By the time I had moved into an apartment above The Hole, in the middle of the last decade, usage of the previous term, “Ground Zero,” was thankfully fading. It was a haphazard phrase anyway, a clash of words too evocative of territory (ground) and nothingness (zero). It lingered too long, uninvited, like an expression coined by Sartre, or maybe Rumsfeld.
New Yorkers, who wisely seemed to avoid calling it anything, also seemed to avoid the entire neighborhood. On the rare occasion that I could convince a friend to visit — to dine, or to drink, or to watch the season premiere of LOST, or to do whatever we did in that hazy decade — they would inevitably peer out the window, down onto the fenced space, softly breathing the same words:
It was sad. But tragedy often pairs with farce, and here it was, 35 floors in the sky: a wide-angle view of the world’s most kinetic city, but directly below, an inert plat of earth.
For days on end, nothing happened down there, the dusty embodiment of a bureaucratic lock-up. Months accrued into motionless years, broken only by the occasional lazy afternoon when a bulldozer coughed itself awake, puffing the will to move some earth northward. The next day, revving up again, the dozer pushed the same soil southbound. Back and forth, across 16 inert acres, no change, except the illusion of change.
It was like that for a long time.
But then, without warning, the earth cracked, and the sky broke open. From the chasm below, the arcs of construction — cobalt sparks and copper flickers — lit up the night. Steely glass erupted from the ground, towers of freedom. And soon, the mirrors — oh, the mirrors! — the surface of each new building reflecting the best angles of its shiny peers.
We clearly needed a new name for this space. Instead, we returned to the old name: World Trade Center.
“A hundred times have I thought New York
is a catastrophe, and fifty times:
It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
― Le Corbusier
“New York will be a great place, if they ever finish it.”
— O. Henry
Before any of the occupants were even announced, this photorealistic wallpaper was wrapped around the construction site, a mural of aspiration pasted over the once-bleak landscape:
Like a map placed over its territory, this wallpaper is the purest projection of how the city imagines itself. In its new skin, all logos advertise the same product:
The fonts may change, but the fantasy stays the same.
The new World Trade Center is the embodiment of New York City as the fantasy it has always projected, a constantly refurbished dream of America. In this place, images can change, but names are always waiting to be remembered.
This is what it means to never forget.
This neighborhood was always, from its founding, a fantasy. Fifty years ago, it literally did not exist. When the original Twin Towers were built, rubble from the site was used to push back the Hudson River, creating a new neighborhood out of thin air. I now live on the soil from the original Hole.
The rectangular appendage on the western side of Manhattan was added through land reclamation, a euphemistic process that rebuffs nature and creates new urban space. Nostalgia is impossible here, because the place has no history. It was invented.
If nostalgia is impossible, a different form of wistfulness thrives in lower Manhattan. Now, we residents fondly remember an earlier era, before the tourists.
When you live around WTC, tourism becomes a guiding principle and constant obstacle. Sidewalks congest in unexpected places, crowds gawking at construction sites and memorials, disrupting your commute. Quick, there’s an opening — seeing a path through the congestion, you plunge through the congealing mass, toward the empty space — whoa, wait! You halt, teetering, to avoid crossing a photographer’s sightline — a family portrait, taken with an iPhone, by a cop, with the Freedom Tower in the background.
Every day, on my jaunt to the subway, someone in a new dialect asks for directions. Once, several years ago, as an elderly couple approached, that beseeching look on their faces, I tried to guess — will they ask for directions to the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, or Katz’s Deli?
“Ver eest zee 9/11?” asked the hunched man, in a deep brogue, seemingly German. The first few syllables were a jumble of harsh über-sounds, but the glaring anglicized numbers at the end resonated loudly.
“Where is The 9/11?” his wife repeated, in more familiar English.
Oh. Yes. The 9/11.
“Um, right there,” I replied, pointing at the tall fence, 20 feet away, barbed wire running along the top.
Their disappointment was obvious.
This is not a place to visit, I thought to explain. It is not even a place. There is nothing to see. It is an empty square on the map, the opposite of tourism — no adventure, no leisure, no attractions. It is void. Why would you come here? You cannot see The 9/11.
But the elderly couple moved on, circling the empty fenced space.
Now, years later, there is much to see, especially since this summer, when the 9/11 Memorial opened to the public. You can now walk right up to the Reflecting Pools, which are the largest man-made waterfalls in the world.
In yet another linguistic conundrum, the memorial is officially called “Reflecting Absence,” yet the slate gray surface reflects nothing.
Was that intentional? Does the contradiction highlight the folly in deriving meaning from absence? Are the waterfalls like language itself, which aspires to be mirror of the world but is more of a foggy window? Or is “Reflecting Absence” merely a wink at the surrounding WTC towers, which reflect each other with abandon, a phalanx of architectural #selfies?
Perhaps it was a good question after all: Where is The 9/11?
Although the catchy moniker implied proximity to financial territory, Occupy Wall Street was actually several blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. However, it was right next to The Hole.
Watching New Yorkers turn into tourists, like Batman morphing into the Joker, was a supreme pleasure. Gotham seldom noticed that their doppelgangers — actual tourists — were across the street, gazing at The Hole. Both groups were strangers in a strange land, tourists on a pilgrimage of memory.
Like many people, I believed in #OWS on principle, even when those principles were unclear, which was more often than not. Occupy’s goals were often baffling, but sometimes the incomprehensible response is the perfect one. And gazing at the incomprehensible in wonderment — even better.
My neighborhood is nothing less than a surveillance state. You cannot walk outside without being photographed, hundreds of times within a block. In all likelihood, I get photographed inside my apartment. Cameras are everywhere — some obvious, some hidden.
WTC now resembles an absurdist theatrical troupe where robotic cameras take pictures of tourists taking pictures of cops taking pictures of tourists. It’s a fucking panopticon opera down here.
A “Freedom Tower” cannot exist in a surveillance state. This place is freedom’s antithesis.
But this morning, September 11, 2014, I awoke to a new place. The land is completely different — a new skin of America, a luminous carapace shimmering with optimism, but ambivalent about forgetting its past and fantasizing its future. I am still unsure what to call the land below, but for the first time, I can embrace not knowing.
This is what it means to forget.