In 2008, during my first visit to New York since 9/11, I took a tour organised by the WTC Tribute Centre around the site of the Twin Towers. I usually abhor tours, but there was no other way to extract some educational value from a visit to Ground Zero. The area was simply a construction site.
The tour concluded in the offices of American Express, which had built a memorial to the 11 employees it lost in the attack: a remarkably simple and affecting work of art called Eleven Tears. The memorial consisted of a large quartz crystal suspended over an 11-sided black granite pool, into which 11 drops of water (the "tears", if you will) would periodically drop.
Our guide, who himself had lost his wife in the attack, couldn’t take us to a public memorial. No such place existed.
Leave it to the private sector to get things done.
It has been a continuing source of frustration for many New Yorkers that Manhattan has gone without any sort of 9/11 tribute for the past decade. That changed this week with the opening of the National 9/11 Memorial on the site of the World Trade Center.
The Memorial was a focal point for Sunday’s 10th anniversary of the attacks, and opened to the public the following day. A museum, which is still in the process of construction, will open on the site next September.
Over the past decade, the effort to commemorate the events of 9/11 has mirrored the effort to avenge them: it has been slow, expensive and controversial.
In particular, the bureaucracy and conflicting jurisdictions were a nightmare. Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker’s architecture critic, noted that the WTC site was delayed by "enormous battles between all the participants who could not agree on what to do, how to do it and who should pay for it".
Despite settling on a design in January 2004, construction didn’t begin on the memorial until March 2006. The project was then beset by a series of high-profile resignations on the boards of the World Trade Centre Memorial Foundation and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, both of which were charged with handling development of the site.
Costs skyrocketed. By May 2006, the estimated cost of the memorial passed the US$1 billion mark. Mayor Michael Bloomberg stepped in to oversee a fresh analysis of the project, which led to a redesign capping costs at $500 million.
"There’s just not an unlimited amount of money that we can spend on a memorial," he said. As 9/11 sculptures and memorials were erected in California, Florida, Arizona, and even just across the water in Staten Island and New Jersey, Manhattan went without. In 2006, the WTC Tribute Centre opened across the road from the WTC site.
While the Centre undoubtedly filled a gap in the lower Manhattan area, a less-than-glowing article in the Village Voice earlier this month identified the it as one of the possible "winners" from 9/11, with executive director Jennifer Adams earning at least $177,000 a year.
"Amazingly, the museum takes in about $3.5 million a year, the majority from admissions ($15 a ticket), but nearly $500,000 from the merchandise, including a $19.95 tribute umbrella and a $69 10th Anniversary FDNY shield. An army of some 300 unpaid volunteers, largely survivors and relatives of the dead, give tours, which cost $10 per person. A typical tour includes 20 people, which means each tour brings in at least $200 an hour.
"The group spends the lion’s share of that money on the cost of operating the museum ($3.6 million). Some $231,000 was spent ‘communicating directly with victim’s family members’. That communication apparently means a newsletter and a website (‘Make a difference, donate today’).
"Signs in the window of the museum distill this conflict. One says, ‘Proceeds support 9/11 victim and families.’ The other says, ‘Proceeds support the Tribute Centre.’"
Salaries at the new National Memorial also have come in for scrutiny, with the top 11 officials overseeing the project earning a collective $2.8m a year.
Even so, the Memorial’s opening was greeted with what has been described as "palpable relief" by the Guardian. While 9/11 will always be a raw subject for New Yorkers, the establishment of a memorial and bin Laden’s recent end undoubtedly provides some sense of closure for the local populace.
Three years after my last visit to Ground Zero, last week I managed to secure one of the elusive visitor passes on the second day of the Memorial’s public showing. After passing through several checkpoints and having my possessions (camera, wallet, phone) x-rayed no less than five times, I entered a plaza filled with 400 trees and two reflective pools, each occupying the place of the Twin Towers.
The design, entitled Reflecting Absence, is intended to capture the "footprint" of the WTC site. Each pool is set roughly 20 feet into the ground and surrounded by manmade waterfalls, with the water disappearing into square holes at the pools’ centre. The effect of the cascading waterfalls is eerily reminiscent of the spectre of the two towers disappearing into dust 10 years ago.
Each pool is rimmed with a bronze tablet bearing the engraved names of every fatality during the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Early visitors to the site have already begun leaving tributes next to the names of their fallen family members and friends.
If anyone is looking for a profound summary of the last 10 years, from the moment of frazzled cable news hosts glued to their televisions like the rest of us trying to describe "what we’re seeing here", to bin Laden’s bullet hole, they are going to be disappointed. The Memorial is an understated monument to the lives lost during 9/11 and nothing more. As much as it can be, the site is apolitical: just trees, fountains and names carved in bronze. Old Glory is draped on buildings around the site, but not inside. This, after all, was an event that took lives of many nationalities.
The site is respectful but not overly solemn. It is effectively a park, and one can imagine the site being a common lunchtime meeting point for local workers in the years to come. Indeed, in what was probably an appropriate tribute to the fallen epicentre of the western economy, I spotted a few visitors chatting away on their cell phones as they toured the site.
Whatever the cost may have been, both in money and to the collective patience of the city’s citizens, this is a worthy monument to the defining event of the post Cold War era.
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