At Ground Zero

At construction sites all over the city, cranes and the sounds of workmen typically signify what is to come, a landmark, a reminder of an intersection or a part of town… At Ground Zero, it is painfully apparent that this is not what will be. – Alex Walker, CNN.com, November 5, 2001

I was at Ground Zero the day after Mr. Walker and my sentiments are quite the opposite.

As I exited the Fulton Street subway station I was face to face with one of the buildings near the Towers. I don’t know the name, but I recognized it as a building I’d seen many times before. This time the steel and glass were not glistening in the morning sun-hell, there was no glass left. What was once a street I could walk down was closed off with chain-link fence. The wrought-iron fence of a church at the corner was covered with flowers and sheets that people could leave messages on. To quote a fellow bystander, “this shit don’t look right.”

The aesthetic eeriness had an aural equivalence. “This don’t sound right, either,” I should have said to the bystander.

It took me a while to realize what exactly sounded wrong: aside from the traffic, it was absolutely silent. People walked along the street yet barely anyone spoke. Those who did speak spoke little and sounded distant, almost inaudible.

I walked along Broadway, looking down every block to see more of the destruction caused on Sept.11. Mr. Walker’s construction site analogy works quite well here. Most of the destroyed buildings did not look all that different from many of the condemned buildings I had seen on construction sites all over the city. In retrospect what first struck me was the juxtaposition of the destruction with the relatively unchanged

Broadway and the glistening, untouched buildings rising on the West Side, previously obstructed by the Twin Towers. It looked like a construction site; it was just in an unexpected place.

What did take me off guard almost immediately was coming to the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. I instantly recognized it as the spot from which I watched the Yankees ticker tape parade at the same time last year. That day the last thing I looked at was the World Trade Center that was right in my line of sight. And then I passed another corner that I remember walking past with two friends from out of town this summer as we looked for a place to eat. I remember glancing towards the Trade Center and deciding we should walk the opposite way because we were not going to afford any place to eat that layin that direction. Both times I never looked twice at the sight of the Twin Towers and the Center that spanned the blocks surrounding them; as far as I was concerned that was the epitome of urban beauty, but I was so used to seeing it that it was just part of the background. Now all that lied in its place was rubble, destroyed building and fences keeping me out. Yet it did not feel hopeless, just different.

As I reached Trinity Church I noticed the increasing number of street vendors. Some were women on the corner selling American Flag jewelry out of suitcases. Other were men selling tacky posters of the Twin Towers. And, of course, the guys who sold the bootleg hats were there, this time sporting NYPD and FDNY caps and hats. My first reaction was the same as everyone else’s: absolute disgust at the site of people capitalizing on tragedy. It really does not get any more distasteful or shameless.

And then I smiled.

I was happy, truly happy, to see these people hocking tasteless merchandise on the block of Trinity Church next to Ground Zero. Being born and raised in New York, I do not think twice about seeing street vendors in much the same way I did not think twice about seeing the World Trade Center; they are always just there. Oh, and they are sure to be capitalizing on whatever is the current, hot, in-demand issue. I do not agree with their actions, but they are a staple of life in New York City. In that moment I realized that it would have been far stranger to make my way to Ground Zero and not find them. In light of all that was lost on Sept. 11, seeing these disrespectful, distasteful street vendors made it clear to me that this was still the place I had left earlier in September.Â

Slowly I started looking around again, this time at the people, not the destruction. By now it was approaching the lunch hour and Wall Street executives were pouring onto the street. There were still people like me looking at the remains of the World Trade Center, but the number of regular pedestrians was steadily increasing. The silence I thought I heard was gone, in its place was the sound of unintelligible voices talking over each other; the sound I was so used to hearing. The New York life I knew was springing up all around me on downtown Broadway.

One of the first things I thought about when I had a second to catch my breath on Sept. 11 was the Winter Garden. I had heard it referred to as the “living room of the World Trade Center,” and I could not agree more. A domed greenhouse with towering palm trees, marble floor and a grand staircase, it stood at the base of the Towers, overlooking the river. Personally, the beauty of it made me look around in awe every time went there. Something about the hurt of never being able to see it again stuck out in my mind the days following the attack. Words cannot express the feeling that overwhelmed me when I turned a corner, looked down to where the Twin Towers once stood and saw, in the distance, the Winter Garden still standing. Amidst all the destruction and all the debris, it stood there, granted it had a gapping hole on the east side and it was covered in soot, but it was still there. I do not hesitate to say that it was the happiest I had felt since before the attacks

Like the street vendors and the Wall Street execs running around on Broadway, seeing the Winter Garden that morning last week gave me a sense of hope I had not felt since the attacks. A day like Sept. 11 make us stop and think and mourn. But eventually life gets up and continues.

Ground Zero is not just what was it is, what will be. Once the cleaning is done, construction will begin and in the place of the World Trade Center will undoubtedly be a new landmark for an old country and an even older city. At Ground Zero it is apparent that we will not allow tragedy to dictate or destroy our lives.