a wonderful town. The city is a study in “doubleness.” The subway runs deep, the buildings scrape the sky. There’s an east side and a west side, an uptown and a downtown, two rivers, two coastlines.
The towers were identical twins with an identical message of soaring assertiveness. The Twin Towers were symbiotic in death and destruction. If they had been human, we would have said one couldn’t live without the other, so they tumbled down together. On the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, I joined friends on a sailboat on the Hudson to celebrate the golden wedding anniversary of two of the passengers. We sailed under a clear blue sky like the morning that two airplanes sent plumes of human smoke and ashes into the air, rudely interrupting our sense of safety and security. In an instant, discussions about the end of history came to an end. History was still with us. It still is. It still will be.
The captain steered us around the Statue of Liberty and all eyes were irresistibly drawn to that empty space in the skyline, like missing teeth in the smile of a beautiful woman. A passenger reminisced about the time when as a boy he climbed into the arm of Lady Liberty to see her torch up close. You can’t do that now because her arm was weakened during all those years she welcomed Emma Lazarus’ huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of another teeming shore. Her dignity remains as strong as ever and the fire of freedom she holds high shines as brightly as ever.
We disembarked at the Financial District and strolled to Ground Zero to observe and reflect. The neighborhood is coming back. Being born again hasn’t been easy, not for a skyscraper, but the forms are taking shape. Two hollowed-out granite walls are now hallowed monuments, standing exactly where the Twin Towers stood. The walls will eventually embrace reflecting pools, and the soothing splash of waterfalls will replace the bang and buzz of hammers and cement mixers. White oak trees will dapple the landscape with flashes of green. The building to bear the address 1 World Trade Center rises from ashes to a height of 1,776 feet. They’re already a third of the way.
It’s a shame the media focus is mainly on angry disagreements over the future of Ground Zero. The neighborhood is alive with excitement and potential. Businesses are moving in. Residents number upwards of 60,000 already. “New York never stops” says Larry Silverman, the real estate developer who signed the lease for the World Trade Center just weeks before the terrorist attack. “It’s always getting rebuilt,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Gentrification, modification, alternation, modernization, reuse, adaptive use and you see this happening down here to an amazing degree.”
His interest moves beyond religious and cultural issues. Today men and women wave competing signs and banners, for and against the Muslim center planned four blocks away, but the wrangling over the mosque is nothing compared with the wrangling that went on over where and how to rebuild. The cacophony of politicians, state and local elected officials, financiers, insurance companies, the feds and the families of victims could have drowned the cacophony of the jackhammers. Three thousand men and women died here, but the focus is on the millions who will follow.
When the sun set I took the subway to Brooklyn for a poetry reading in a loft by the widow of a man who died on Sept. 11, and the focus was decidedly on the past that is not yet past. The young widow, now in her 30s, could not imagine on that lovely September morning that she was saying goodbye to her husband for the last time. She tries to live to honor him, but she must work hard to suppress the rage at what she calls her husband’s “incineration.” Speech fails when she tries to tell of the sadness when an official delivered the small bone that verified the DNA of her husband.
How we mourn and remember, personally and publicly, politically and poetically, cannot be prescribed by others. The sharp, keening pain of loss will remain as long as those who lived through Sept. 11 are alive to bear witness. After that, the memorials and the history books will have to do the remembering. When I left the widow in her doorway I looked up to see the city’s silent memorial written across the dark horizon, two thin blue lasers evoking the Twin Towers like ghost riders in the sky. Betting against New York, like betting against America, is a sucker bet.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.