Reflecting Absence

Lately I've had the opportunity to spend some time in in northern New Jersey. Oddly enough, it's here where I've encountered the most raw emotion about 9-11. Maybe because it's the way the Manhattan skyline dominates the view here -- despite its own new construction, Jersey City and Hoboken are very much in New York's shadow. Or maybe it's because I'm working with EMT's, who have more than their share of stories from that terrible day.

Within a few minutes responding to a call near Liberty Park, or driving along the banks of the Hudson River, the tales come rushing forth: The paramedics they knew that died that day, the mutilated patients coming across the river on the ferry, the explosion in the WTC PATH station that nearly suffocated rescue workers across the tunnel.

While they're recounting these stories, their eyes invariably settle on a point above the southwest corner of lower Manhattan, where the twin towers once stood.
"As beautiful as the city looks tonight," one paramedic explains, "those towers, you have no idea how tall they were... They were bigger than everything."

In the late sixties and early seventies, Manhattan added 8-12 million cubic feet of office space to its skyline -- the equivalent of downtown Pittsburgh -- every year. Then, in 1973, the World Trade Center was dedicated, itself sporting over 13 million square feet.

So colossal, so incongruous with the genteel buildings around them, one could understand how some disapproved of the massive structures. Columnist George F. Will, calling the twin towers both hopeless and pointless, shared his objection to their aesthetic, in 1977:
"I have a recurring nightmare - if that is the word - in which two Concorde super-sonic airliners, one British and one French, slice the towers in half, a collision of modern achievements."

But the brash bulk of the buildings could also inspire. The WTC was a source of breathtaking photos and copycat architecture. A band even named itself "I am the World Trade Center" (their first album was released in July of 2001. Track 11 is called "September").

Stark, minimalist, utterly dwarfing everything around it, the twin towers were hard to get used to. But their absence is even harder to accept.

You can sense the loss when you look at the World Financial Center complex. The twin towers were originally at the edge of the island, but the dirt from the WTC excavation gave rise, in the mid-80's, to the World Financial Center buildings. Now those four buildings look like orphans, and in a sense, they are.

No view is as powerful to me, however, as the experience passing through the temporary WTC transit hub.

Making my way from the MTA to the PATH trains, along the vast concrete floor, I can see through the open air to Ground Zero to my left. The rebuilt WTC 7 is also visible to the west, and from this vantage point below, the protective metal plating along the base catches the sun, and doesn't look quite so repellent.

The bare station -- which will someday be home to one of Calatrava's sweeping white roofs -- is now decorated only with oversized arial photos of lower Manhattan, and large white banners featuring quotations about the city.

At first I thought the effect was Orwellian. But after a few trips among the energy and purpose of the commuters, the juxtaposition of the cheery signage with the bleak emptiness of Ground Zero, gives me a feeling of optimism I wouldn't have believed I could associate with this site.

My favorite banner bears an old quotation from journalist and author John Gunther. The banner ends before the third comma, but I find the complete quote to be entirely appropriate:
New York City, the incomparable, the brilliant star city of cities, the forty-ninth state, a law unto itself, the Cyclopean Paradox, the inferno with no-out-of bounds, the supreme expression of both the miseries and the splendors of contemporary civilization, the Macedonia of the United States. It meets the most severe test that may be applied to the definition of a metropolis: it stays up all night. But also it becomes a small town when it rains.